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Outback Bowl Review - Grading the Defense

We took a look at the offense already, so today let's review the defense and special teams.

Defensive Line

Veteran Steve Roach got the start in the place of the suspended Ed Johnson. He did an ok job, but Jay Alford stole the show. It started on the first play on defense when Alford dropped Tennessee running back Montario Hardesty for a two yard loss. Jay got good penetration all day despite only recording two TFL and no sacks.

The two Shaw's had good days too. Jim Shaw was Johnny on the Spot falling on an Arian Foster fumble deep in Tennessee territory in the second quarter. Tim Shaw had perhaps his best game as a defensive end recording 7 tackles, 2 TFL, and one sack. In one impressive play, the speedy LaMarcus Coker tried to bounce a run to the outside, but Shaw got off his man and chased him down from behind for minimal gain.

Overall this group played a good game. But there were several times Ainge had tons of time to throw. Late in the game Penn State had to start blitzing the linebackers to get pressure on him. But they did a great job containing the running game. The Vols managed to get 83 yards rushing, but take away Coker's 42 yard run and they only got 41 yards.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The linebackers had their usual great performance. The trio of Poz, Connor and Lee combined for 24 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack and 1 FF.

Connor had his usual quiet performance. Once again he led the team in tackles, but I defy you to remind me of one of them. The guy just quietly does his job game in and game out not making a single memorable play, but you look at the stat sheet at the end of the day and you're like "holy crap he had a good game!"

Poz led the group with 2.5 TFL including a great tackle on Coker who tried to bounce a sweep outside only to get ran down from behind and dropped in the backfield.

Lee saw much of the game from the bench as Penn State opted to go with the nickel defense often against the high flying Tennessee passing attack. But Lee had more of an impact than Poz and Connor in key situations.

It was Lee who missed a tackle that would have dropped Coker for a 3 yard loss. Instead Coker got away and scampered for a 42 yard touchdown, Tennessee's only touchdown on the day. Lee was visibly upset on the sideline after the play, but he shook it off and played a great game the rest of the way. He recorded a key sack on Tennessee's last possession to help kill their desperation drive. Earlier in the fourth quarter he knocked the ball away from Arian Foster allowing Tony Davis to sprint 88 yards for the touchdown more than making up for his earlier mistake.

What the coaches have to focus on this off season is figuring out how to prevent tight ends from burning this defense. Tennessee tight end Chris Brown was often left all alone and forgotten. He burnt the Lions for 7 catches and 66 yards. Prior to the Outback Bowl his best career game was 5 catches for 24 yards. His performance keeps this group from getting an A.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Either the Tennessee wide receivers were severely over-hyped or the Penn State secondary was severely under-hyped in this match-up. I lean toward the latter.

For all the talk about Robert Meachem being the man-child that was going to make Justin King look silly, I was not impressed. King blanketed Meachem all day to the tune of four catches and 33 yards.

King's superb play forced Ainge to check down or look for Jayson Swain often. Tony Davis did a decent job covering him, but Swain managed to get 7 catches and 84 yards. Davis' worst play occurred in the first quarter when he missed an open field tackle allowing Swain to run for another 20 yards before Tim Shaw caught him. But Davis had the last laugh when he picked up Foster's fumble and ran 88 yards for the winning touchdown.

Have I mentioned Anthony Scirrotto is awesome? Sure he misses a tackle now and then, but man does he make up for them in big ways. Ainge and Swain had some mojo going in the first half connecting on some big plays. Early in the third quarter they tried to attack the middle deep down the field. Swain pulled in the catch, but Scirrotto laid him out before he hit the ground knocking the ball away. Swain was shaken up and had to come out for a few plays. He wasn't much of a factor after that.

On Tennessee's next possession, Scirrotto read the play perfectly and intercepted Ainge in Vol territory, something nobody had done since mid-October. Unfortunately, the offense squandered the opportunity and Kelly missed the field goal.

Although they gave up 267 yards through the air, the secondary pulled down an INT and didn't give up any touchdowns. They kept everything in front of them and didn't give up any big plays with the exception of Davis' missed tackle on Swain.

Grade: B+

Overall Defensive Performance

Classic Penn State bend-but-don't-break defense. They gave up 350 yards of total offense, but they held an offense that scores 30 points per game to only ten points. They gave up some big plays, but you have to expect one or two of those against a big play offense like Tennessee. They came up with big plays of their own forcing two sacks and three turnovers. They gift wrapped excellent field position for the offense twice with turnovers, but the offense only got three points off of them. So the third turnover they said, "Screw this. We'll run it back ourselves."

Grade: A

Special Teams

Good game by the offense. Great game by the defense. And the special teams almost blew it. Jeremy Kapinos had an ok game. His 37.5 yard average over his four punts gave up some yards to Tennessee, whose punter averaged 44 yards on his five punts. But Kappy did land two inside the 20 including one when Tennessee punt returner Jonathan Hefney inexplicably fair caught a ball on the four yard line. The Lion gunners were in position and may have downed it anyway. Three of his punts were fair caught and the one that was returned only got two yards.

The return game was pretty uninspiring. Nothing great but nothing horrible either. The best play was a 20 yard punt return by Derrick Williams in the fourth quarter.

Kevin Kelly. Ugh. The coaches really have to send this kid to a kicking camp this off season. He missed three field goals in the game. Granted, two of them were over 50 yards and the other was from 45. But any kicker worth his pay makes 50% of those. Right now I don't have any confidence he can make anything over 35 yards. That's not good if this team hopes to compete for a conference championship in 2007.

Grade: C