The Penn State defense is not excellent. Understatement of the year, but let's get that out of the way up front and work back toward some other adjectives. Actually, let's set up the other bookend for an additional reference point:
Penn State held an improving senior quarterback and some excellent veteran receivers to 17 points on the road in a hostile environment. So they're likely swimming somewhere in the oceans of grey area between excellent and garbage. Let's find out how close to which shore by twisting the grading model a bit and assigning by quarters.
Iowa had three possessions, sandwiched around three PSU three-and-outs. The first one, they absolutely marched down the field, 77 yards. Some things that drive saw:
- Chris Colasanti with terrible instincts and slow footspeed (the Brett Morse 9 yard catch for a 1st down)
- Missed tackles by Ollie Ogbu and Michael Mauti (the Adam Robinson 4 yard run to the PSU 48)
- Young Stephon Morris getting schooled by veterans Ricky Stanzi & Marvin McNutt (in his mouf) on a pretty pass and even prettier over-the-shoulder catch
- Colasanti with great instincts, a foot stumble and a totally missed TFL (the Robinson run for 6 to the PSU 3)
- Catching a break on an Iowa false start
- A beastly shed of the RG (couldn't tell if it was MacMillan or Gettis) by Ogbu a TFL at the 9
- D'Anton Lynn going man to man vs Robinson until help arrived, forcing the FG
The second drive ended after allowing one first down with Nick Sukay being in great position (!) to grab his third interception of the year, Stanzi's second.
The third drive saw Bani Gbadyu make the right read on Allen Reisner, but overpursue allowing a 9 yard gain. No indication from the coaches whether that play was the impetus for bringing in Glenn Carson at LB for his first 1st-half action this season (Bani was back in later in the series). Mauti then accepted an easy block from Robinson, springing Stanzi for a 1st-down scramble. Eric Latimore made a fine, if meekly blocked, TFL on Robinson, but then we had no pressure for two plays while Stanzi found Reisner open in the middle of the field (once on Nate Stupar, once on Andrew Dailey). Pete Massaro finally penetrated, but Robinson went right around him, and then Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was allowed to walk untouched to the back of the endzone, as Morris froze on an underneath bite, while an all-day-protected Stanzi drew Sukay up for the same, then blithely tossed it in for the TD.
All in all, plenty to be critical of there. The pick and the goal-line stand were nice, but with the offense playing against the best defensive line in the country this year, much more was needed than giving them a 10-0 hole to dig out of. In three possessions, they gave up 20 plays for 143 yards and almost 11 minutes of possession time. To improve on that performance, the linebackers would have had to play better pass defense against tight ends, Morris would have had to play tighter coverage on wide receivers, and the defensive line would have made more than token appearances in the backfield.
First Quarter Grade: C
Iowa had three more possessions (obtained by three increasingly shoddy Anthony Fera Punts of 37, 35 and 12 yards) in the second quarter and while Penn State did fine in getting them off the field for the first two, they buckled again on the third and gave up a touchdown. The first drive was a 3-and-out highlighted by instinctual gap shoots by Colasanti and Devon Still on 1st down for a TFL and great pressure from Still, Massarro & Mauti on an LB blitz and great coverage by Khairi Fortt on the checkdown RB on 2nd for an incompletion. On third and long, despite no Dline pressure, Lynn and Morris covered well enough to force the underneath throw to the TE, where Stupar wrapped him up and forced the punt.
The second drive was a 5-and-out, started by a big gain when Morris dropped too far off DJK during the snap count. But then we saw some pressure. Robinson got the 1st down when he slid by Still & Ogbu deep in the backfield. Then Still & Colasanti collapsed the running lanes to tackle Robinson for no gain. And next play saw Khairi Fortt making a textbook LBU tackle, riding his blocker til the runner arrived, then shedding him and stuffing the ball. 3rd and 11 was uneventful, unless you count Drew Astorino tripping behind DJK as he dropped an easy pass.
The touchdown dagger drive began by Stanzi schooling Mauti with play-action and McNutt showing his soft hands. Then they just gutted us with the run. Latimore missed a TFL on an arm tackle attempt, James Terry and true freshman Daquan Jones got pushed backwards until Terry brought Robinson down on two consecutive 7 yard gains, and Colasanti and Jack Crawford were blocked from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids. After Astorino and Mauti held them on 1st, Terry was late sprinting onto the field, looked to have lined up in the wrong place, and Stanzi punched it in himself in the void. Even if Bolden had converted the two red zone opportunities, this touchdown would have remained the difference in the ball game.
Second Quarter Grade: C-
Partly because of our 14-play, nearly 8-minute drive to start the 3rd quarter (which ended in zero points), Iowa only had two possessions. Our lads stepped up and held them to one 3-and-out and one 6-play, 35 yard drive that also ended in a punt. Activities included Mauti trying fruitlessly trying to cover McNutt in the flat, a Jack Crawford sighting, one fine series by Colasanti, a dominant series by Stupar & Mauti, and general urgency displayed all around.
Third Quarter Grade: B+
At 17-3, with 13:38 left, and with as much as PSU had knocked on the door, Ferentz played like he might just like another score. Penn State's defense didn't allow it. They did allow them two 1st downs, 57 yards from out of their own endzone, some downfield Stanzi completions (including more to the non-linebacker-covered tight end) and nearly three minutes to run off the clock, but they got the ball back for the offense on the first possession after 6 plays. The second was a 3-and-out. And by the fourth, which began with 4:32 left, Iowa was content to run, and they did so successfully. Robinson for 9, right past Khairi Fortt. Stanzi for 1, collapsing Ogbu and Still. Robinson for 7, past an overpursuing Stupar. Then TFLs for both Colasanti and Ogbu to force the final punt.
With a pick-6 desperately needed, and Stanzi standing in the pocket and hurling downfield that first drive, the defense contained and held, but did not dominate.
Fourth Quarter Grade: B
Strikingly similar to the Alabama game, if the offense had converted in the red zone, it may have been a different story for the defense. They gave up 122 yards rushing and 227 yards passing to a fine offense. Even so, they did what could reasonably be described as ‘their job' by holding a Big Ten title contender to 17 points in their house at night before a surprisingly well-executed Black-and-Gold-out. Are they excellent? Clearly not. Are they garbage? I believe that's just as clear. There are some intriguing Big Ten games this month that should help better define which of those poles the Penn State defense is playing closer to.
Final Defensive Grade: B-
Anthony Fera could have been our biggest weapon tonight, but he wasn't. He punted 9 times for an average of 36.7, and that includes the whopper 74 yarder he booted in the fourth quarter. Granted, none of those nine punts were returned, but not many are if you pooch it 35 yards and half our team is around the receiver as he fair catches it. Our punt return blocking wasn't much better as we managed a measly 3.8 yard average on 5 punt returns. I'm not sure we need to even discuss kickoff coverage when we only scored three points, but the lone return Iowa had went for 33 yards, so there's that. And our own kickoff returns didn't win us the game either. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green teamed up for some decent yardage (5 returns for 107 yards), they were unable to finish in the end zone. While we didn't give up any big special teams plays, on a night we so desperately needed one of our own, we couldn't find paydirt.
Final Grade: C+