NCF Nation: Nick Sukay

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
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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.

TicketCity Bowl: Three Keys

January, 1, 2012
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You saw the preview and prediction. Now here are three keys for Houston (12-1) against Penn State (9-3) in the TicketCity Bowl on Monday.

1. Get motivated. The big question is whether or not Houston will be able to get up for this game. The Cougars were a win away from getting to the first BCS game in school history, but lost to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game. That was such a devastating loss. To go from potential BCS spot to this game has got to be a letdown. Plus, Houston will be without the coach that got them there. Kevin Sumlin left to become head coach at Texas A&M. Assistant Tony Levine was promoted, so everybody gets to see how he does in his first ever game as a head coach.

2. Protect Case Keenum. One of the biggest contributing factors in the Cougars' upset loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game was the way the offensive line struggled to protect Case Keenum. He was only sacked twice, but he was on the run from the pass rush for a majority of the game. Now Penn State arrives with top-notch defensive tackle Devon Still ready to wreak havoc. Penn State has 26 sacks on the season and should have an advantage in this category. Still has been battling turf toe, so that could be an advantage for Houston if he is not 100 percent.

3. Strike with big pass plays. Houston ranks No. 1 in the nation in passing offense, and will face a huge test in a Penn State defense that ranks No. 5 against the pass. Penn State only has given up two touchdowns of 20-plus yards this season, while Houston has 29. Houston might have a speed advantage, so if the Cougars can protect Keenum, players like Patrick Edwards might have an opportunity to get free. Keenum has to watch for safety Nick Sukay, a second-team Big Ten selection. Penn State had 14 interceptions on the season and Southern Miss showed that with pressure, Keenum can be forced into making mistakes.
Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
WR: Marvin McNutt, Iowa
WR: B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State
TE: Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern
OL: David Molk, Michigan
OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin
OL: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
OL: Reilly Reiff, Iowa

DEFENSE

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
DL: Devon Still, Penn State DL: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DL: John Simon, Ohio State LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB:
Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
S: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
S: Nick Sukay, Penn State

SPECIALISTS

P: Anthony Fera, Penn State
K: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin

Comments: We said before the season that the strength in the Big Ten lay in the interior lines, and that is illustrated in our picks. Still and Worthy had All-American seasons, and Simon was great as well. We didn't even have room for Michigan's Mike Martin, who had a terrific season. Our offensive line has two centers in Molk and Konz (two Rimington Trophy finalists) because we thought that position was much stronger than tackle. (Konz has played guard in his career, so we could figure it out if we actually had to play with this team). Some of our toughest choices came at the second receiver spot, where we liked Cunningham's production down the stretch far more than A.J. Jenkins' early numbers for an Illinois team that faded badly; the third linebacker spot, where we could have gone with Taylor's teammate Chris Borland or Illinois' Jonathan Brown; and the second safety selection, where we chose Sukay over Northwestern's Brian Peters, Minnesota's Kim Royston or Wisconsin's Aaron Henry because we felt Sukay made a big impact on a better defense. Lastly, only eight players who we chose on our preseason All-Big Ten team ended up on our official postseason squad. That shows how much things can change from season to season -- and it also shows that maybe our prognosticating skills need some improvement.

Halftime: Nebraska 10, Penn State 0

November, 12, 2011
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Quick halftime analysis from Beaver Stadium, where Nebraska leads Penn State 10-0:

Turning point: After a listless offensive first quarter that was too pass-heavy, Nebraska started to get going with its option attack in the second period. That loosened the stingy Penn State defense, and quarterback Taylor Martinez started hitting open receivers. A pass interference call on safety Nick Sukay when the Huskers had third-and-9 from the Nittany Lions' 14 led to the game's only touchdown late in the half. Given how much Penn State's offense struggles, the 10-point lead is bigger than it seems.

Stat of the half: After starting just 2-for-8, Martinez completed 7 of 9 passes in the second quarter for 81 yards.

Best player in the half: Though his team is trailing, Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still is showing why he's the favorite to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. He's been nearly unblockable and is a constant presence in the backfield. He's a big reason Nebraska is only averaging 3.1 yards per carry.

What Penn State needs to do: Get the running game going. Silas Redd had some nice gains but appeared to aggravate the shoulder stinger that's been bothering him. It's hard for the Lions to win when they have to rely so heavily on the passing game.

What Nebraska needs to do: Remain disciplined on defense. Penn State is not a big-play offense, so just minding assignments and being tough up front is helping the Huskers pitch a shutout. Offensively, keep using the option game, drain some clock and get out of here with the win should be the goals.
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."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron just grew up a bit.

Can Penn State's quarterbacks answer?

McCarron, making his first career road start in a very tough environment, made several clutch throws on an 11-play, 69-yard touchdown drive. He showed he can thread the needle and got a boost from Marquis Maze, who made a terrific grab over safety Nick Sukay. The sophomore had to gain a lot of confidence from the drive.

Penn State, meanwhile, is using its second quarterback as Matthew McGloin entered the game late in the first quarter. The Lions must find a way to stretch Alabama's defense, which could be next to impossible. They also need to pressure McCarron and get their hands on his passes.

Alabama leads 7-3 at the start of the second quarter.

Ranking the Big Ten safeties

July, 13, 2011
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We wrap up our preseason look at Big Ten secondaries with a look at the safeties.

Safety isn't quite as stacked as cornerback, and the Big Ten loses some solid players like Iowa's Tyler Sash and Ohio State's Jermale Hines. There are fewer elite prospects at safety, but several teams have potential playmakers.

Here are the top 10 entering 2011:

[+] EnlargeTrenton Robinson
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireSafety Trenton Robinson is entering his third season as a starter for Michigan State.
1. Trenton Robinson, Michigan State, senior: Robinson played a big role in Michigan State's improvement as a secondary in 2010. He led the Spartans with four interceptions and tied for the team lead in passes defended with eight. Robinson, who enters his third season as a starter, had 76 tackles last season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

2. Aaron Henry, Wisconsin, senior: After emerging as a playmaker in 2010, Henry should be primed for even bigger things in his second season at safety. The former cornerback made the switch and recorded two interceptions, seven pass breakups, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries last season. Like Robinson, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

3. Tyler Moeller, Ohio State, senior: Moeller will provide a huge boost for a new-look Ohio State defense as he returns from a torn pectoral muscle that shortened his 2010 season. He can play either safety or linebacker and showed impressive playmaking skills early last fall, recording two forced fumbles, an interception and 4.5 tackles for loss in just five games. If Moeller stays healthy, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

4. Brian Peters, Northwestern, senior: Peters boasts a lot of experience, appearing in every game the past three seasons. He also shows a knack for the football, recording three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. A second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010 after recording 107 tackles, Peters must get a bit more consistent in coverage but looks ready to lead the defense.

5. Micah Hyde, Iowa, junior: After starting all 13 games last season at cornerback, Hyde likely will move to safety as the Hawkeyes lose two multiyear starters in Sash and Brett Greenwood. Hyde showed last fall that he's a tremendous playmaker, recording four interceptions, including the pick-six that won the Insight Bowl against Missouri. He led the team with 11 passes defended, finished second with 82 tackles and had a forced fumble.

7. Nick Sukay, Penn State, senior: Like Moeller, Sukay was doing big things in 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Sukay recorded three interceptions, a forced fumble and 29 tackles in just six games. He's a natural playmaker who finished third in the Big Ten in passes defended with 13 in 2009. His return makes a very good Lions secondary even better.

8. Trulon Henry, Illinois, senior: An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2010, Henry will help anchor an Illini secondary that could do some big things this fall. Henry led Illinois with three interceptions and two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and 64 tackles. He should be helped by the return of Supo Sanni from injury.

8. Logan Link, Purdue, senior: Link quietly turned in a solid 2010 season, finishing eighth in the Big Ten in tackles with 91. He's a solid tackler who added an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The former walk-on has emerged as a really nice contributor for the Boilers' defense.

9. Drew Astorino, Penn State, senior: Astorino has been the iron man in Penn State's secondary, starting each of the past two seasons as well as three games as a redshirt freshman in 2008. He has played through injuries, including a shoulder problem that impacted him last fall, when he recorded 70 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups. If Astorino stays healthy, he could blossom in his final season.

10. Courtney Osborne, Nebraska, junior: This is a bit of a projection pick, but Osborne should be able to help fill Nebraska's gaps at safety this fall. He appeared in every game last season, starting four, and recorded 41 tackles, an interception, a sack and five tackles for loss. Osborne did some nice things down the stretch and seems primed for bigger things in a bigger role.

Also considered: Minnesota's Kim Royston, Michigan's Jordan Kovacs, Indiana's Greg Heban
The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.

There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.

There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 6-9 are extremely close.

Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...

[+] EnlargeDrew Astorino and D'Anton Lynn
Maxwell Kruger/US PresswirePenn State has an experienced secondary that includes safety Drew Astorino, right, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn, shown celebrating an Astorino interception last season.
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.

2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.

3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this season, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.

5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last season, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.

6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shutdown corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.

7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last season. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.

8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big season, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.

9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.

10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.

11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.

12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.

Checking in on Penn State ...

April, 6, 2011
4/06/11
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Greetings from blustery Happy Valley, where I'll be spending the next day or so visiting with the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Much like my last stop (Ohio State), Penn State is one of the Big Ten's more intriguing teams this spring. The biggest reason: a quarterback competition featuring Rob Bolden, Matt McGloin, Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome. Coach Joe Paterno said last week that Bolden and McGloin, who split the starts in 2010, are ahead of the other two, but no clear-cut No. 1 has emerged.

The subplot is Bolden's future. The rising sophomore wanted to leave Penn State after the bowl game and has kept the door open for a possible departure. What will it take to keep Bolden in Happy Valley? A promise of more playing time? The starting job? McGloin isn't the type of guy to back down from a challenge, and he'll keep pushing Bolden in practice.

Other items that interest me:
  • Line play: Penn State needs upgrades on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense. A historically superb defensive line took a step back in 2010, and there's not much depth at defensive end right now because of injuries. I like Penn State's potential at defensive tackle with Devon Still and others, but who will rush the passer this fall? Flipping to offense, Penn State loses standout Stefen Wisniewski, who started at both guard and center during his terrific career. Who takes charge of this group? Can it get back near its 2008 form?
  • Skill position competitions: There's a lot to like about what Penn State returns at positions like wide receiver, running back and defensive back. Derek Moye is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate at receiver, but who will emerge as the No. 2 and No. 3 options? I loved what I saw from Silas Redd at running back last season, and it'll be interesting to see if he can take another step in 2011. Penn State boasts the Big Ten's most experienced secondary, highlighted by cornerback D'Anton Lynn and safety Nick Sukay, but young players are pushing the veterans this spring.
  • JoePa and the coaching staff: Paterno's coaching future is always a hot topic around here as he enters the final year of the contract extension he received following the 2008 season. Also, several of his assistants were in the mix for other jobs during the offseason, particularly longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. What's the short-term future of this staff? How pivotal is this season to get Penn State back among the Big Ten's elite?

Should be a fun time in one of my favorite Big Ten towns. Check back for more on Penn State the next few days.
The Big Ten signing classes are rolling in, but a few prospects still are announcing their college choices.

Both Illinois and Penn State got some good news Wednesday afternoon as heralded prospects Jon Davis and Adrian Amos put pen to paper.

Davis, an ESPNU 150 selection as an athlete, picked Illinois ahead of both Louisville and Kentucky. He's the highest-rated member of Illinois' massive 2011 class (nation's No. 138 player). Davis played tight end in high school and could be an excellent fit in Paul Petrino's offense. He originally committed to Kentucky but switched to Illinois.

Amos, a three-star safety from Baltimore, adds to Penn State's late recruiting momentum. ESPN Recruiting rates him as the nation's No. 68 safety. Penn State loses both of its starting safeties (Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino) after the 2011 season, so Amos' pledge comes at a good time. Amos originally committed to Connecticut but started looking around after coach Randy Edsall left for Maryland.

Big Ten Week 4 rewind/Week 5 preview

September, 27, 2010
9/27/10
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Let's take a look back at Week 4 before sneaking a peek at the first group of conference games, which take place Saturday.

Team of the week: The scoreboard operators around the Big Ten. These folks had a very busy Saturday as two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin) eclipsed 70 points and another (Michigan) surpassed the 60-point mark. The Big Ten combined for 428 points, 55 touchdowns and 5,212 total yards. According to Big Ten Network stats guru Chris Antonacci, the 42.8 points-per-game average is the highest for a week in nonconference play since at least 1996. No Big Ten squad scored fewer than 20 points, and only three teams -- Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota -- failed to record 30 points or more.

Best game: Temple at Penn State. Al Golden brought a good Owls team to his alma mater and surged out to a 13-6 lead. Penn State led by only two points entering the fourth quarter and gave Temple several chances to pull off a historic upset. But Tom Bradley's stifling defense shut down a one-dimensional Owls offense, and freshman quarterback Rob Bolden led an impressive 12-play, 96 yard touchdown drive that sealed the victory and allowed Nittany Nation to exhale.

[+] EnlargeRob Bolden
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State quarterback Rob Bolden delivered big plays in the second half against Temple.
Biggest play: We go back to State College. On third-and-6 from the Penn State 8-yard line, Bolden showed off his arm strength with a tough throw to a diving Graham Zug along the sideline for a 19-yard gain. If the pass falls incomplete, Temple regains possession and likely has excellent field position, needing only a field goal to take the lead. Instead, Penn State drove downfield and finally got into the end zone. The most electrifying play from Saturday came from -- who else? -- Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who took a going-nowhere run play and cut back across the field for a 47-yard touchdown against Bowling Green.

Specialist spotlight: Senior kicker Collin Wagner has been Penn State's most valuable offensive weapon so far this season. He tied a team record with five field goals Saturday against Temple, converting attempts from 45, 42, 32, 32 and 21 yards. Wagner had a chance to set the record, but missed from 32 yards out in the fourth quarter. Wagner is tied for the national lead with 10 field goals this season and ties for second nationally in field goals per game (2.5). Northwestern defensive tackle Jack DiNardo merits a mention after blocking a PAT attempt and a field-goal attempt in a 30-25 win against Central Michigan.

Game balls (given to players from winning teams not selected for helmet stickers):

  • Indiana QB Ben Chappell: The senior signal caller has been nothing short of spectacular this season. He put up huge numbers for the third consecutive game, completing 23 of 33 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-20 win against Akron. Chappell leads the Big Ten in passing average (296.7 ypg), boasts nine touchdown passes and no interceptions and ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency (179.04 rating). He'll share the ball with receiver Terrance Turner (6 receptions, 121 yards, 1 TD).
  • Iowa DL Mike Daniels: Daniels likely would start on any other defensive line in the country, and he showed why Saturday against Ball State. The junior recorded four tackles for loss, including a sack, as Iowa blanked Ball State and held the Cardinals to 112 total yards. Iowa loses three starting defensive linemen after the season, but there's hope as Daniels and Broderick Binns both return.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: He made his first mistake of the season -- an interception in the red zone -- but was spotless the rest of the game against Central Michigan. Persa completed 23 of 30 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. The junior leads the nation in completion percentage (80.2) and ranks third in pass efficiency (186.3 rating).
  • Penn State S Nick Sukay and LB Nate Stupar: Both men stepped up for a Penn State defense that totally shut down Temple in the second half Saturday. Sukay recorded two interceptions, bringing his season total to three, and Stupar recorded an interception and a sack, part of his seven tackles on the day.
  • Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: It was important for Michigan State to continue to show offensive balance Saturday, and Cousins answered the challenge. He completed 16 of 20 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 14.5 yards per completion against Northern Colorado.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: Like Cousins, Tolzien faced weak competition Saturday, but any time a quarterback completes 15 of 17 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns, it's worth noting. After a few hiccups in the first two games, Tolzien has settled down nicely, completing 34 of 42 passes for 463 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in the past two games. Tolzien shares this with tight end Lance Kendricks (6 receptions 103 yards, 1 TD).
  • Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher: I mentioned No. 12 in helmet stickers, but he deserves a game ball of his own after hauling in four touchdown passes from Terrelle Pryor. Sanzenbacher had nine catches for 108 yards in the rout of Eastern Michigan. The senior leads the Big Ten in touchdown receptions (5) and ranks fourth in the league in both receptions (5 rpg) and receiving yards (79 ypg).
  • Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: Roundtree is starting to distinguish himself as a reliable weapon for the Michigan offense. He recorded nine receptions for 118 yards, including a 36-yarder against Bowling Green.

OK, enough on Week 4. Let's look ahead to the start of Big Ten play Saturday!

No. 2 Ohio State (4-0) at Illinois (2-1): The Buckeyes hit the road for the first time this season and face an Illinois team that will be healthier following a bye week. Two improved units clash as Pryor and the nation's No. 8 offense go up against an Illinois defense that has made strides under new coordinator Vic Koenning.

Northwestern (4-0) at Minnesota (1-3): Standout quarterback Dan Persa and the Wildcats aim for their third road win of the season, which would make a 6-0 start very realistic. Minnesota is in desperation mode after dropping three consecutive home games. Coach Tim Brewster is under fire, and he needs to get things turned around fast against a team the Gophers beat last year.

No. 19 Michigan (4-0) at Indiana (4-0): I'm not a betting man, but I'd take the over in this matchup. Both offenses rank in the top 15 nationally in scoring, and both defenses have struggled to stop people this season. Michigan's Robinson should be fine following his knee injury Saturday, and he'll try to outshine Indiana senior signal caller Chappell, the Big Ten's leading passer (296.7 ypg).

No. 11 Wisconsin (4-0) at No. 24 Michigan State (4-0): This is the most fascinating matchup of the day in the Big Ten. You've got two potentially explosive offenses and two defenses with some individual talents (J.J. Watt, Greg Jones) and some question marks. I can't wait for the matchup between Jones and Badgers running back John Clay, who needs a big game to boost his Heisman hopes. And we still don't know whether or not Mark Dantonio will return to the Spartans' sideline.

No. 22 Penn State (3-1) at No. 17 Iowa (3-1): In each of the past two years, an unranked Iowa team has stunned a Penn State squad ranked in the top 5 nationally. The roles reverse on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium, as Penn State will be the underdog against the Hawkeyes, who have looked very impressive aside from the first half at Arizona. Can the Lions pull off the upset, or will Adrian Clayborn and Iowa's defensive line gobble up freshman quarterback Bolden?

Bye: Purdue (2-2)
The focus will be on the 12-play, 96-yard drive that finally put Penn State into the end zone and put away a feisty Temple Owls team today.


It was very impressive, don't get me wrong. Rob Bolden made clutch throws, Evan Royster had a big 17-yard run and the offensive line finally imposed its will against Temple's defensive front, creating room for linebacker/fullback Michael Zordich to churn out some tough yards.

But make no mistake: Penn State's defense deserves all the credit for a 22-13 win against Temple. After a sluggish start, the Lions completely shut down Temple in the second half and didn't allow a point in the final three quarters. Linebacker Nate Stupar and safety Nick Sukay combined for three interceptions, and the front seven really punished Temple with physical play. That's a good sign going into the Iowa game, as Penn State will need its defense to play at an elite level.

I'm still concerned about the Penn State offense and its red zone woes. Royster broke out of his slump with 179 rush yards on 24 carries, but Penn State's inability to get the ball in the end zone will cost it games in the Big Ten if not corrected.

Penn State has to feel good about the way it finished today, but things get much, much tougher next week in Iowa City.

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