The Essentials: Penn State

Players to watch, themes to know - its the essential guide to Penn State, the most important notes about the Nittany Lions before Ohio State visits Happy Valley Saturday for the night game showdown with No. 24 Penn State.

Penn State (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten)
Game 9
Saturday, 8 p.m., Beaver Stadium

The hot topic heading into Saturday night's meeting between the traditional powers of Ohio State and Penn State – other than how the top-ranked Buckeyes will deal with the sure-to-be raucous atmosphere – is whether Penn State senior quarterback Anthony Morelli can be successful against OSU.

Many have pointed to last season in Columbus when Morelli was 16 of 25 for 106 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions, the final two of which were returned for touchdowns to seal a 28-6 win for Ohio State. On the season, Morelli completed just 53.9 percent of passes for 11 touchdowns and nine picks, showing the signs of a quarterback struggling at times through his first season as a quarterback.

"Morelli was kind of young last year," OSU cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "We definitely wanted to disguise our coverages a lot and move around just so he didn't get a bead on what we were doing. I think we did a good job of pressuring him and making him think it was one coverage when it wasn't and making him throw the ball quickly and not make the best decision."

This season, the 6-4, 231-pounder struggled during losses against Michigan and Illinois – completing 36 of 69 passes for a touchdown and three picks – but has not done badly on the whole. He's completed 147 of 247 passes (59.5 percent) for 1,739 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven picks.

Once a highly touted prep quarterback, Morelli has continued to have the support of his head coach, Joe Paterno. He has become a game manager who is more likely to toss short outs, hitches and screens than throw downfield.

"To me, he's a senior quarterback that's got confidence," OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "He's making good decisions. He's really played well up there. He looks like he's got good control of the game and himself."

One criticism of Morelli, who is not fleet afoot, has been his inability to deal with pressure applied by defenses during games. The Buckeyes boast a defense whose mantra is "affect the quarterback," so defensive end Vernon Gholston said the plan isn't much different from any other week.

"That's the main thing, any time you're throwing the football, pressure is the key," Gholston said. "He seems to struggle a little bit with pressure, but we're not going to do anything differently. We're going to do the same thing we always do: get pressure on the quarterback and affect as many plays as we can."

The Pride Of Linebacker U: Suffice it to say it won't take long during Saturday night's broadcast to hear the words "Linebacker U" spoken by either Brent Musburger or Kirk Herbstreit. That's because the Nittany Lions do boast two very good linebackers in senior middle man Dan Connor and junior Sean Lee.

Connor is the leader of the defense. The 6-3, 237-pounder is one of 10 finalists for the Butkus Award for simply continuing an excellent career. A second-team All-American a year ago when he made 113 tackles and caused three fumbles, Connor has 76 tackles, 10 stops for loss and five sacks.

He has moved into second all time in tackles at Penn State, and he's just 22 away from Posluszny's total of 372.

"He's a great linebacker," OSU fullback Tyler Whaley said. "He's an All-American. He's the heart of the defense. From watching film, you can tell he's the leader of a traditionally powerhouse Penn State defense."

Next to him is Lee, who actually leads the team in tackles with 79 and has 3.5 sacks. Before his streak was ended against last week against Indiana, Lee had notched double digits in tackles in five straight games.

The third linebacker is junior Tyrell Sales, who is sixth on the team with 27 tackles and has added two sacks.

"They've got a lot of experience," OSU quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels said. "Sean Lee has been playing for a long time. That Sales kid played quite a bit last year even though he wasn't a starter. Those three guys are experienced and they're good. They run well, they're tough. That's what you look for in linebackers."

Not Quite Tailback U: Of particular note has been Penn State's rushing game. While there's no one like Curtis Enis or Blair Thomas leading the charge, Penn State does boast a solid duo at tailback in senior Rodney Kinlaw and redshirt freshman Evan Royster.

The two have taken to their roles as the two top backs since the arrest of starter Austin Scott on sexual assault charges from an incident that occurred Oct. 5. Since Scott has been suspended, Penn State has gone from averaging 164.2 yards per game on the ground in the first five to 223.0 in the last three.

Leading the way has been Kinlaw, a smallish but powerful back who has 141 carries for 742 yards and six touchdowns. Royster was elevated to the No. 2 back with Scott's suspension and has 222 yards on 36 carries – a 6.2-yard average – in the last three games.

"(Kinlaw) seems like hes' running the ball well," Heacock said. "Between him and Royster, I think they have a nice duo going right now. I think Kinlaw is doing a great job. I think he's got good patience. Their offensive line in my opinion is better than since we've played them. Their O-line is strong and Kinlaw does a good job having patience finding the hole and letting his blockers work and then getting up into the hole."

One thing that might hurt Penn State is the loss of fullback Matt Hahn, who suffered an ACL injury during the fourth quarter against Indiana. Hahn was a dependable blocker who had carried the ball 15 times for 82 yards while catching nine passes.

"We thought he was good," Heacock said. "Hahn was a good player. He was able to catch the ball and he was a good blocker."

Ends Of The World: Penn State has also been buoyed by an excellent pair of defensive ends who have helped the squad get to the top spot in the nation in sacks.

The lone junior in the two-deep at defensive line is end Josh Gaines, who has started all eight games this year and nine a year ago. This year, he has 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks. On the other side is sophomore Maurice Evans (6-2, 257), a Brooklyn native like Paterno who the head coach is very high on.

"I think he's going to be a pretty good player," Paterno said. "He's a good kid, he really is. He's a good athlete. I like him."

Evans, who earned extensive playing time last season, has 33 tackles, 18.5 stops for loss and 10.5 sacks. He is coming off a week in which he earned Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for netting 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles against Indiana.

"Maurice Evans has been doing an unbelievable job and not only him, but the defensive line," Connor said. "Watching the tape of the Indiana game, I couldn't take my eyes of some of the defensive lineman making plays. They are light on their feet, playing aggressive, and really just flying around the field. Those guys are doing a great job. Yes, it takes pressure off the linebackers and we didn't have to make a lot of tackles."

The top reserve end is redshirt freshman Aaron Maybin, a 6-4, 251-pounder with four sacks.

Special Teams Live Up To Name: Any mention of Penn State would not be complete without a note about the Nittany Lions' special teams.

Kicker Kevin Kelly has set a school record for field goals with his 14-for-19 performance so far this season that includes a long make of 53 yards. On his 53 kickoffs, Kelly has 17 touchbacks. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in net punting thanks to punter Jeremy Boone, who is averaging 44.2 yards per kick.

In the return game, punt returner Derrick Williams is averaging 13.7 yards per return and has a punt return touchdown, while kickoff man A.J. Wallace is averaging 27.0 yards per try.

"They're typically very good (on special teams), but maybe are a little bit better than they've been," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. "Their punter is a first-year guy and right now they lead the Big Ten in net punt. Their kickoff return guys in Williams and A.J. Wallace. Williams is your punt return guy. Dangerous as can be. I'd just assume punt the ball in the stands. They're that kind of dangerous.

"Their kicker's got touchbacks. When you're kicking off from the 30 and you've got 17 touchbacks, that means you're outstanding."

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