UNIVERSITY PARK - On a gorgeous day at Beaver Stadium featuring one program responsible for our nation's defense, Penn State was not to be outdone.
The Nittany Lions' defense put together its most complete game of the young season - a wall-to-wall performance that had eluded them so far - and sunk Navy in a 34-7 victory Saturday.
"We've gotten more and more physical as the year has gone on," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.
Penn State forced four turnovers for the second straight week.
The biggest one came from linebacker Mike Hull, who, like many of the Nittany Lions following the harsh sanctions handed down by the NCAA, debated a transfer prior to the season.
Hull visited Pitt but stayed put. The junior's reward came Saturday when he scooped up a fumble and raced 74 yards for a touchdown that gave the Lions a 34-0 lead in the fourth quarter.
"I just was in the right place at the right time," he said. "I looked up, and there was just green grass in front of me."
He couldn't help but pinch himself afterward.
"At the beginning of the season, I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but ultimately I decided to stay," he said. "Today was an awesome opportunity to score a touchdown."
Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong's patience was also rewarded. Obeng-Agyapong found irony in Matt McGloin's fourth touchdown, a deflection that wound up in the hands of emerging star receiver Allen Robinson for a 27-0 lead.
It was Obeng-Agyapong's deflection that became an Ohio touchdown two weeks ago, turning around an opener that the Lions' defense had controlled before the play sucked some air out of them.
"It [Saturday vs. Navy] was time for us to get a tipped ball," he said.
Of the Lions' three games, the defense has shown up large for all but three quarters - the second half vs. Ohio and the last five minutes against Virginia.
"I feel ever since that [opening] game, we've had a mentality to go after the ball," Obeng-Agyapong said.
"After the Ohio game," Hull said, "we rallied."
No one will confuse Navy, which can't come from behind because of a limited passing game, or Virginia, which was blown out Saturday at Georgia Tech, as offensive juggernauts.
At the same time, Navy over the years has hung in some games because its running game is diverse and punishing. Bill O'Brien credited Roof "for calling a great game," and said he and Roof benefited from their considerable experience defending the option attack.
Penn State's defense accomplished some goals in that it played better in the second half Saturday than it has all year as it allowed Navy to convert on just four of 15 third-down opportunities (the fourth downs were another matter as the Middies, who punted just once, cashed in on five of eight of those.)
"We got off the field a lot [better]," cornerback Stephon Morris said. "We preached that all week, and this was a confidence boost for the defense and the secondary."
That confidence also translated to some big hits as the Lions have forced six fumbles in the last two weeks to go with seven sacks.
"Our front seven is playing great," Morris said.
Given the sanctions, offensive defections and graduation losses, most expected the defense to be the strength of the team. Through three games, even at 1-2, both units have shown encouraging signs.
In particular, though, defense has always been a hallmark at Penn State and, with an unsteady kicking game, Saturday's domination of Navy was more than O'Brien's first career win.
It was a sign the Lions should be competitive with most of the teams on their schedule.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.