Penn State D could bring challenge

Penn State's defense is never one to take lightly. Despite PSU's struggles this year, the defense could make things tough for the Buckeyes this week.

Penn State ranks sixth in the Big Ten in total defense, yielding 344 yards per game.

Balance is not the name of the game for the Nittany Lions, as they are first in the conference in passing defense (127.6) and dead last in rushing (216.4).

"I think teams have, especially early on, run it better against them than normal," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "I think you can attribute that to probably a number of things… I think they were young as they began the year, and they've played, oh, probably nine or 10 different people on their front, and now they've got guys who you can see now are playing better than they were the first three or four weeks."

Penn State had one of the top defenses in the Big Ten in 2002 (behind Ohio State; on par with Purdue and Iowa), but lost several key players to graduation.

This year's unit is young and undersized. But like any PSU defense, there is some talent in place. Especially at linebacker and defensive back.

But the defensive line is among the weakest in the Big Ten. The group includes zero returning starters, unless you count defensive end John Bronson (6-3, 266, Jr.) who is coming off the bench this year.

The starting ends are Matt Rice (6-4, 269, So.) and Lavon Chisley (6-5, 264, So.). Chisley leads the team with 6 ½ sacks.

The starting tackles are Tamba Hali (6-3, 275, So.) and Jason Alford (6-3, 273, Fr.). Hali is considered a player on the rise, but notice how small these guys are for D-I tackles. You could call them MAC-sized, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Most MAC schools have tackles much bigger than that. It is easy to see why the Lions have had trouble stopping the run this year.

* While the D-line is young and inexperienced, all three starters return to the linebacking corps. The group is led by MLB Gino Capone (6-1, 238, Sr.). He is a distant relative of Al Capone and leads the Lion "family" with 83 tackles. Last year, he had 86 tackles, despite missing three games due to injury, and was named second-team All-Big Ten.

The outside linebackers are Deryck Toles (6-0, 213, Sr.) and Derek Wake (6-3, 242, Jr.). In an interesting coincidence, they each have 51 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks on the year.

* The secondary is also talented and experienced.

The cornerbacks are Allen Zemaitis (6-2, 197, So.) and Rich Gardner (5-11, 185, Sr.). Zemaitis is second on the team with 55 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.

The strong safety is Yaacov Yisrael (6-0, 195, Sr.) and the free safety is Chris Harrell (6-2, 202, Jr.).

Yisrael is third on the team with 53 tackles and tied for the team lead with three picks. He redshirted last year with a knee injury and started 11 games in 2001.

* Tom Bradley is in his third year as defensive coordinator, following the long reign of Jerry Sandusky. He usually likes to be aggressive out of his 4-3 scheme, but he will also drop back and use the "bend but don't break" theory. So, like any defensive coordinator, he will mix things up. But look for a lot of blitzing.

Against the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions will of course look to stop the run. But with such a young and undersized defensive line, that means they will have to bring up their safeties. If that happens, the Bucks will have one-on-one coverage all over the field. But that's OK from Penn State's perspective because they want to make OSU beat them with the pass.

Overall, Ohio State knows it will have its hands full. The Nittany Lions might be down this year, but they will likely play their best game on Saturday. Their defense must be confident that they can shut down OSU's offense, ranked No. 99 nationally.

"They're a physical football team," Tressel said. "I've been watching their defense, who I think puts great pressure on you. Penn State historically has been known as a defense that puts pressure on you. They were eight people up in the box before that became something people talked about a lot. They put a lot of pressure on you. They stunt. They blitz. I think there their cover people are better than they've been. I thought two or three years ago, while they were putting that pressure on you, maybe you could exploit their corners. I think their corners are very, very solid."

The always-complimentary Tressel wanted to focus on Penn State's strengths more than its weaknesses. But is the pass defense good because the run defense is so bad? That's kind of a chicken or egg debate.

All Tressel knows is that PSU hasn't been giving up the deep ball this year.

"I haven't seen them get beat deep, and when you have a good number – when your pass defense yards are low – it's because you haven't given up big plays," Tressel said. "I think their games have been shortened a little bit from the standpoint that there has been a lot of running, really, by both groups from that standpoint, but I think they're pretty sound back there.

"Penn State puts pressure on you. You're going to have to let it go fast because I don't know what the exact percentages are, but they come a lot more than any team we've faced this year."

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