Grading the Penn State Defense - Kent State Edition


If you asked 100 coaches which defensive statistic is the most important metric for measuring success, well, who knows what they'd say, but if you asked 100 bloggers, 100 of them would say: scoreboard.  Penn State blanketed and blanked the Kent State Plural Flashes on Saturday, keeping them out of the endzone and away from the uprights, but don't ask Coach Tom Bradley about a shutout:

"We are just trying to get better. We only care about getting the win, that's all we wanted today. We wanted to play better and play the whole game."

I suppose that after the bitterness of the loss in Tuscaloosa, it's important to focus first on the W, something that's virtually guaranteed when you keep the other team off the scoreboard.  Let's take a closer look at what each unit did to contribute to that golden goose egg.

Defensive Line

We knew in August that Coach Larry Johnson had a deep and healthy rotation to work with this year.  On Saturday, he utilized the depth to make up for a dent to the health, and as predicted by our own BSD Mike, the opening defensive series saw Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley starting at ends in place of Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore.  Both Crawford and Latimore ended up seeing significant time, demonstrated some inspired play, and Jack even got his first sack of the year, all of which allows us to speculate as to whether the move may have been more of a motivational ploy for the two starters.  JoePa, on the subject:

Jack Crawford got banged up a little a bit and so did Eric Latimore. So we played the other kids.

That's the only reference I could find to Latimore being banged up, but Massaro said after the game that LJ handed out grades after Wednesday's practice, made the decision at that point and even informed the player of the decision (which seems far more than Johnnie Troutman knew about his role this week).  In any event, Crawford, Latimore and Massaro were all credited with a TFL, while Stanley earned some more motivational words from JoePa:

I'd like to see Stanley have a little more fire because he is one heck of an athlete. He actually should be doing more than what he is doing and he should be making more plays than he is.

The D Tackles played a lot better than last week.  Ollie Ogbu has been consistent throughout the first three games, but I'd guess Devon Still saw plenty of Bama tape this week that included pictures of himself on the floor, so he largely stayed upright and generated the kind of pressure we'll need from him in the Big Ten.  Jordan Hill continues to be the first sub in on the rotation, and he used his low center of gravity to get pressure at the point of attack and was credited with an assist on one TFL.  Overall, the Dline got far more pressure this week, made 2 sacks, had 8.5 tackles for 27 yards of losses, and forced the opposing QB into 2 interceptions and numerous poor throws.

Overall grade: A-

Linebackers

In all honesty, the linebackers are still a little meh.  Chris Colasanti is a dead ringer for 2008 Josh Hull.  I'm less concerned about his inconsistency in shaking off blockers as I am about some of his pure instincts with respect to his gaps and the ball.  Hullstache got it together, slowed the game down for himself, and had a fine 2009 season, but the injury to Sean Lee last year forced the burn of Colasanti's redshirt, so this is it for this guy.  Mike Mauti's a little better, but with an ACL injury on his resume, you can't help but wonder what his real speed is/was.  Nate Stupar is playing with abandon, but sometimes to his detriment.  He overpursued an angle on a running back in the 3rd quarter, glaringly whiffed the open field tackle and the cameras panned in on a disgusted Scrap giving him the what for on an ensuing break in the action.  Bani Gbadyu continues to work hard and was seen working through blocks to make a few of his 6 tackles, and had one for a loss.  Khairi Fortt saw the field early, but the action went to the opposite side of the field and he wasn't credited with any tackles. 

It's a shame we'll miss the athleticism of Gerald Hodges here early, but even with the loss, Scrap and Vandy haven't seemed to find the right combination of effective rotation.  While the unit looked better than they did bouncing off Richardson last week, in the end, there were still a few too many missed angles, un-fought-through blocks, and open-field whiffs to earn good marks this week.

Overall grade: B-

Secondary

The top-performing unit on Saturday was a welcome surprise.  D'Anton Lynn baited the shaky Kent State quarterback into Penn State's first interception of the year, and Derrick Thomas came in at the nickelback position and was the wrong person to pick on.  He just blanketed his mark, deflected two passes and picked off another.  Stephon Morris led the team with 9 tackles (and whiffed on at least one big one in the flat), and Scrap had all the corners playing much closer to the line of scrimmage.  The whole unit appeared to play with an increased aggressive mindset.  Andrew Dailey came in for Astorino, who JoePa indicated didn't practice two days last week because he reinjured his shoulder, and looked to always be around the ball, in addition to actually looking like a football player.  Nick Sukay didn't have any glaring big play mistakes.

Overall grade: A-

Executive Summary

Because of all our own offensive turnovers, Kent State ended up with 13 possessions.  Six of them lasted three plays or less, and two of those ended in interceptions.  Five of them began in Penn State territory, including one on our own 30, which ended with a missed FG.  The Penn State defense forced nine punts, allowed 12 first downs and 170 yards passing on 20 completions, and stuffed the rushing attack to 58 yards on 25 attempts, for a measly 2.5 yards per carry average.  They had two sacks and 10 TFLs, and recorded JoePa's 41st shutout victory, the first since blanking the Golden Goophers in October last year.  While the inexperienced linebackers obviously still have some work to do, the defense responded very nicely to adversity placed upon them by the young and inconsistent offense, and look more and more prepared to begin Big Ten play.  They're a few plays and a dash of consistency away from being presumed excellent, but the buckling down and preservation of the shutout earned them this week's high marks.

Overall Grade: A

Special Teams

Three of Anthony Fera's five kickoffs were not returned, but the other two were returned for a net 35 yards.  His three punts averaged out to 46 yards per, with one overdone into the endzone for a touchback and one pinned inside the 20. It looks like there still is some synergy missing between his kicking/punting performance and special teams coverage.  Colin Wagner remained perfect on PATs and nailed his 27 yarder, but dropped his perfect FG record by badly missing a 43 yarder in the fourth quarter.

The shutout limited kickoff returns, but Malcolm Willis returned our only one 35 yards to give us good field position before Bolden and Royster jacked up the long handoff exchange.  Justin Brown looked physically tough on his three punt returns and worked the stiff arm to nice success, even if he wasn't given much room to run by the return team.  Devon Smith gave the Big Ten plenty to be wary of on his only return, for 16 yards.  So far, the two-returner system has left open the question of how well we can block the extra man, but has demonstrated that both receivers (excluding Astorino, who was in on more of a punt-defense formation on his fair catch) are capable of doing something with the ball, if the protection can give them some space in which to work.

Overall grade: B

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