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October 17, 2012

Midseason Grades: Defense/ST

Blue White Illustrated's Tim Owen handed out grades for the first half of Penn State's season on the offensive side of the ball Monday.

Now it's time to find out how the Nittany Lions' defense held up to his critiques.

Take a look, below:


Beau Blankenship and the Ohio offensive line worked Penn State for 109 yards in the season opener, but since then, Larry Johnson's crew has been on top of its game. It redeemed itself against Virginia, an effort highlighted by Jordan Hill's athletic second-quarter interception and Deion Barnes' fourth-quarter sack. Penn State stifled Navy's option attack and held firm against a rebuilding Temple offensive line. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was smothered, and other than Donovonn Young's 52-yard run, the Illini's rushing attack was nonexistent. The Lions were equally effective against Northwestern.

Hill is the star, and his relentless motor is steering him toward a career in the NFL. Barnes is the freshman shocker, as he was leading the team and was third in the Big Ten with four sacks through six games. Sean Stanley is the unsung hero, and the continued development of DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz is important in terms of interior depth for the 2013 season.



Penn State has had its fair share of dominant linebacker duos - Short-Arrington and Posluszny-Connor are just two recent examples - but Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti might rank alongside the best in school history. Seriously. They won three of the first six Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards, plus another national defensive player of the week honor. Mauti was leading the team in tackles through six games (and was ranked fifth in the conference), while Hodges was a close second. They had combined for 107 tackles, 13 pass breakups, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. And though they've both been snubbed in the quarterfinalist selection of the Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the nation's top linebacker or lineman, both should hear their names called at the NFL Draft next April.

Of course, it's not just the seniors who give this position group such a stellar grade. Glenn Carson has silently (yet consistently) stabilized the middle of the defense, and he's setting himself up for a monster senior season. Sophomore Mike Hull, meanwhile, is the versatile cog who completes Ron Vanderlinden's linebacker rotation. His 74-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Navy is among the season's highlights.



All eyes were on the thinned-out secondary entering the season. And the scrutiny only intensified when Ohio carved it up with its quick-attack passing game and when Virginia converted third down after third down the following week. (Penn State allowed 22 of 36 third-down conversions in its first two games.)

But beginning in week three, the tide started to turn. After allowing an average of nearly 300 passing yards in the first two games, the Lions held opponents to 175.8 in the next four. Does the statistical improvement represent significant progress in pass coverage? Maybe, but it's more likely a result of opponents' shaky passing offenses. Navy, Temple, Illinois and Northwestern aren't exactly pass-oriented teams, and truthfully, Penn State won't face another established passing attack this season. The Big Ten is down, especially in the passing game, so there might not have been a more opportune time for the Lions to field a youthful, inexperienced secondary.

The lull in the schedule has given Penn State time to grow, cohere and adjust to Ted Roof's new coverage schemes. Plus, the secondary's run support may be one of the most overlooked aspects of the team. That deserves bonus points.



PSU has struggled in this department, and its problems are evident in O'Brien's fourth-and-go-for-it mentality. Though he has said his audacious play calling has nothing to do with the kicking or punting games - "You feel pretty good about some plays and you get in a rhythm of calling them," he said - it's clear that Penn State doesn't have tremendous confidence in its kickers.

Sam Ficken made only three of his first nine field goal attempts and has had two extra points blocked. His kickoffs typically travel into the end zone and coverage has been near flawless, but his No. 1 task is to make field goals, and that's been a challenge.

Alex Butterworth has had an up-and-down season, to say the least. He's put 10 punts inside the 20-yard line and two have covered more than 50 yards, but as is the case with Ficken, PSU needs more consistency.

The problems in the kicking game proved costly in the loss to Virginia and may well come back to haunt this team again before season's end. But the return game is coming along - save for a muffed punt by Jesse Della Valle against Northwestern - and Butterworth's punt team gives maximum effort every time it takes the field, even if Venric Mark ripped off a 75-yarder.


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