UNIVERSITY PARK Late in Saturday's win over Temple, with the game still hanging in the balance and the Owls up one, Penn State's front seven came up with the big play it has long been expected to make.
On a third down at Temple's 33, redshirt freshman defensive end Pete Massaro came off the edge and hit Temple quarterback Chester Stewart as he eyed up a target. Massaro caused an errant throw that ended up being caught by linebacker Nate Stupar, whose 31-yard return set up the Nittany Lions at Temple's 12 and led to Collin Wagner's go-ahead field goal.
It was the type of play seen on Penn State's best defensive units, and it was the type of play the Nittany Lions' coaches believed the defense was capable of making.
And yet, it was the type of play rarely seen through the first three weeks of the season. But in the second half of Penn State's 22-13 win over Temple, there were glimpses of the play that will be expected with conference play ready to begin.
There was the interception, for example. And there was linebacker Michael Mauti flying all over the field, registering five second-half tackles and cleaning up splash plays in the backfield that Massaro's pressure helped generate.
"We did an excellent job being proactive," Stupar said. "We were tough, physical and fast. That's what the Big Ten is all about. We've got it now, and we just have to hold onto it and bring it next week."
Next week is now a day away, and when Penn State travels to take on Iowa, the value of a dominant front seven will be evident. Hawkeyes ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns could be the best pair in the country, and Iowa's interior of the line is sturdy.
Clayborn, though, is the best of the bunch, and many consider him to be the best defensive end in the country. Last year, he posted 20 tackles for loss and forced four fumbles, and he also turned the tide of last year's come-from-behind 21-10 victory over Penn State.
With the Hawkeyes down, 10-5, in the fourth quarter, Clayborn bull rushed safety Nick Sukay, blocked Jeremy Boone's punt and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown. The play was partially the reason Penn State changed its punt formation this year to allow for more protection.
"[It's going to be a] tough job against those defensive ends," Joe Paterno said. "They're good. Especially that one kid, he's about as good as there is. Everybody else in the country who has played against them has had troubles."
Penn State's front 7 has historically caused its own trouble, and the past two years were no different as players like Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick, Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull contributed to a top 10 defense before heading to the NFL.
With the amount of turnover, big plays have been lacking this year. In fact, no players on the defense rank in the top 100 nationally in tackles for loss, and Devon Still and Massaro and Stupar lead the team with a modest two sacks.
But captain Ollie Ogbu and Stupar, who both said the communication was better among the individual units on the defense against Temple than it had been during the first three weeks, expressed optimism that big plays would be forthcoming.
"We haven't collectively played as a unit the whole season, so we haven't had much chemistry," Stupar said. "But I think [Saturday] was a big step toward that chemistry, just playing fast and having fun with everyone and knowing where everyone's gonna be."
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley can only hope.
"We're moving on," he said. "Every once in awhile, you go, 'Oh, boy, where's Sean when you need him?' But we're getting better. They're working at it. We'll see."