Saying All the Right Things

Penn State senior leader and offensive guard Stefen Wisniewski is taking Iowa's vaunted defensive front very seriously.

Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, bless his heart, played his role as a team spokesman to the hilt earlier this week.

Because of a lousy phone connection, reporters kept popping on and off a conference call with the senior guard. And Wisniewski was, as a result, asked repeatedly about Iowa's gifted defensive line, which the Nittany Lions will face in their Big Ten opener Saturday night in Iowa City.

Each time Wisniewski's answer was more expansive, more revealing -- and more ominous, where PSU is concerned.

First he said the Hawkeyes were “solid all across the front.”

“There's no weak link there,” he said.

He later talked about how disciplined the Iowa D-line is -- how everyone plays a role and plays it well.

“Not too often,” he said, “do you find someone misaligned and missing an assignment.”

And finally he talked about how the Hawkeyes stunt all the time, on running plays as well as passes. Some teams, he said, do not like to do that, thinking that it leaves soft spots in the defensive front.

“Iowa manages to do it,” he said, “and they're still really tough.'

The Hawkeyes (3-1) lead the nation in total defense (275.5 yards per game). They are third in rushing defense (65.5) and fifth in scoring defense (12.0). Those numbers are a little deceptive, since Iowa has beaten Eastern Illinois (37-7), Iowa State (35-7) and Ball State (45-0), while losing 34-27 at Arizona.

But everybody expects the Hawkeyes, winners in seven of their last eight meetings with Penn State, to be in the thick of the conference race. And the defensive line is as big a reason as any.

End Adrian Clayborn attracted most of the preseason attention, after a junior year in which he was credited with 11.5 sacks. It was his blocked punt and 53-yard touchdown return that put the Hawkeyes ahead to stay in their 21-10 victory at PSU last Sept. 26.

The other end, Broderick Binns, forced a fumble that resulted in a safety in that game, and he finished the season with six sacks.

But neither Clayborn nor Binns has a sack this year. The team leader in sacks and tackles for losses is tackle Mike Daniels -- a backup -- with three and 7.5, respectively. He was given a share of the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after recording six tackles, four of them for losses, in the victory over Ball State.

“That's a testament to how good Iowa's front is,” Wisniewski said. “They've got guys who aren't even starters, and they can make a lot of plays.”

The Penn State offensive line, reshuffled in the offseason, will again have a new look this week. Right tackle Lou Eliades, who played alongside Wisniewski, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in last week's victory over Temple, and was lost for the season. Junior Chima Okoli will make his first career start this week in his place.

Wisniewski said Eliades' loss “certainly hurts a lot.”

“It's going to take a couple weeks to get to the point where we're at the level me and Lou were at,” he said. “Every practice we're making strides. … We're progressing. It certainly does take time to build chemistry.”

At the same time he said Okoli, who until this past spring had played on the defensive line, “has taken to offense pretty quickly.”

“There are still some things he's got to pick up,” Wisniewski said, “but his progress has been very quick.”

The Hawkeyes fell behind 27-7 in the first half of their Sept. 18 loss at Arizona, as the Wildcats blocked a punt to set up the game's first touchdown, then returned a kickoff and an interception for scores.

Iowa rallied, with Binns returning an interception 20 yards for the tying TD with 8:12 left in the fourth quarter. (The Hawkeyes might have taken the lead at that juncture, had an extra point not been blocked.)

But Arizona then marched 72 yards in nine plays for the game-winning score.

It is the kind of success Penn State can only hope to duplicate this week.

“You always want the Big Ten season to get started on the right foot,” Wisniewski said.

Tough assignment, though. As he pointed out at length.

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