Penn State's defense had no room for mistakes last week.
One breakdown, one tiny miscue in the second half might have been enough for Temple to score an historic upset. Not only did the defense not falter, however, it essentially won the game.
The Nittany Lions came up with three turnovers, including a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions, and pitched a second-half shutout. The Owls, who had been averaging more than 40 points a game, managed just 197 total yards. Linebacker Michael Mauti's diving interception set up the winning touchdown as Penn State eked out a 14-10 victory.
It was the second straight week that the defense was asked to carry the load. Against Alabama, the offense scored only 11 points, most of that coming on a late touchdown. But if you think the Lions' defensive players are getting tired of constantly having to go back on the field after the offense stalls, think again. They said last week's game actually brought the entire team closer together.
"It wasn't just an offensive/defensive thing," defensive end Jack Crawford said. "We said, 'We have to get this ball back for the offense. We have to shut out this game, end this game.' We kind of pulled each other through and kept doing what we have been doing and end the game."
Head coach Joe Paterno, coaching up in the press box once again, said he felt like the team had a long way to go as it finished off that narrow victory against the Owls. But after talking to players and coaches who were on the sidelines, he felt much more encouraged about the way they bonded.
"There was a bunch of guys who were pulling for each other," he said. "The defense was talking to the offense about, 'Hey we're going to get the ball back for you guys.' So, there was not a defeatist attitude on it. I think that defensively we made some things happen and then the offense took advantage of it."
That might be the way this season has to go for Penn State. If it is to contend in the Big Ten Leaders Division, the defense likely will have to lead the way for the offense.
Paterno still hasn't settled on a quarterback between Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden, and neither player has yet thrown a touchdown pass this season. The offensive line does not look overpowering, and the Nittany Lions are ranked 103rd nationally in total offense.
At least the defense is playing at a high level. Decimated by injuries a year ago, that side of the ball is now blessed with better health and newfound depth at several positions. Penn State currently ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally in total defense. And it can still do more, players say.
"Last week at Temple, we really showed up for the second half big time," safety Drew Astorino said. "But I still don't think we've put it together for four quarters yet."
Paterno had asked his defense to come up with more turnovers, and it responded with three takeaways against the Owls.
"That's something we need to continue to build on," said defensive end Sean Stanley, who had a sack and two forced fumbles against Temple. "Joe had been on us in practice to get turnovers, and it was good that we could finally produce. It ended up helping us win the game."
Getting consistent pressure on the quarterback was a problem for last year's team, but that has improved this season with a healthy Crawford, Stanley playing the best football of his career and defensive tackle Devon Still controlling the inside. The Nittany Lions haven't always sealed the deal when they get that pressure, as they have only four sacks thus far. Stanley said finishing those plays has been a focus in practice this week.
Defense clearly is Penn State's strongest attribute right now. If that side of the ball has to continue picking up the slack for a struggling offense, that's what it plans to do without complaint.
"We never point fingers, never blame each other with something like this, because we know it's a team thing," Crawford said. "And we know, if they don't score a touchdown, that reflects on us, too. We might not be challenging them hard enough in practice. It's on all of us. We try to encourage them and they try to encourage us. And that's how we're going to get back as a team. If we start pointing fingers, there's going to be more tension on the team and it's going to break down."