Let's take a look at how the Penn State offense did against Florida International on Saturday.
Defensive Line - 9 out of 10
Off the top of my head I can't remember the Penn State defensive line putting in that kind of dominating performance since the days when Courtney Brown was wearing the Blue and White. Josh Gaines started the game stuffing the first two rushing attempts of the game for no gain and they never let up after that. The Golden Panthers gave up -3 yards rushing on the day as the running backs couldn't find any room to breathe. The FIU quarterbacks Wayne Younger and Colt Anderson were sacked five times by Jared Odrick, Chris Baker, Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans, and Jerome Hayes. They were also rushed into throwing several times.
So all of the fear we had a few weeks ago about the defensive tackle position seems to be unfounded. Chris Baker played despite his trouble with the law and Phil Taylor played despite the rumored leg injury. Unfortunately, Tom McEownen did not play as he is still recovering from the knee injury, but with Baker, Taylor, Ogbu, and Odrick we have four very fine defensive tackles.
I was particularly impressed with the defensive ends. They got a good pass rush and never gave the FIU quarterbacks a chance to set and throw. Overall it was just a nearly perfect performance from the defensive line.
Linebackers - 10 out of 10
The linebackers were simply phenominal. Sean Lee was all over the place getting seven tackles, all solo, 2 TFL, a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass broken up in only two-and-a-half quarters of play. His stellar performance earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
Dan Connor was his usual consistently awesome self. Also only playing two-and-a-half quarters, Dan registered five tackles, a 14 yard sack, a pass broken up, and a recovered fumble.
Tyrell Sales got the start at outside linebacker and did a fine job getting three tackles and forcing a fumble on a kickoff. But he may be looking over his shoulder this morning after Navorro Bowman put in a stellar performance on defense and special teams. More on him in a moment.
Defensive Backs - 8 out of 10
Saturday belonged to the front seven. It was just up to the defensive backs to hold onto their coverage for two or three seconds and let them do the rest.
Justin King was never really tested. They threw his direction a few times but each time the throw was way off where nobody could catch it. It was almost like a pitchout in baseball. They did it to keep the defense honest, but never really had any intention of throwing a strike. One play I watched him down the field as the play developed. He lagged behind his man a yard or two on a slant pattern. The quarterback pumped as if to throw and King closed the gap immediately. He was baiting the quarterback and it almost worked. The guy is scary good.
Lydell Sargeant was tested on the other end of the field and rised to the challenge pretty well. He didn't break up any passes, but he didn't give up any bombs and each time his man caught the ball he was dropped right away. He finished the game with five tackles.
The safeties played well but were pretty much unnoticeable due to the fine play up front. Overall the group did extremely well allowing less than 50% of FIU's passes to be completed for a meager 117 yards.
Defensive Coaching - 9 out of 10
There was nothing really fancy in the gameplan since they didn't know what to expect. But they showed good aggression in going after the quarterback. They didn't blitz much but then they didn't have to since the front four was doing such a great job. Putting Jerome Hayes at the standup defensive end in passing situations was an unexpected move. I think it was a good one since he got good pass rush around the end and even got to the quarterback once.
I noticed that they played a lot of the nickel defense. Maybe as much as 50% of the game. In nickel situations they brought in A.J. Wallace and he did a fine job as well. Any time you pitch a shutout the coaching did an overall a great job. But in this case I think the talent level was really the difference in the game.
Special Teams - 9 out of 10
Absolutely fantastic and a huge sigh of relief. I thought Jeremey Boone did better than Jeremy Kapinos last year. He kicked five punts and averaged 47.4 yards per with a long of 54. That kid has a booming leg. But it remains to be seen if he can pin an opponent inside the ten like Kapinos was able to do. He only had one opportunity to kick from inside the 50 and he pooched it into the endzone.
Kevin Kelly did a pretty good job. Early in the game they could have sent him out for a 53 yard attempt but decided to punt instead. Later as Penn State put points on the board and it became apparent we were going to run away with it they let him try a few long ones. He missed a field goal from 51 yards, but then even the pros only make 50% of those. The kick had the distance but just went wide right. He made up for it later by making a 45 yard kick. Hopefully that will give him some confidence going into the rest of the season. On kickoffs he did a great job kicking two balls into the endzone.
The kick return coverage was spectacular. Twice FIU was pinned inside the 20 yard line to start. Another kick was only returned to the 16 before Singleton fumbled it back to Penn State. I was impressed to see starting defenders like Justin King, who recoverd the fumble, and Tyrell Sales, who caused said fumble, on the kick coverage team instead of the fifth year walk-on. Perhaps the coaches have finally realized how important special teams are to success.
The punt return coverage was equally impressive. Of Boone's five punts, only two were returned for a total of 9 yards. Navorro Bowman blocked one punt. He then caused a fumble and recovered it on another punt. The only knock on the special teams was a borderline interference call against Knowledge Timmons on a punt return. It was a good call as Timmons was a little bit too aggressive. But I'm sure the coaches can live with that.
Also of note was Jared Odrick blocking a short field goal attempt just before the half.
Overall a stellar performance by the defense and special teams. Like Tom Bradley always says. If you shut them out, there is no way you can lose the game.