Grading the Penn State Defense - Youngstown State Edition

A wise BSD commenter (Eric Watters, Atlanta, Ga) once said 'until our defense proves otherwise, it should be presumed they will be excellent.'  Well, now that we have some proof, is that still the case?  A quick look at the drive charts shows us that Youngstown State had the ball on 6 first-half and 4 second-half possessions.  When only 2 of those 10 'drives' lasted longer than 6 plays and 8 of them ended with no points (7 punts and a 4th down stop), it would be more than fair to characterize the defensive performance as excellent.  But let's dive in for a closer look and hand out unit grades after the jump.

Defensive Line

True to BSD staff predictions, Larry Johnson, Sr. trotted out a deep, deep rotation, at all four Dline positions--and not just in mop-up duty either.  He started Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore at the ends, with Pete Massaro & Sean Stanley seeing plenty of snaps, while Ollie Ogbu & Devon Still were kept fresh by Jordan Hill and James Terry.  Even Brandon Ware got to hit his dougie towards the end.  The question is, with all that freshness, where were all the tackles for loss?  Ollie Ollie Ogbu celebrated his new Captaincy with a very nice game, getting good pressure up the middle and notching 3.5 tackles and one other for a 4yd loss, and an otherwise quiet Crawford had one of his two total tackles credited for a TFL.  But that was it from the Dline.  We all know the Bend But Don't Suck Defense doesn't work without Dline pressure, and if we don't generate more next weekend in Tuscaloosa, our small window of upset opportunity may come crashing closed.

Final Grade: B+

Secondary

We'll start this off with some criticism.  Zero picks on 25 attempts.  Granted, the Penguins had quite a fine freshman quarterback of their own, but with a newbie QB and another questionable Oline, this experienced secondary has got to hawk the ball.  Other than that, oh and one big 80yard touchdown, it was shutdown ball from this unit.  Excepting the singular big play, Hess was held to 109 yards on the dink and dunk, and everybody was largely where they were supposed to be.  Nick Sukay policed centerfield like a veteran, D'Anton Lynn locked his guys down and allowed Drew Astorino to play run support, and Stephon Morris is a straight up bad ass.  His confidence is not all just woof (although I witnessed plenty of that--even from row 80); he just knows where his body needs to be at all times.  Even when Scrap was playing down and distance and had the CBs in that maddening 12 yards off the ball lineup, as soon as the quarterback resigned himself to the fact that only the underneath route was available, Morris made a beeline, covered the gap in split seconds, and lit the dude up with solid tackles.  I really enjoyed watching him ball.  The 1st quarter touchdown was largely Chris Colasanti's fault for not fighting through his pick (on a well-executed block), but that play also saw Derrick Thomas dutifully follow his man inside, somewhat with blinders on, as the ball went wide left to the spot on the field he just vacated.

Final Grade: A-

Linebackers

Wow.  The depth we've been hearing about is real.  Only Mike Yancich of the reported 6-deep failed to see meaningful PT, but as QBsneak12 noted in the gameday recap, the 'dream team' lineup of Mike Mauti flanked by Nathan Stupar and Gerald Hodges was dominant.  They looked every bit like the Puz, Connor, Lee threesome of a few years ago.  Instincts were native, tackling was sure, and their meanness was evident.  I hope we see more of this lineup next weekend.  Jack Ham raved about Mauti & Stupar's coordinated timing on the big blitz sack that dropped Hess for an 8 yard loss, and he is a huge fan of both of them.  It's become pretty easy to remember when Jack Ham talks about a player's toughness.  Bani Gbadyu & Colasanti (the TD notwithstanding--again, it was a great block) both also looked solid, played in their lanes, let the Dline eat up blockers, and cleaned up the tackles.  Colasanti finished with 9.5 tackles and Bani was credited with 6.  And for those of us who stayed through the fourth quarter, we were treated to another wonderful sight, when number 11 Khairi Fortt walked on for a few snaps.  Hodges was still in there for a few of those, and though they are both listed at 6'2" 230, if I permit myself a moment of over-hype, I've gotta say Fortt looks even more beastly.  Appearance in uniform only (Hodges was credited with 4 tackles, Fortt 2), the new number 11 looks far more Arringtonesque than last year's.

Final Grade: A-

Executive Summary

Clearly, the coaches used this game properly, extended the 20 practices they had been limited to into this game, and juggled a slew of lineup variations.  Joe has made it pretty clear he's interested in letting the assistants do their thing and really utilize the depth the last few years of great recruiting have provided.  If you're in the camp that this could be his last year (and really, what's a good summary if not noting that Joe is old?), he seems committed to stocking that cupboard by developing the youth a little more this season than he has in recent past.  And with the crazy talent, some of it young and inexperienced, we saw on the field Saturday, the future looks bright for this defense.  Unfortunately with this schedule, the future is now, and if we are to continue to presume they will be excellent, we'll need to see more disruption from the defensive ends, some successful takeaways by the secondary, and an even more physical LBU performance against a top-ten running game.

Final Defensive Grade: A

Special Teams

What can we say except awesome?  Again, we have to give props to the coaches, who knew in the offseason, looking at this schedule and this quarterback/Oline situation, that special teams required more focus.  You may remember Chaz Powell's 100 yard kickoff return.  When asked about Saturday's success, he had this to say about the offseason prep:

We worked really hard this offseason to boost up our special teams. We take time every day in practice to work on it. You saw today on kick return and punt returns. But it was key to tune up those areas.

You may also remember that that kickoff was in the wind, was up there a long time, and both Powell and Stephfon Green were contending to receive it.  Jack Ham cracked that 'from now on, Green needs to get the heck out of the way.'

Colin Wagner was perfect.  And long.  Both improvements from last year, when distance and consistency were struggles for him.  The 48 and 49 yarders were both into strong wind.  His confidence has obviously improved as a result:

It's good to know you have been here before and you are able to execute under pressure. I think having an entire year under my belt, I feel a lot more confident and able to go out there and perform.

Anthony Fera put down the Cruzan Mango Rum and appears ready to be an important assistant to our defense this year.  4 of his 8 kickoffs went for touchbacks, and the returnable ones ended up starting on the 36, 26, 20 & 19.  We'll need those long fields against some of the offensive squads we face this year.

Punt returns also showed us something new on Saturday: two punt returners.  And by returners, we mean somebody who's a legitimate threat to run somewhere after catching the ball.  The Justin Brown / Devon Smith combination looks an odd couple out there with their height difference.  Smith showed a little of what he is capable of before one was called back for a Stupar block in the back, but the others were meh.  This method essentially removes a blocker from punt return protection, so it will be interesting to watch this development as the year progresses.

Final Grade: A-

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