The Nittany Lions' defense was one of just five teams to rank in the nation's top-20 against the run (seventh), pass efficiency (14th) and scoring defense (10th) last season. After one game, a 34-16 home victory over Akron last Saturday, it seems like No. 19 Penn State hasn't missed much of beat on this side of the ball since replacing seven starters from a unit that ranked 12th overall in total defense a year ago.
Penn State held the Zips to 33 yards rushing on 34 carries, 225 total yards, while forcing four turnovers and recording five sacks. Granted, it's Akron, but impressive numbers nonetheless.
The Notre Dame offense will have to eliminate the penalties and mental mistakes that hampered them in a tough 14-10 season-opening victory over Georgia Tech last Saturday, if the fourth-ranked Irish hope to improve to 2-0.
"They do an outstanding job in technique and fundamentals," Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood stated. "Guys are extremely physical and we're looking forward to the competition. But I think we're going to improve."
Known as Linebacker U, that remains the strength of the Nittany Lions defense, and gives defensive coordinator Tom Bradley options on this side of the ball. Bradley, who is in his 28th season at Penn State under legend Joe Paterno, puts a 3-4 personnel grouping on the field but still uses 4-3 principles. The fourth linebacker on the field, 6-foot-1, 237-pound Tim Shaw, allows him to do this by lining up mostly at defensive end. He had two sacks in the opener."The most interesting guy on their defense is actually Tim Shaw," Irish head coach Charlie Weis said. "Last year he was an inside linebacker and because of his versatility, they've been able to use him as a defensive end as much as a linebacker, which gives more flexibility in their defensive scheme. He is a guy we're really going to have to look out for."
The Irish will also have to lookout for Paul Posluszny, the Bednarik and Butkus Awards (given to the nation's best defensive player and linebacker respectively) winner a year ago, reigning Big 10 defensive player of the week Dan Conner (13 tackles, two sacks and three-and-a-half tackles for loss against Akron) and middle linebacker Sean Lee.
The defensive line is anchored by 6-foot-8, 288-poind Jay Alford. He had 11.5 tackles for loss including eight sacks last season. Ed Johnson is the other tackle and Shaw's brother Jim or Josh Gaines will line up at right end. Jim Shaw is day-to-day with injury.
During phase two of fall camp, Weis had the offense do some work against the 3-4 defense in preparation for games like this. With the personnel grouping on the field, Penn State can quickly switch in and out of defensive formations to confuse the offense.
The Irish offense was confused at times last week against Georgia Tech's talented down seven and their zone-blitz scheme, committing nine penalties including three false start calls.
"I think the first thing we better do is cut down on penalties and cut down on mental errors," Weis said. "I'm dead serious. No matter how good Penn State is athletically in the front seven, which is very athletic, we've got to take care of our own problems off the bat. They're almost not as important as what we are doing ourselves. When you start with the linebacker core they have, and the athleticism they have inside, there is a whole bunch of problems they present to us. The first thing we better do is just play sound fundamentally and see if we can play better."
Weis has had his guys focusing on that since Sunday.
"It's definitely been addressed, and it's being addressed and will continue being addressed this entire week," he stated. "This will not be a fun week of practice."
"Going on different counts in practice so we don't jump offside," said guard Dan Santucci on what they are practicing in trying to avoid foolish penalties. "I think it's a lot about attention to detail."
"We need to execute better as an offensive unit," Haywood said. "We worked on a lot of technique and fundamentals (Tuesday). Making proper steps, hand placement. We need to do the little things right, understanding the blocking scheme, understanding who the free defenders are and just execute as a unit."
The Irish can expect a lot of pressure from the Nittany Lions, as that has been a successful philosophy in slowing down the Irish's high-powered offense for the last two opponents, Georgia Tech and Ohio State.
"We always expect that if we have something wrong with our game, teams may choose to copycat that, but that's just part of being an offense," senior tackle Ryan Harris explained. "We also expect teams that are firm in what they do and who have their game plan, not to change. We really can't worry about what they do, especially after last week. We really have to work on what we do and executing on our side of the football."
"Until you show you can beat it, they'll keep trying to do it. …You try to exploit what you see as a weakness," Weis predicted.
One of the few things the offensive line did well against the Yellow Jackets was get a good push and open up holes for running back Darius Walker. The junior gained 99 yards and scored the game's decisive touchdown on a 13-yard run. The offensive line will again have their work cut-out for themselves this coming Saturday.
"I think their d-line is good," offensive line coach John Latina said. "They're quick, they're talented, especially the two inside guys. They are really good players. It will be a real challenge, a real test for our inside guys especially."
"When you play a great defense sometimes you have to understand that they're going to make plays," Walker said. "I think that is something we're going to have to realize coming into this game is that we're going to have to be patient. They will make plays sometimes, but we have to combat that and make plays ourselves. We realize we are a great offense as well and we should be able to make plays."
If the o-line can protect Brady Quinn, something they struggled to do against Georgia Tech, the Heisman candidate and talented receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight could take advantage of a secondary with four new starters.
"They are a very athletic secondary," Samardzija said. "We got a chance to look at them recently. They're a secondary that likes to run around and make plays. They have a lot of talent out there at Penn State and everyone who knows anything about Penn State, whether it's their coach or whether it's their program history, you know they're going to have players that can play, and it's no different in their secondary."
Samardzija is correct, there is no denying the athletic talent in the secondary, but the group is green. Speedy sophomore Justin King was one of the nation's top prep cornerbacks. Senior safety Donnie Johnson, who was the team's second-leading tackler (eight) last week, also plays nickel back. Junior cornerback Tony Davis and sophomore Anthony Scirrotto complete the group.
The Irish should be able to pick on this group, opening things up for Walker, the team's steady Eddy, on the ground.
The Irish players have had time to digest the Georgia Tech game, learn from it and prepare for a very physical battle against Penn State.
"We always look forward to a physical game," Harris said. "The type of defense they are, they're a very physical defense. Obviously you don't win 15 games having a bad defense. "We are excited for the opportunity. I'm excited to play a team like Penn State. We're just excited to bring a home game to the fans, and we are looking forward to giving them a show."