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Penn State Football: Stephon Morris Pins Third Down Defensive Struggles on Secondary

by on September 13, 2012 12:30 PM

Penn State’s defense made tremendous strides from week one to week two. It forced four turnovers and put the offense inside the Virginia 30-yard line each time. It cut the total number of yards allowed from 499 to 295. Perhaps most disconcerting with all of this is that it was not enough to score a victory.

What’s keeping the defense from rounding into form is third down defense. Through two games, Penn State has allowed opponents to convert on third down 61.1 percent of the time, according to the latest statistics provided by the NCAA. To put that in its proper perspective, we turn to the 2009 team’s third down defense, the last time Penn State had to replace all four members of its secondary. That year, Penn State finished 14th in the nation, allowing opponents to convert just 31.8 percent of third downs.

The numbers have been uglier in the second half, with an 85.7 percent success rate on third down against the Nits. And on the two scoring drives that sealed the victories for Ohio and Virginia, all eight third-down conversions, from distances ranging from 1-16 yards, came via pass.

Senior cornerback Stephon Morris hid from nothing.

“It’s the secondary’s problem,” Morris said.

Morris is a bit undersized at 5-foot-8, but he’s never been short of confidence. His voice was one of the loudest in the offseason when downplaying the secondary’s shortcomings. All four starters from a year ago had to be replaced. Reserves Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake both left the team for personal reasons. Numbers were so thin during training camp that some of the receivers had to pull double duty during 11-v-11 and 7-v-7 work because there were not enough bodies to field three units.

“So far, we've not proven any of the critics wrong,” Morris said. “We just have to do a better job of getting off the field on third down and finishing the game strong. … For some reason, in the fourth quarter we just collapse.”

“I don't think we've done enough,” Amos said.

Added Morris: “It hurts your ego a little bit because we've been in that situation before, so we should know what's coming."

Coach Bill O’Brien’s thinking that the quality, not quantity, of his secondary would deliver it from criticism was apparent. Joining Morris was safety Malcolm Willis, a safety with significant game action under his belt. Sophomore Adrian Amos is one of the best young players on the team but hasn’t made as much of an impact in the return game or on defense as he would’ve liked so far.

Amos could transition to safety in the future, Morris said, but that likely depends on the development of freshman corner Da’Quan Davis, a teammate of Amos at Calvert Hall outside Baltimore, and the type of personnel from the opposing team. Amos on Tuesday said no move was imminent, and he was working with the cornerbacks during individual drills during Wednesday’s practice.

What O’Brien won’t do is have defensive coordinator Ted Roof shoulder the blame. His system is much more aggressive, a contrast to the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy employed by predecessor Tom Bradley by way of head coach Joe Paterno. Roof has not been made available to reporters following either loss.

"It's just overall awareness," O’Brien said. "And our guys are going to get better at that. And it's a new system. It's a new year. Everything is new."

Kicker Marcincin Leaves Team

Penn State reserve kicker Matt Marcincin has left the team for personal reasons, a Penn State spokesman confirmed. Marcincin remains enrolled at the university.

The Centre Daily Times first reported Marcincin's departure.

Sam Ficken and Kevin DiSanto are the only kickers on Penn State's roster, but an open tryout will be held next week.

Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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