Big Ten: Drew Astorino

Before spring practice, Penn State defensive backs Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris sat in their apartment, brainstorming a way to motivate the secondary.

They decided to tell their teammates the truth. At least the truth according to those outside the program.

At the end of each workout in the spring and now in the summer, Willis and Morris gather the other Lions defensive backs.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Willis
Rob Christy/US PresswireMalcolm Willis has challenged Penn State's younger defensive backs to step up this season.
"We huddle them up, we talk to them and say, 'We're supposedly the worst unit on this team,'" Willis told ESPN.com "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability. We know what we can do. We know the ability we have and what we're capable of."

The outside skepticism makes sense. Penn State loses all four starters from 2011: safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. Although players like Willis, Morris and sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos have been very much in the mix -- they combined for 65 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2011 -- depth is a significant question mark, especially with the offseason departures of cornerbacks Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake.

The Lions will need their young defensive backs to step up in a big way. And that's who Willis and Morris direct their message to following workouts.

"Every day we say that, these younger guys, they're hyped up, they're juiced up and they want to do extra work," Willis said. "Right after that, they want to go watch some film with us, or they want to go work on their footwork, just giving that extra effort and that extra attention to detail. It really shows me these guys want to be great this year."

Penn State's defensive fortunes could hinge on the secondary this season. While there are significant changes in State College, namely the arrival of new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and his "multiply aggressive" scheme, several elements remain the same.

The front seven, as usual, should be very strong. First-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returns, along with Michael Mauti, back from a knee injury. Pete Massaro also returns at defensive end and joins a line featuring tackle Jordan Hill, end Sean Stanley, tackle DaQuan Jones and end Deion Barnes, an extremely promising redshirt freshman. The line and linebackers also both return their position coaches -- Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from the previous staff -- while the secondary has a new boss (John Butler).

Add in the new scheme, which includes some Cover 3 but not nearly as much as the system under Tom Bradley, and the secondary can be seen as one giant question mark.

"A lot of people say we're the weakest group on the team," Willis said. "We were like, 'We need to motivate these guys to let them know what people think.' Reading it is one thing on the Internet, but when somebody says it to your face, it has to hit a nerve. And you really have to be offended by it."

Willis and Morris are getting the desired result so far. Willis has been impressed with the way fellow safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Tim Buckley have approached the offseason. Obeng-Agyapong is projected to start alongside Willis, while Buckley saw some time with the first-team defense this spring.

"When I see the D-backs, I see a whole bunch of hard-working people," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "They're always out there trying to get better, trying to do one-on-ones, anything to help the defense.

"I don't see any weak link."
The Hero position is history, and the Cover 3 is more of a schematic layer than an identity.

Penn State's secondary is going through some changes, and fans will notice some of them even before the ball is snapped.

"There's a lot of movement," safety Malcolm Willis said, "where in the past we were stationary before the ball was snapped. Now we have a lot of looks to give the offense and there is more activeness from the secondary, linebackers, and even the defensive line."

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Willis
Rob Christy/US PresswireWithout proven playmakers in the secondary, the Nittany Lions need someone like Malcolm Willis to step up.
Tempo is the biggest change Willis has noticed this spring under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Penn State is operating faster on both sides of the ball, following Roof's mantra of being "multiply aggressive."

While Bill O'Brien's innovative offense undoubtedly will be welcomed in State College, Penn State's defense faces a more complicated challenge. Penn State has produced top 20 defenses in seven of the past eight seasons. The Lions ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2011 and have finished in the top 20 six times in the past eight seasons. They ran a no-frills scheme rooted in the Cover 3, productive front-seven players and strong fundamental play.

Roof understands this, telling ESPN.com in February, "Everybody in college football respects what they've done. At the same time, I don't know exactly what they've done. All I know is it's worked."

The key for Roof is to blend his ideas and not diminish a system that has been successful.

"He's implemented a lot of different things," said Willis, who recorded 33 tackles, an interception, a blocked kick and a fumble recovery in 2011. "Of course, the Cover 3 thing will be standard of past years. Not to say we don't have any Cover 3 things, but it's a lot of different looks we're having to learn and different techniques we're having to learn."

Penn State loses two multiyear starters at safety in Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, who played the Hero position. Although Willis has extensive experience, starting in place of the injured Sukay in 2010, the Lions lack proven players in the secondary.

The Lions will be leaning on players such as Willis, cornerback Stephon Morris and even cornerback Adrian Amos, who stepped in as a true freshman last fall. Willis has been practicing at free safety this spring (Penn State is now going with the standard free safety and strong safety labels).

"I'm just trying to go out every day and get better and prove to the coaches that I'm a guy they should look to to lead the group," Willis said.

It starts with welcoming the changes, not resisting them.

"It's really exciting to get to do something different," Willis said, "make plays in space and prove that Penn State is a team that can play in all different kinds of looks."
The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
10:00
AM ET
After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
When John Butler was finishing up his senior season at Catholic University in 1994, his head coach asked him what he planned to do with the rest of his life. Butler's answer: "I don't know."

The coach suggested that Butler stay with the team as a graduate assistant, and that ignited a career that has taken Butler to several high-profile stops. Now if you asked Butler what he planned to do with his life, he'd say that he wants to coach at Penn State for as long as possible.

The 39-year-old left his job as an assistant at South Carolina to join Bill O'Brien's first Nittany Lions staff in January. A Philadelphia native, Butler always had one eye on State College.

"I've always been a fan of Penn State, and I've always been familiar with what goes on here," he said. "To me, Penn State is and always will be Penn State. If I looked at my career 18 years ago, and you told me I'd have a chance to coach [any school], I'd be lying if I didn't say Penn State was at the top of the list."

Butler has never worked with O'Brien but had talked to him on several occasions before taking the job. New Penn State strength coach Craig Fitzgerald went to high school with Butler and worked alongside him at Harvard and South Carolina. Fitzgerald was on the same Maryland staff as O'Brien in the early 2000s.

"Craig always spoke very highly of Bill O'Brien in every regard," Butler said. "He'd tell me, 'This is a guy we all will want to work for some day.'"

Butler also spent four years as the linebackers and special teams coach at Minnesota, where he worked for new Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Ted Roof. That gives him a comfort level with his defensive boss at Penn State and also an understanding of what it takes to win in the Big Ten.

"There have been a lot of coaching changes, but the core of the league stays the same," he said. "It's still the run-first, defensive mentality, the toughness and playing in all types of weather. Those are the things that are familiar for me."

Butler will oversee the defensive backs at Penn State, and that may be the most challenging position to coach on the 2012 team. All four of last year's starters in the secondary — D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay, Drew Astorino and Chaz Powell — were seniors. That means Butler will not only have to teach a new system but also break in players taking on bigger roles.

Butler said he's not going to "dummy down or baby down" his coaching methods for the young group, but he also plans to be smart in not asking them to do too much right away this spring. He said he wants to be aggressive in the passing game but not an all-out gambler.

"I think you have to be aggressive but a smart aggressive," he said. "I grew up in Philly, where everybody thinks of aggressive as Buddy Ryan — man-to-man coverage, blitzing every snap. We're not going to do that, but we are going to have a package where we challenge receivers and challenge quarterbacks to make a play under duress. We're not going to be a team that sits back and lets the offense do what it wants to do on their terms."

Butler will also serve as special teams coordinator, though Penn State will continue to split up special teams duties like it had done under Joe Paterno for many years. Butler says five coaches on staff will "be extremely involved" in special teams and each will handle a specific unit. He'll oversee the overall execution and help with each group.

Nittany Lions special teams were sometimes seen as conservative and mostly concerned with avoiding mistakes under Paterno. Butler seems to have a different view of them.

"It's critical to make plays for your team in the kicking game," he said. "It's not just a setup for what's going to happen next. We're going to emphasize explosive plays, and you've got to play your best players on special teams. You have to look at it as the first play of your defensive series or the first play of your offensive series."

Butler says he looks at Penn State as a destination job and possibly his last stop in coaching. He and the Nittany Lions hope this is the start of a long, fruitful relationship.

Big Ten mailblog

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
3:30
PM ET
What's on your mind on this Valentine's Day?

Eric from Flagstaff, Ariz., writes: My friend and I are die hard fans of Michigan teams, he a Michigan fan and I an MSU fan. He belittles Sparty every chance he gets. We were having a debate about where the teams would finish next season. He said Michigan is a lock for the Rose Bowl and MSU won't get any higher than the Insight Bowl. I said MSU would make the Rose Bowl and Michigan would make the Capital One Bowl. Can you blame me? MSU won't win every game and I realize that, but they have OSU, Neb and ND at home where Michigan has to travel to all of those. Plus they have Alabama too. Sure, Michigan State will be starting a new QB, but Maxwell has been on the team for 3 years now. He's ready to start, plus with the receiving corps coming in, and not to mention the best defense in the B1G, its hard for me to see how Michigan is in a better spot. Michigan might be an improved team with a worse record. OSU and Nebraska on the road will kill their chances in the B1G next season me thinks. Who's MORE CORRECT?

Adam Rittenberg: Eric, love the debate. I get that fans are fans, but no team is a "lock" for the Rose Bowl. Especially a team that opens against Alabama and plays Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State on the road. Both Michigan schools have some holes to fill, but I like Michigan State's potential because of the defense that returns. The Spartans are building something special on the defensive side and loading up on athletes rather than just big bodies. I could honestly see both of these teams being better teams with worse records than 2011. While I think MSU ends up in a better bowl than Insight, both teams have some question marks but also plenty of talent. I could easily see the Big Ten title coming down to the Spartans-Wolverines game at the Big House.


Lance S. from Greensboro, N.C., writes: Adam, you keep saying that you don't see the need for automatic bids for the top conferences in a playoff system. So are you saying you'd rather see a playoff between 3 SEC teams and a Big 12 team, than one involving the SEC, Big 12, B1G, and Pac 12 champions? I don't think anyone wants automatic bids for the Sun Belt or MAC champs, but to not give the big 4 champs (or the 6 BCS conferences if there's an 8 team playoff) just punishes the deeper, more balanced conferences. I could easily see a situation where a 2 loss B1G champ, e.g., is every bit as good as a 1 loss team from, say, the SEC East, but they'd undoubtedly get left out from any playoff based solely on BCS standings. By giving automatic bids to the champions from the power conferences, you take out the human element (and more importantly, the computer element) from the selection process. Reward teams that proved it on the field!

Adam Rittenberg: Lance, I'd like to see the best four or eight teams in a playoff field. If it's a four-team field, you're not going to get league champions from every major conference. I'm fine with a selection committee that can identify the best teams through certain criteria. If it's an eight-team field, I'm more open to auto bids for league champions, although it would be nice to set up a system where leagues have to earn the right to retain auto bids. Not sure if this would be done through performance in a playoff or some other measure, but I don't need to see the ACC champion lose in the first round every year. We already get that in the BCS bowls.


Mark from Wooster, Ohio, writes: Adam usually enjoy your comments. A couple of things struck me as wrong tonight. Here is my 2nd concern.You write "If Ohio State wants to make a national championship run in 2013, its non-league schedule shouldn't stand in its way. "Seems tome just the opposite I red a lot about how strength of schedule is important to get to top of the BCS.Is it your position today that if Ohio goes undefeated in 2013 and win the conference play off that they are a shoe in to go to the national championship game?I would think having a lame nonconfrence schedule could do exactly the opposite of what you claim ( get in the way) . That a weak non-league schedule could keep it from the National championship. Seems to me like sometimes you guys take both sides of an argument depending on the day or the phase of the moon or something? Is a strong schedule a help or a hindrance in getting to the top? If strength of schedule is important why do you state that OSU's 2013 schedule won't stand in the way?

Adam Rittenberg: Mark, it's not about taking both sides of the argument. The answer ultimately depends on the circumstances of a given season. But in most seasons, there's one very simple way for teams not from the SEC to reach the title game: go undefeated. While it's possible an undefeated Big Ten team could be left out, history shows it's highly unlikely. A softer non-league schedule increases the chance Ohio State goes undefeated.

The strength of schedule argument likely would only make a difference if we're comparing 1-loss teams. The Big Ten likely would have a decent overall SOS, and besides, there are so few undefeated teams every year that it's hard to believe a 13-0 Ohio State team wouldn't reach the title game. This isn't college basketball, and while I'd love to see teams challenge themselves more, teams from leagues like the Big Ten rarely if ever pay the price for softer non-league scheduling. Ask Oregon how playing LSU in the opener worked out in its quest to return to the national title game this past season. Granted, the Ducks lost another game to USC, but had Oregon played a patsy instead of LSU in Week 1, it would have entered the USC game with a great chance to reach the title game.


Jon from Ithaca, N.Y., writes: How come Kirk Cousins doesn't seem to be getting the same draft hype as Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and even Brock Osweiler? Cousins had a strong season behind a shaky offensive line in a pro-style offense. He was sensational in the final minutes of the Georgia game, but seems to be flying under the radar, much like Ricky Stanzi did last year... Where do you think we can expect Cousins to be drafted?

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, this is an interesting question. The other quarterbacks are rated higher than Cousins primarily because of their size. Tannehill is 6-4, 222; Foles is 6-5, 240; and Osweiler is 6-8, 240. Cousins always has struggled to put on weight -- I wish I had that problem! -- and checks in around 205 pounds. There are durability concerns with Cousins that aren't there as much with guys like Tannehill, Osweiler and Foles, who also has an absolute cannon for an arm. Tannehill should be the first quarterback of the group to be drafted, probably in the second round. I've seen some projections list Cousins ahead of the other two and others that have him behind both Osweiler and Foles. Colleague Mel Kiper recently listed Osweiler as the best of the bunch, followed by Tannehill and Foles, although he said Cousins could make a move up the board. It looks like Cousins will go between the third and fifth rounds in April.


Matt from Midway, N.C., writes: Adam, I remember reading once that the Ohio State scholorship reductions could be spread out any way OSU wants over the next three years. Is there any truth to this because that would be great?!

Adam Rittenberg: Nope, sorry, Matt. The NCAA enforces the scholarship limit and Ohio State will have 82 scholies in each of the next three seasons.


Isaac from Stevens Point, Wis., writes: what do you think the chances are that Wisconsin opens up their playbook a little on offense this year? They just got Matt Canada who I'm pretty sure ran a spread at Northern Illinois with Harnish. They also have a pretty special group of skill guys coming back this year. And when i say special i mean different. They have three tight ends that need to be on the field, weak in WR depth, no legitimate fullback. They also have Moneyball and the ultra talented/ underutilized James White. The QB decision will obviously have a lot to do with what happens and who knows who that will be. Wisconsin has always been known as the hardnosed, pound it down your throat until it bleeds team but they did drop Wilson into shotgun this year, so its not like theyre refusing to change

Adam Rittenberg: Isaac, you bring up some interesting points. Canada has a more varied background, and while Bret Bielema hired him to keep Wisconsin's offensive structure in place, every new coordinator brings some new wrinkles to the playbook. Keep in mind the Badgers lose a tremendous athlete in Russell Wilson at quarterback, and the QB position is a major question mark right now. I completely agree Wisconsin is much stronger at tight end than at wide receiver, and Jacob Pedersen and those guys need to have big roles in Canada's offense. Montee Ball's return is huge, but Wisconsin has some question marks at quarterback, receiver, fullback and even offensive line after losing three starters. It'll be important for Canada to mix things up and not just rely on Wisconsin always has done.


Brent from State College, Pa., writes: Adam, your article on OSU's "Percy position" made me wonder: with a new coaching staff and defensive coordinator now at Penn State, will the defensive "hero (heroback) position" be relegated to the annals of history? Wasn't that moniker/position a brainchild of Coach Bradley?

Adam Rittenberg: Brent, the "hero" position actually stems from former Penn State coach Rip Engle. I wrote about it back in 2010:
The Hall of Fame coach who preceded Joe Paterno in Happy Valley didn't like the term commonly used to describe a strong safety: monster. So Engle came up with his own title.
"Rip thought that the word monster was derogatory," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said, "so he decided to call the position hero, and we still call it that. We have a linebacker position called the Fritz linebacker. It's named after Fritz the pizza man, who used to get the team pizzas."

I haven't heard whether the new Penn State staff will keep the "hero" position or not, but it's definitely part of Penn State tradition. Drew Astorino, who played "hero" for part of his career, described it to me as a safety-linebacker hybrid who is always around the ball. New Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof used a nickel back spot quite a bit during his time at Auburn. I'll definitely check on whether he'll keep the "hero" spot.


Al from Port St. Lucie, Fla., writes: Your poll about the most disliked coach is stupid. Urban has not coached one game and is the most hated? He is probably the most feared coach — the vote shows envy and that is it.

Adam Rittenberg: Your last sentence could be right, and I definitely think the more disliked coaches in a league are the more successful ones. But why is the poll stupid? I think it's telling that Meyer is so disliked — or feared — without having coached a single game in the Big Ten. We've received more than 20,000 votes in less than a day, so a lot of folks don't think it's stupid.
Penn State is methodically conducting an unusual coaching search for an unusual situation. Patriot-News columnist David Jones recently weighed in on the prolonged search, opining that "everything at Penn State seems to move at the pace of my mom getting dressed to go out."

Eventually, the school will name a permanent head coach. It could be before the Jan. 2 TicketCity Bowl or after. But it will happen, and a lot of folks have an opinion on who the coach should be and what qualities he should have.

I asked three Penn State players about the subject Monday during the team's bowl media day. Two of them, safety Drew Astorino and offensive lineman Chima Okoli, are seniors who won't suit up for the next coach. Sophomore running back Silas Redd told me he's committed to returning to Penn State no matter which coach the school hires.

One common thread among the players' responses is their desire for the next coach to have ties to Penn State. This has been one of the bigger questions surrounding the search since it began. Many media types and outsiders say Penn State must make a clean break from the Joe Paterno tree and hire a complete outsider as the next coach. Others are more open to the next coach having connections to Penn State and Paterno.

Here are the players' responses:

Astorino: "We need a guy who's going to be open and honest, who's going to stand up for his players no matter what, who's going to work his butt off no matter what, and who’s going to represent the university in a good fashion. All those things are very important, and hopefully whoever’s hiring for the job takes all that stuff into consideration. I hope he's a Penn Stater. I hope he knows the Penn State way. I hope he can relate to Penn Staters because we came here for a certain reason, and we're a different breed."

Redd: "I would like someone within the program or someone who knows the program, a former coach or a former player. As far as comfort, guys know what the person is about. You bring in someone new, it's a 50-50 chance. It could be really good or really bad. The guys who we've been hearing have been interviewing, we know they're great guys and we know they'll be able to handle the program."

Okoli: "I'd like to see somebody who knows the ins and outs of this place. It's important because there's a certain culture that's been around. There's a certain way we do things, the way we walk and we talk. I feel like the new coach coming in should know that just to make sure that it can mesh seamlessly and continue to build what coach Paterno built for 46 years."

It's not surprising that the players would rather not have a total outsider take over as coach. Astorino not surprisingly endorsed interim coach Tom Bradley for the permanent job, saying, "The team loves fighting for him. The team's working hard for him. He's an open, honest, brash guy, which I think we all appreciate. He keeps us in the loop, and he’s done an absolutely phenomenal job."

From a p.r. perspective, it makes sense for Penn State to look to the outside. But should all candidates be written off because they played for and/or coached for Penn State? We've seen examples of coaches who come in from the outside and don't understand or grasp the culture of their new programs. While Penn State will be changing its ways in several important areas, does the school's football culture really need a complete overhaul?

What are your thoughts?
The significant news story from Penn State on Monday is that starting quarterback Matthew McGloin could miss the TicketCity Bowl because of a concussion suffered in Saturday's locker-room fight with teammate Curtis Drake.

McGloin confirmed he was knocked out after his head hit the floor of the locker room. The junior said he suffered a concussion and a seizure. He hasn't been cleared to practice and will undergo further testing. McGloin accepted full responsibility for the fight, which took place after he and Drake had been jawing during Saturday's practice in State College.

Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley said both McGloin and Drake will be disciplined internally. University police and the Office of Judicial Affairs also are investigating the incident.

"As a quarterback for this university, I should be held to a higher standard," McGloin said. "It should not have happened. ... I'm going to take responsibility for it. It was immature. It was ill-timed."

No one will argue with McGloin's last point. After all Penn State has been through in the past six weeks, the program certainly didn't need its starting quarterback getting involved in a situation like Saturday's at this time.

But let's also make something clear: McGloin's injury and uncertain status for the bowl game is the story that matters. The fight itself is hardly unusual. Scuffles like Saturday's take place all the time with football teams. They don't usually involve the starting quarterback and don't usually result in a player going to the hospital. But they happen. We accept that they're part of the sport and often play them up as a sign of a team's passion and fight.

I did it this spring when writing of Penn State's spring practice, "If Penn State gets through a workout without a scrap or two breaking out, it feels like something's wrong."

The easy and lazy approach is to link Saturday's incident to some sort of larger problem for a Penn State program that has dealt with tremendous scrutiny since the sex-abuse scandal broke. The McGloin-Drake fight, you'll undoubtedly hear folks say, is the breaking point for a program being held together by threads. You'll hear that things are falling apart in State College.

Let's instead call it what it is: a locker-room scuffle that ended badly for McGloin.

"If you’ve ever been a part of a sports team, you know what happened Saturday is not that big of a deal," Penn State safety Drew Astorino told ESPN.com "It's unfortunate Matt got a little hurt. He's fine now, but that kind of stuff just happens. Just because of our situation, it's been blown up so much."

Added running back Silas Redd: "Fights happen more often than people know on a football team. An unwritten rule is that once you leave the field, things are kind of squashed. It wasn't the case this time, but we're still focused."

The focus going forward should be whether McGloin is cleared to practice or play and what type of discipline comes down from Bradley and Penn State. Redd told ESPN.com on Monday that McGloin "probably won't be able to play," but offensive lineman Chima Okoli was more optimistic about a possible McGloin return.

Another issue sure to be grouped in with Penn State's other, bigger problems is backup quarterback Rob Bolden being cited for retail theft after taking a Gatorade bottle from a campus convenience store Friday. Bolden returned the bottle unopened in what Bradley described as a prank. Bradley said Bolden will be disciplined internally but won't face any playing-time penalties.

Yes, it was a lousy weekend for Penn State quarterbacks, although we learned Monday that Paul Jones could be available for the bowl game if he's academically cleared.

Are these signs of a team falling apart? Highly doubt it. It's fair to question the team's mood and how motivated the Lions will be in the bowl game after being passed over by several others.

But to link the McGloin-Drake fight and the Bolden prank with the much more significant issues Penn State is dealing with right now seems like overkill.

One more bit of Penn State news:

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
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Ten things to watch around the Big Ten as a pivotal Week 11 slate of games kicks off on Saturday.

1. Penn State with no JoePa: For the first time since 1965, Penn State will play a game without Joe Paterno as its head coach. Paterno's firing Thursday night shook a program that had been rattled to its core throughout the week. Senior Day at Beaver Stadium will take place without the most famous senior of all. How will Penn State players respond? How will the fans respond after an outpouring of emotion Wednesday night? It's a very big game for this team and these seniors, but they'll be truly challenged to keep the focus on the task at hand.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarSilas Redd and Penn State take the field after difficult week in State College.
2. Tom Bradley: The longtime Penn State defensive coordinator steps into the uncomfortable position of acting head coach following Paterno's ouster. Bradley must keep the focus on the players and not on the firestorm outside the program. He'll need help from his fellow assistants, including former head coaches like Galen Hall and Ron Vanderlinden. While many think Penn State's assistants have coached the team for years, Saturday will mark the first time Paterno is totally out of the equation.

3. A date with destiny: Michigan State and Iowa are the only two Legends Division teams that control their own fate in the Big Ten championship race. Only one squad will walk out of Kinnick Stadium on Saturday with that label still in place. Iowa has won seven consecutive home games in the series, including a 37-6 spanking of the then-undefeated Spartans last season. Michigan State hasn't been the same team away from home and must come out with better energy, particularly on offense, after struggling in a 24-3 loss at Nebraska on Oct. 30. The Hawkeyes haven't lost at home this season, but haven't played a team as complete as Michigan State.

4. Chasing the record: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, or "Moneyball," as we like to call him, needs two touchdowns to tie the Big Ten single-season record of 26 held by three players (Ohio State's Pete Johnson in 1975, Indiana's Anthony Thompson in 1988 and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter in 1994). Ball has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season and leads the nation with 24 scores in 2011. He'll try to make history as Wisconsin puts Paul Bunyan's Axe on the line at Minnesota.

5. Starting blocks in Champaign: Michigan and Illinois are trying to get back in the win column, and both teams are looking for stronger starts. The Wolverines have throttled opponents after the first quarter, but have been outscored in the first 15 minutes. The Illini have failed to score in the first half in each of their past three games, all losses. Ron Zook wants his Illinois team to play loose, while offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said it comes down to the basics. Illinois needs to show up offensively against a Michigan team that typically gets better as games go along.

6. Rex vs. Silas: Still undecided about the Big Ten's best running back? You're not alone. Two of the top candidates square off Saturday in State College as Nebraska's Rex Burkhead goes up against Penn State's Silas Redd. Both men have been their teams' most consistent offensive performers this season. Redd comes off of a bye week after recording a historic performance in October, rushing for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games and leading all FBS players with 703 rush yards during the month. Burkhead, who was a bit banged up in last week's loss to Northwestern, has eclipsed 100 rush yards five times in the past seven games.

7. Cousins' chance at redemption: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins grew up a big Iowa fan and has a few Hawkeye alums in his immediate family. But he has yet to record a win against Iowa as Michigan State's starting quarterback, losing a 15-13 heartbreaker in 2009 and struggling in last year's game, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six. Cousins gets one final shot at Iowa on Saturday, and it's a huge game for the senior and his Spartans teammates. Iowa has been vulnerable against the pass at times this season, so Cousins and his receivers will look to stretch the field.

8. Axe to grind: Speaking of final chances, Minnesota senior safety Kim Royston gets one last crack at Wisconsin, his former team, on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Royston began his career as a Badger before transferring to Minnesota, where he has faced some hurdles, including a broken leg that sidelined him all of last season. The NCAA granted Royston a sixth year of eligibility, and he has made the most of it as one of few bright spots for Minnesota's defense, leading the Big Ten in solo tackles (51). The Gophers have been playing much better ball as of late, and they hope to shock Wisconsin and regain the Axe on Saturday. Said Royston: "I've been having those visions [of hoisting the Axe] ever since I left there."

9. Buckeyes' boiling point: After looking flat at times last week against Indiana, Ohio State knows it can't afford a similar performance this week at Purdue. The Boilers are one of those teams, like Illinois, that seems to give Ohio State trouble. Ohio State stumbled at Purdue in 2009, putting its Big Ten title hopes in jeopardy. Another loss Saturday likely would take Ohio State out of the Leaders Division race. Buckeyes' running backs Dan Herron and Jordan Hall both are dealing with ankle injuries. Herron is expected to play and Hall could return after missing the Indiana game.

10. Bowl push continues: Northwestern (4-5) and Purdue (4-5) both need two more wins to become bowl eligible, and the quest resumes Saturday on their home fields. After a potentially season-turning win at Nebraska, Northwestern returns home to face 3-6 Rice, which has a victory over, yep, Purdue. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team won't be overlooking the Owls, who can put up plenty of points. Purdue, meanwhile, returns home after consecutive blowout losses on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan. The Boilers are 2-0 in Big Ten home contests and need at least one of the next two (Ohio State, Iowa), plus the finale at Indiana to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.
Tom Bradley, Joe PaternoRandy Litzinger/Icon SMITom Bradley, left, will take over as Penn State's interim coach following Joe Paterno's firing.

When Joe Paterno announced his retirement to the team Wednesday morning, it wasn't a firm goodbye.

He would be seeing his players for practice later this week. He would address them in the locker room before Saturday's home finale against Nebraska. He would be with them 'til the end, in some bowl game -- perhaps the Granddaddy of Them All.

Paterno wasn't gone yet.

"It seemed pretty much that Joe was going to coach for the rest of the season and retire after the season," safety Drew Astorino said.

Penn State's board of trustees had other ideas. Around 10:15 p.m. ET Wednesday, the board announced Paterno had been terminated as Nittany Lions coach.

Right now, I'm not the football coach, and that's something I have to get used to.

-- Joe Paterno told a group of students at his home, according to the Associated Press
After 46 seasons and 548 games, the Joe Paterno era is over.

Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will be Penn State's acting head coach for the remainder of the season.

"Right now, I'm not the football coach, and that's something I have to get used to," Paterno told a group of students at his home, according to The Associated Press, after the trustees' announcement.

He's not the only one. His players must get used to this reality, too. It hit them hard Wednesday night.

"It's messed up they are doing this to a man who is a big reason Penn State is what it is today," senior wide receiver Derek Moye said on Twitter.

"Can't even shake my own head coach's hand wen I run out into beaver stadium for the last time...yall dk how much this man has done," senior defensive tackle Devon Still tweeted.

"Wake me up...this is a nightmare!" senior linebacker Nate Stupar tweeted.

The shock value certainly will be there in the coming days and hours. Although Paterno's direct involvement with the team had been reduced in recent years, his presence on Saturdays, even in the press box, was significant for his players. I remember a 2009 game at Michigan where Paterno, sensing his team needed a jolt, started jumping up and down in the tunnel to fire up the players before they took the field. His departure will stir emotions throughout the team, particularly with the seniors.

But Paterno's exit also makes it all about these players and this team, which it should be. It's not about Joe anymore. It's about the 2011 Penn State Nittany Lions, trying to win a Big Ten championship and reach the Rose Bowl.

As Astorino said earlier Wednesday, "The 125 guys on this team didn't have anything to do with what happened 10 years ago." He's right. Penn State's players didn't do anything wrong.

The players have the right to push forward. The seniors have the right to enjoy their final home game. For 46 years, Penn State football has been all about Joe. On Saturday, it will be all about the players. Bradley should reinforce this to the team, and I'm sure he will.

Saturday will be a tough day. There will be emotions. It will be hard to remain focused. Penn State could play inspired football against Nebraska. It also could perform like a team emotionally exhausted by the week and rattled by all the distractions. Tough to tell at this point.

The process should get easier, perhaps when Penn State hits the road next week at Ohio State. The firestorm will die down a bit. Not having Paterno could direct the focus more toward the team and its task at hand.

Joe Paterno is gone. The players aren't. This is their program now.
Penn State senior safety Drew Astorino just completed a conference call with reporters where he discussed the retirement of coach Joe Paterno, who informed the team of his plans at a meeting earlier today.

Nittany Lions players gathered at 11 a.m. at the Lasch Football Building for a team meeting. Most of them had learned just before that Paterno would be retiring at the end of the season.

Here are some quotes and notes from what Astorino had to say:
  • On the last few days: "This has been a pretty tough time for everybody here at Penn State. It's a very tough situation to deal with. Myself and the team are handling it well. We feel horrible for the victims and their families. At the same time, the 125 guys on this team didn’t have anything to do with what happened 10 years ago."
  • He said "everybody was visibly upset" in the meeting. Paterno addressed the entire team and then players broke off into position groups and met with their coaches. Wide receivers coach Mike McQueary didn't address the team but met with his group of players.
  • On what JoePa told the players: "He just told us he put in a letter of resignation. He thinks that would be best for Penn Sate, best for his family and best for everybody else. He doesn't want to put Penn State through a war or a fight or a media war against anybody. … He just always wants us to remember that this team will always be a team and always be together, not just for the next so many games and next year but we’ll be a team for the rest of our lives."
  • On Saturday's game against Nebraska: "I don't really know what it's going to be like. What I do know is I’m going to be playing my last football game with some people I’ve spent five years with, people I really, really care about. We're playing for each other right now. We’re playing for all we’ve worked for in the last five years."
  • Astorino's understanding is that Paterno will coach the rest of the season and then retire. There was no discussion of the possibility Paterno will not coach Saturday.
  • On the recent events at Penn State: "It's just been a rumor mill for the past three days. It's tough to decipher what is fact, what is fiction. There's always an element of shock. It's tough to plan or know of anything of this nature. I don't think anybody knew for sure this was going to happen."
  • Asked when he'd last seen former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky in the football building, Astorino declined to comment.
  • On the distractions this week: "We'd much rather not have to deal with these distractions and focus on our team and focus on this game. This team has the character to do it and I think we’re going to be OK on the field. I trust these players."
  • A players-only meeting will be held before today's practice.

Penn State offensive tackle Chima Okoli will be talking with reporters in a few minutes and I'll post his reaction, too.
Gerald Hodges saw the first signs in the Outback Bowl, as Penn State capped a mediocre season with a loss to Florida.

Although Florida prevailed 37-24, Penn State held the Gators to 279 yards. Penn State was stout on third down (Florida converted just 4 of 15 opportunities), forced two takeaways and received strong performances from tackle Devon Still (3.5 tackles for loss), cornerback D'Anton Lynn (tackle for loss, interception, fumble recovery) and other players who would return for the 2011 season.

"You could just see different spurts of talent, different spurts of fire in people's eyes," said Hodges, who recorded 1.5 tackles for loss in the bowl game. "And then you see who was coming back."

Seven defenders who started the bowl game were set to return for 2011, as well as key reserves like Hodges, fellow linebackers Glenn Carson and Michael Mauti, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill. All the familiar faces allowed the unit to build confidence during the winter, spring and summer.

[+] EnlargeNate Stupar
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIA more cohesive defense has paid off for Nate Stupar and the Nittany Lions.
Hodges sees the same faces when he lines up on Saturdays this season. From series to series and play to play, Hodges knows who will be where and at what time.

"We don't have to worry about coming out for each and every mistake," Hodges said. "Our coaches are more relaxed, letting us just play ball."

The coaches are loving what they're seeing right now. Penn State's defense has carried the team to a 5-1 mark, 2-0 in Big Ten play and on the brink of re-entering the AP Top 25 rankings.

The Lions rank fourth nationally in total defense (250.8 ypg) and fifth nationally in both scoring defense (10.5 ppg) and pass defense (157.7 ypg). They have allowed 10 points or fewer in five of six games and last week held Iowa to three points, marking the first time in four years the Hawkeyes had failed to reach the end zone in a game.

"I've got a little history growing up in that part of the country, and they've been pretty good on defense since the late '60s, maybe longer than that," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They've got good players, they're very well coached and Saturday they played very hard, it didn’t seem to matter who's in there.

"When they have a good defensive team, it's not a big surprise to me."

Penn State didn't have a great defense in 2010, ranking 50th in points allowed and 74th against the run. The typical guarantees weren't there, especially up front as Penn State didn't generate much of a pass rush and finished 101st nationally in sacks.

Still, coach Joe Paterno saw the number of returning players and thought the defense would be improved.

"We've got some depth," he said.

It has shown in the first six games. Although Michigan State ranks higher in the defensive statistics, no Big Ten unit has been more heroic than Penn State's defense, which has had to overcome key injuries and the Lions' own offensive woes.

"We have a lot of people on defense that care about one another," linebacker Nate Stupar said. "That’s what makes a great defense, that connection with one another and knowing the person next to you can do all he can to do his best.

"Last year, it didn't seem like a team defense, but this year, it definitely is."

Penn State didn't have divisions within its defense, but it became difficult to build cohesiveness with a core group.

"We really didn't have people set in stone last year with positions," Stupar said. "A lot of things were still up in the air. ... It was more of worrying we were going to make a mistake than actually going out there and playing and competing. This year, they're trusting us more."

The Lions are making it easy on their coaches. Still is having an All-America type season, recording nine tackles for loss in the first six games. Fellow tackle Hill has solidified the interior line, while Hodges, Carson and safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay also have stood out.

Penn State has showed greater willingness to blitz and has been better at generating turnovers. The Lions already boast 13 sacks, four shy of their total from 2010, and 14 takeaways, three shy of their total from 2010.

Perhaps most impressive is that the defense hasn't backslid at all despite losing Mauti to a season-ending knee injury. Lynn has been out since Week 4 with a head injury. Freshman Adrian Amos has stepped in at cornerback, while Penn State's depth at linebacker has helped in Mauti's absence.

"It says we have a lot of depth," Hodges said. "It says we have a lot of confidence. It says we have the willpower to win."

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
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I have the toes I have. Let's just leave it at that.

Defense must lead the way for Penn State

September, 22, 2011
9/22/11
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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.

[+] EnlargeJack Crawford
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicEnd Jack Crawford, 81, and the defense might have to carry Penn State's offense this season.
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."
Apologies for posting this a bit tardy, but Penn State has elected four seniors to serve as captains for the 2011 season.

They are:
  • S Drew Astorino
  • OT Quinn Barham
  • WR Derek Moye
  • DT Devon Still

Players voted on the captains Monday, and coach Joe Paterno revealed the results Thursday.

No major surprises here. Astorino and Moye are multiyear starters and two of the Big Ten's most experienced players at their respective positions. Barham will bookend Penn State's offensive line with Chima Okoli this season, while Still could be an emerging star in the center of Penn State's defensive line.

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