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Penn State Football: 5 Ways to Fix the Nittany Lion Defense

by on September 02, 2012 9:26 PM

Penn State’s defense needs to get better. Now.
With no conference title game and no bowl game, every Penn State regular season contest takes on added meaning. A schedule with 10 opponents that went bowling in 2011 gets tougher, not easier.
The Nittany Lion offense has a running game that will be average at best, placing added pressure on quarterback Matt McGloin, his favorite targets Allen Robinson and Kyle Carter, and the O-coordinator, Bill O’Brien – who also happens to be the head coach.
Against Ohio, they came out gunning: Robinson’s nine grabs were the most by a PSU receiver in a season-opener over the past 25 years, if not longer. Over the past 100 Penn State games, McGloin’s 27 completions (Daryll Clark, 29, Akron, 2009) and 48 pass attempts (Zack Mills, Purdue, 49, 2004) were each surpassed only once by a Penn State quarterback.
But the Lion offense couldn’t sustain much momentum on Saturday, with its average drive after the first quarter lasting just 124 seconds. O’Brien noticed.
“We have to do a better job coaching on offense and that starts with me. We have to get the defense off the field and when the defense is on the field, they have to get stops,” said O’Brien, his record for season-openers now 0-1 as a head coach, 8-7 as a college coach and 13-10 lifetime as a coach or player.
Adjustments by Penn State D-coordinator Ted Roof are no doubt being planned this very minute. They should include:
1. Create Turnovers.

Ohio’s offense ran off 80 plays  – a huge amount in college football – and threw 41 passes. Nary a pick, a fumble caused, a fumble recovered. Roof’s hell-bent style and a John Butler-coached secondary that was to be much more aggressive were largely absent.
Penn State’s offense will not put up a lot of points, O’Brien himself warned in early August. So the defense will need to help out. That’s been a familiar refrain at Penn State, no matter who is the coach.
2. Make Big Plays.
Ohio had drives that lasted 7, 8, 8 10, 11, 12 and 14 plays. That the Penn State defense was (so quickly back) on the field may be the fault of the offense, but the fact that the Penn State defense stayed (so long) is its own fault.
Big plays do not always have to be punctuated by turnovers. On Saturday, for instance, the Nittany Lion defense needed to simply make stops to stop drives that on Saturday seemed to go on and on.
Penn State had just one tackle for a loss, and could do nothing to stop Ohio, no matter what the down. Ohio’s long drives – especially the 14-play, 93-yard, 6:42 back-breaker in the fourth quarter – are a sure sign of a defense that is unable to exert its will on the field. Ohio had the ball for 9 minutes and 50 seconds more than Penn State, and for more than two-thirds of the entire second half.
The Penn State coaches need to (successfully) be proactive and not reactive. Lucky for the Lions two of those double-digit drives ended in missed Ohio field goals, or things could have been worse.
Only twice last season did the Penn State D have games where it gave up three drives of 10 plays or more, and one was against eventual national champion Alabama. Even at that, PSU’s defense held the Tide to just 10 second-half points (see No. 4) in 2011.
3. Make Stops on Third Down.
Penn State’s defense allowed Ohio to score 21 consecutive second-half points, in large part due to the Tyler Tettleton Labor Day Passing Telethon and his highly-effective third-down offense. Ohio was 13 of 21 (62 percent) on third downs overall, and 11 of 12 (92 percent) in the second half.
Third down was Roof’s Achilles heel at Auburn last season, too, as the Tigers’ defense was successful on just 98 of 199 (49.2 percent) third and fourth downs.
When looking at Penn State’s third-down numbers from Saturday, drill down deeper and in the second half you’ll see that in 12 third-down situations Ohio passed 10 times – and completed nine. In the third and fourth quarters, Ohio was faced with third and 5 or shorter nine times, and made eight. This tells us two things:

  • Penn State’s defense wasn’t getting the job done on first and second downs, or else it wouldn’t have been in that predicament.
  • Ohio was constantly in a third-and-5 situation or better – where it could run OR pass, forcing Penn State to play things fairly square up. Then, Tettleton repeatedly attacked the Lions at their defensive weak spot: the secondary.

4. Win the Game in the Second Half.
Slow and unaggressive starts may occasionally yield an easy score, but good coaching staffs – and players – and will learn from early schemes and mistakes, then adjust. This is critical and a game-long process. If done right and with regularity, it should pay dividends later in the game.
That was a hallmark of former Penn State DC Tom Bradley. In 2011, Penn State gave up 58 points in the first quarter, but 76 in the third and fourth quarter – combined. The Lion defense pitched four second-half shutouts, with six additional games of seven points or less. In four quarters of second half football vs. Alabama in 2010 and 2011, the Nittany Lion defense gave up a combined 17 points to the best, or near-best, team in college football.
Against Ohio, the Lions’ 21 second-half were the most since a 35-point collapse 23 games ago against Ohio State in 2010. A good defense gets better as it goes along, not worse.
5. Be in Shape.
It was hot and muggy on the field on Saturday, for both teams. Emotions, over-practicing, lack of rest, the start of classes, a better-conditioned Ohio squad – they all could have had a hand in the Penn State players getting gassed.
After the game, two players admitted – despite the heavy offseason emphasis on a new conditioning regimen – they weren’t in as good of a shape as they thought they were. No names; I will save them from themselves.
In the second half, Penn State shuttled its heavy D-linemen in and out of the game, making them run 30 yards out and 30 yards back to get rest. That’s been Larry Johnson’s philosophy for years, and it’s worked; but when everything else is getting a second look maybe this should too.
Linemen aside, fresher legs and a mental focus that lasts throughout the game should be important concerns for Roof and O’Brien.
Their combined hope is this: Yes, Virginia, there is a defense.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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