TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - With a true freshman quarterback, Penn State knew in order to have any chance to even compete with Alabama that it needed to play a strong game defensively.
The Nittany Lions didn't come close.
Alabama moved up and down the field at will early, amassed nine first downs in the first quarter alone and cruised to a 17-0 halftime lead en route to a 24-3 victory Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley characterized his unit's effort as "poor."
Bradley has been around Penn State football for nearly 40 years, dating back to when his brother Jim was a player in the early 1970s. He said the program prides itself on fundamental defense, and he was particularly disappointed with the Lions' missed tackles.
It started against Youngstown State last week, and "we were probably in double-digits in missed tackles" against the Tide.
Bradley said he can live with the opponent making a big play, but when the Lion defenders are "not hitting through but hitting to and catching [up to ball carriers]," it signals a greater concern.
Granted, Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country and the defending national champion, and the Tide played like it. But Bradley and the PSU camp expected more from themselves - a lot more.
"You can't play defense if you can't tackle," he said. "We have to work on tackling and our pursuit. When you have them in the backfield and can't knock a guy back, it's a problem."
Bradley said personnel decisions will be deferred to Joe Paterno, who was in no mood to discuss much after admitting he felt the Lions were "outcoached."
Defensive tackle D'Anton Lynn said the Lions had prepared to see Alabama's empty backfield and Wildcat formations, but "we didn't know they'd use them for a whole series."
Lynn also said Alabama's early pace kept Penn State on its heels. Still, the players took responsibility.
"Coaches can only do so much," safety Nick Sukay, who struggled in pass defense and on run support, said. "We have to do the job as players."
"Our coaches prepared us," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "We just didn't execute."
After allowing touchdown drives of 68 and 97 yards on Alabama's second and third possessions, Penn State's defense competed harder over the game's next 40-plus minutes.
By then, though, the damage was done.
Now, to the other side of the ball. The Lions' offense showed all the unsteadiness that you'd expect from a unit led by a freshman quarterback making his first start in what may be the loudest stadium in America.
Penn State was forced to take timeouts three times before the play clock expired. Rob Bolden was intercepted twice and fumbled two snaps.
But anyone who thought Bolden was going to come here and lead an offensive shootout was unrealistic. Despite some line-of-scrimmage issues that he seems quite capable of correcting, Bolden hung in pretty well and made his share of positive plays.
The offensive line continues to provide concern, but the Lions were dominated up front on both sides of the ball here.
Clearly, Penn State must tie down its defensive deficiencies before the Big Ten schedule arrives. It's a unit that will enter its third game of the season still seeking its first turnover.
"We take great pride in our defense," Bradley said, "and we didn't play as well as we have to play."
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.