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Grading The Penn State Defense Against Northwestern

It was a rocky start, but the defense clamped down and did the job holding the Northwestern Wildcat offense down until the Penn State offense could come to life. Let's grade them out and discuss their performance.

Defensive Line

It's a little disappointing to me that Penn State gave up 119 yards rushing to Northwestern after I said they have a pretty sad running game. But 84 of those yards were gained by the quarterbacks, which should be no surprise considering Mike Kafka came into the game as Northwestern's leading rusher. The Wildcats were running a lot of short crossing and hitch routes which didn't give the defensive line much time to get to the quarterback, but they still managed to record six sacks as a unit.

Jack Crawford had an okay game. He had a sack and recovered Kafka's unforced fumble, but there were a few times where he got sucked inside on a fake handoff and gave up a big gain to the quarterback. I could see his inexperience there. No matter how much it looks like he's handing it off to the running back, you gotta stay home and drill that quarterback, big guy. He made some nice adjustments and played a few option plays really well where he would force the quarterback to make the pitch and then he would slide outside to make the tackle.

Odrick had a slow first half but really turned it on in the second half. He just had to stop being cute and go to the bull rush. He had a sack to go with five tackles, and he blocked a field goal.

I was really impressed with Jerome Hayes and Eric Latimore in this game. Each of them got a sack, but I thought he looked really good in defending the run. The few times Northwestern tried to run the ball to the outside, these guys did a good job of getting up field and forcing the ball carrier to bounce outside. This allowed the pursuit to get there and usually drop the play for a loss. 

Final Grade: A



I was not impressed with the linebackers in the early going, but in their defense this had a lot to do with the playcalling. More on that later.

Bowman looked slow to me. He just wasn't jumping the passing routes, and he whiffed terribly on several blocks. This was just not his best game, but he did still manage to record nine tackles.

Sean Lee saw his most extensive action since tweaking his knee against Temple. He led the team with 12 tackles (10 solo). I thought he looked great in playing against the run, but like Bowman I thought he looked just a step slow in covering the Northwestern short passing game. Much more so in the first half than the second half.

Did Josh Hull even play? He was out there in the early going and didn't look good in either defending the crossing routes or in stopping Kafka why he tried to tuck and run. After Northwestern's long scoring drive it looked to me like Penn State switched exclusively to the nickel defense, and Hull was the odd linebacker out.

Final Grade: B


Kafka and Persa did most of their damage in attacking the linebackers over the middle. I thought the secondary held up well against Northwestern's highly ranked passing offense.

D'Anton Lynn was fantastic in breaking up the screen passes. He was really aggressive and shed the blocks to either stop the play for no gain or only gave up a few yards.

The rest of the secondary was pretty unmemorable, and frankly, I'm happy with this performance. I'd rather not notice Astorino and Sukay are on the field than to see them trailing the wide receiver on a 50 yard bomb than to see them helpless chasing their man downfield. Much of the credit for the six sacks by the defensive line has to go to the defensive secondary. The Northwestern quarterbacks couldn't find anyone open.

Final Grade: A


Defensive Coaching

I thought Penn State came out with a poor game plan. They tried to sit in their Cover-3 with three linebackers on the field. But the coverage was too soft, and three linebackers trying to cover four or five wide receivers is a mismatch in Northwestern's favor every time. Mike Kafka picked them apart with short crossing routes and hitch patterns designed to attack the linebackers. It was a lot like watching the Michigan game last year. You could tell the Wildcats weren't doing anything special. It was just a matter of making some changes and manning up. Penn State adjusted by going almost exclusively with the nickel defense and bringing the corners up a little tighter.

I also noticed some delayed blitzes by Odrick and Bowman. These worked really well because it gave the defender time to see what's going on and react to it. We saw this against Illinois and Michigan, and I suspect you will see it next week against Terrelle Pryor too.

Final Grade: B


Special Teams

It's like a broken record every week, but the special teams are not very special. Unless you mean "special" like the kid who wears head gear all the time to protect him from punching himself. In that case, yeah, the Penn State special teams are special.

Before I rip into them, let's acknowledge the blocked field goal by Odrick. That was a good play.

What's up with 12 men on the field on the Northwestern punt? This is the third or fourth substitution issue in the past two weeks. We're in week 9 now. This stuff shouldn't be happening.

Last year I called Nate Stupar our special teams MVP. Not so much this year. He had the Northwestern punter dead to rights after he fumbled the snap. But he overran the play, and the punter did a chest heave to a short fat guy with stubby legs who ran for a first down. It was a play that could have given Penn State tremendous field position, but instead it allowed the Wildcats to move the ball further. Eventually, they would have to punt again on that drive, but Graham Zug made a fair catch on the six yard line. What the hell is up with that?

Chaz Powell had a big kick return. It's his second big return in two games. Oddly, on both plays he gained his yards by completely disregarding his blockers and going the opposity direction on his own. That should tell you something.

But let's end on a positive note. Collin Wagner had some nice kickoffs where the ball landed around the five yard line, but more importantly the kick was angled to the corner allowing the coverage to use the sideline to stop the play for a short gain.

Final Grade: C