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Penn State Football: In Defense of Joe Paterno

by on October 04, 2011 1:15 AM

A familiar name has returned to the Top 5 among college defenses – Penn State.

In the latest NCAA rankings, the Nittany Lion defense ranks No. 5 in total defense, the most important defensive category.

Overall, five weeks into the 2011 season Penn State ranks in the Top 10 in four primary defensive categories among the 120 FBS schools:

-- Total defense, fifth, 250.4 yards per game.

-- Pass defense, sixth, 155.4 yards per game.

-- Points allowed, seventh, 12 per game.

-- Pass efficiency defense, eight, 91.88 rating.

Add the fact that the Nittany Lions have held four of their five opponents to 10 points or less, and you can see how the outstanding play of the defensive unit headed by coordinator Tom Bradley has been lost in all the white offensive noise.

WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE

If it’s Joe Paterno’s time to retire because of the Penn State offense, the defense is reason for him to go until he’s 90.

(To mention nothing of how well Joe has turned around the kicking game, after they started 1 of 6 on field goals – only to rebound by making their next five straight. Give Anthony Fera a little credit, too.)

So what if Paterno has left the bulk of the coaching and game-planning on defense to Bradley, linebackers coach (and former Maryland head coach) Ron Vanderlinden and defensive line coach (and NFL pipeline proprietor) Larry Johnson Sr. It’s in better hands than All-State.

Whatever Paterno is doing there -- even if it is nothing – is working.

Paterno can still bitch and moan. He chastised the Lions’ D for failing to get a turnover in the team’s 27-11 loss against Alabama. “All we heard all week from Coach in the halls was, ‘Turnovers, turnovers,’ ” Bradley said at the time.

The chiding worked. Penn State’s defense has responded by getting eight turnovers (four interceptions, four fumble recoveries) in the past three games. It hasn’t been easy, but the Nittany Lion defense has earned Paterno’s praise.

“I thought our defense played a good, solid football game today…as they have all year,” Paterno said after the Indiana game.

NOT THAT OFFENSIVE

That the Lions’ offense has scored just 16, 14 and 11 points in three of its last four outings (PSU beat Eastern Michigan, 34-6, in the other contest) doesn’t bother Bradley.

“No. We’re all in this together,” Bradley said after Penn State beat a poor Indiana squad on Saturday in Bloomington, Ind. “Our job is just to stop them. That’s what we’re going to do no matter what’s going on with the other side of the ball.

“Our offense ran 86 plays, we got 16 points, they had 10. We won the game. That’s what it’s all about.”

The Nittany Lions were without two key starters on Saturday, one of whom – linebacker Michael Mauti – is gone for the season. Mauti tore an ACL against Eastern Michigan, while three-year starting cornerback D’Anton Lynn left that game on a stretcher. He sat out the Indiana game with head and neck injuries; it is not known when he will return. Cornerback Stephon Morris (ankle) was injured against Indiana, and his status is not known for Saturday’s game against Iowa.

Add in the loss of defensive end Pete Massaro, who started the final 11 games of 2010, and the performance of the Lions’ defense is all the more impressive. Massaro tore an ACL in spring drills and will miss the entire 2011 season.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

The re-emergence of the Penn State defense – powered in word and deed by co-captains Devon Still and Drew Astorino -- has proven its poor performance of 2010 was just an anomaly caused by a young line-up and a huge rash of injuries.

In 2010, Penn State ranked 74th in run defense, 50th in scoring defense, 35th in total defense and 16th in pass defense.

That flew in the face of what Bradley and Co. had accomplished from 2004-09. Over those six seasons, Penn State was one of only two defensive units that ranked among the Top 5 in the nation in rushing defense (third, 97 yards per game), scoring defense (third, 15.1 points per game) and total defense (fifth, 290.3 yards per game). Ohio State was the other.

As for 2011, yet to come are the Big-Scoring Big Ten offenses of Wisconsin (ranked No. 3 in the nation, 48.4 points), Iowa (21, 37.75), Nebraska (23, 37.6), Illinois (42, 33.4) and Purdue (60, 29.5).

For Penn State, the biggest point is this:

It’s a shame that Bradley, one of the good guys, didn’t land a head coaching job in the off-season. But, now more than ever with Paterno in the press box, the defense belongs to Scrap.

And with Vandy and LJ, he continues to ensure the Penn State defense never rests.

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