Nittany Lions defense survives and advances

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Josh Gaines feels like a survivor.

Back in the spring, Penn State's defensive line meeting room included 17 men, the majority of whom had starting experience or played significant minutes in 2007. Gaines, a senior defensive end, anchored a Nittany Lions defense led by Sean Lee, the next great linebacker at Linebacker U.

Then one by one, Penn State's depth began to diminish.

  • Lee tore his ACL in spring drills.

  • Defensive tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, who combined for 11 starts last season, were dismissed from the team in the summer.

  • Promising defensive tackle Devon Still broke his leg in a preseason scrimmage.

  • Prior to a Week 2 matchup with Oregon State, first-team All-Big Ten defensive end Maurice Evans and starting defensive tackle Abe Koroma were suspended after police found marijuana in their apartment. They missed three games.

  • Reserve end Jerome Hayes tore his ACL in the Oregon State game.

The personnel purge would be enough to deplete most defenses, but not Penn State's. All the Nittany Lions have done is lead the Big Ten in both rushing defense (80.2 ypg) and total defense (250.3 ypg).

A dynamic new offense stocked with rushing threats gets most of the credit for Penn State's 6-0 start, but Gaines and his group shouldn't be overlooked. The line has held its ground, and despite some lingering questions at linebacker, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull have elevated their play in recent weeks.

"Coming in, we were [picked] third or fourth in the Big Ten, and now we're in the top 10," Gaines said. "That's great and all, but it still feels like we're surviving. We've still got a long road ahead of us."

They've navigated the potholes so far, which Gaines attributes to a plug-and-play defensive system that withstood the test of time. The team's most experienced defensive lineman (27 career starts) gets scientific when describing what works in Happy Valley.

"The scheme gets it done," Gaines said. "It's really not so much who's there. It's about who's ready to step up. It's almost like a certain potion that we have, the right chemicals and the right things to create this one magnificent thing."

Some of those chemicals hadn't been tested, at least not outside the impenetrable walls of Penn State's practice field. Sophomore end Aaron Maybin recorded 12 tackles (4 sacks) last year as a reserve, but he took on a greater role with Evans and Hayes out of the lineup.

Maybin has stepped up with 23 tackles in the first six games, including nine stops for loss and seven sacks, a total that ties for the FBS lead and tops the Big Ten chart. Gaines isn't surprised by Maybin's pass-rushing prowess.

"People see him get all these sacks," Gaines said. "He's always been a sack master. His thing was adjusting to the run. The problem was with him before, we were worried that a team might adjust and run the ball right at him. But now he's playing the run a lot better. He's perfected that."

Maybin filled the void left by Evans, who returned along with Koroma on Sept. 27 and has five tackles and a sack in the last two games. Head coach Joe Paterno also praises the play of tackle Jared Odrick, who came off an injury last year to solidify the interior line.

But it was Gaines who provided the leadership and production (16 solo tackles, 3.5 sacks) Penn State needed during the unstable period.

"Gaines seems to set the attitude," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, whose team hosts the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions on Saturday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). "You'll see that on certain plays, the way he goes about his business, and you can tell the coaches are counting on him by the positions they put him in."

Penn State's scheme allows Gaines and the other defenders to use their versatility and maintain their aggressiveness. An effective stunt package has helped Penn State tie for the league lead in sacks (17), and the Lions are also getting it done against the pass, recording nine interceptions and 35 pass deflections.

"When we do stunt, we're not sitting ducks," Gaines said. "We're always moving around, so it's hard for the offensive line to pick up what's going on. That's one thing I always enjoy, moving around, playing down low, having to go inside a little bit, having to stunt outside, picking up backs. I might drop back in coverage sometimes and play like a linebacker. I really enjoy that."

Despite the early success, Gaines knows the defense can improve. He said as much to his coaches while exiting Ross-Ade Stadium last Saturday and was surprised to learn that Purdue had gained only 241 total yards against the Lions.

Having more games with Evans and Koroma on the field will further refine Penn State's line play.

"When they came back, it was a comforting feeling, almost like a sigh of relief," Gaines said. "They came back hungry. That's one thing people respected."

Paterno expressed his concerns about the team's defensive depth earlier this season and has been relieved to see the group hold together to this point.

"It's a combination of a bunch of guys that like each other," Paterno said. "They want to have a good football team, they help each other, and they're willing to pay the price to be good. And they know we're not there yet."