Adding Insult to Injury

Banged-up Nittany Lion defenders reluctant to use health issues as an excuse after humbling loss to Illinois at Beaver Stadium.

Nobody from Penn State wanted to play the injury card after the Nittany Lions' defense was decked by Illinois Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

Not defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.

“You're not getting an excuse from me there,” he said after PSU's 33-13 loss.

Not middle linebacker Chris Colasanti.

“Football, it's a physical sport,” he said after making a career-high 18 tackles. “People are going to get hurt. It's part of the game. Other guys have to step up and make plays.”

Not anybody.

There was, at best, an acknowledgement on the part of the principals that physical woes played a role in the defense's performance. Understandable, seeing as seven guys from that unit's two-deep (including four starters) missed all or part of the game, and two others are out for unspecified reasons.

But nobody wanted to point to ill health as the single biggest reason for the rout. Nobody ever does, anywhere. Sounds like an excuse. And it minimizes larger problems.

And obviously there are immense problems. PSU lost to Illinois at home for the first time, saw its five-game Homecoming winning streak end, suffered a second straight defeat for the first time since 2007 and absorbed its worst loss since Ohio State hung a 37-17 beating on them, also in '07.

In addition, this marks the first time the Lions have lost three games by 20 points or more in the same season since 2000, when they finished 5-7.

Saturday's defeat was due in no small part to the fact that they allowed the Illini to run for 282 yards and generate 437 yards in all. That's the most the Lions have allowed on the ground since Minnesota gashed them for 288 in 2004, and the most total yards they have given up since Southern Cal piled up 474 in the Rose Bowl after the 2008 season.

So yeah, it's probably not just the injuries, which Bradley downplayed as “part of football.”

“If you're a good football team,” he said, “you've got to overcome those things.”

“We have a lot of backups, a lot of good backups,” safety Drew Astorino said. “They came to Penn State because they were good players, and so those guys are just going to need to step up.”

Surely, though, the physical woes are not a help.

Linebackers Mike Mauti (high ankle sprain) and Bani Gbadyu (knee) sat out the game, as did defensive end Jack Crawford (foot). Another linebacker, Gerald Hodges, missed his fourth straight game, having broken a bone in his leg on the opening kickoff in Week Two at Alabama.

Lost in the course of Saturday's game were defensive end Eric Larimore (wrist) and safeties Nick Sukay (pectoral muscle) and Andrew Dailey (shoulder/neck). And defensive end Sean Stanley and cornerback Derrick Thomas remain out for reasons that have yet to be made public.

In addition, Colasanti is playing with a broken right hand, an injury he said he suffered two weeks ago.

“I can't figure out why we're getting so many kids bumped, but we're getting them bumped,” Joe Paterno said. “But you've got to live with that. … We got three, four kids hurt today, and a couple of them look like they won't play. I guess that's the way it goes, every once in a while.”

Injuries, he said, sometimes crop up when the coaches demand too much of players in practice and they go into games tired. But this year, he said, “We haven't worked that hard.”

Paterno won't know the full extent of his players' injuries until he huddles Sunday with the team physician, Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli. But suffice it to say that PSU's bye week could not have come at a better time; the Lions do not play again until they visit Minnesota on Oct. 23.

In the meantime Paterno and his staff will reevaluate personnel, try to sort out who should be playing and who should not.

“We just can't go the way we're going,” he told reporters as he leaned back in his chair, speaking slowly and looking utterly defeated. “We're not making any progress. I thought by this stage we'd be a pretty good football team. I didn't think we'd be great, but I thought we'd be pretty good. But we're not getting any better. And that's the discouraging part.”

Especially on defense. Illinois had six scoring drives of eight plays or longer. The Illini hogged the ball for 38:12, to 21:48 for PSU. Running back Mikel Leshoure ran 27 times for 119 yards, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, working the underneath stuff, was an efficient 15-for-19 through the air, for 151 yards and a score. (Scheelhaase also rushed eight times for 61 yards.)

And when the subject of line play was raised, Paterno was blunt.

“We got the crap kicked out of us,” he said. “They kicked our ears in. The linebackers acted like they never saw a pass before. Who do you blame? You've got to blame (the coaches). I'm not going to go out and start pointing fingers at kids. I don't think that's fair to them.”

But it's also true that Bradley was forced to play guys who had seen precious little action before Saturday. Freshman Khari Fortt, “an afterthought” at the beginning of the year, according to the coordinator, made his first career start, at outside linebacker. He became the first true freshman to open a game at 'backer for the Lions since Dan Connor in 2004.

In addition, Bradley said reserve end Kevion Latham “got more plays (Saturday) than he has played in a year.” DaQuan Jones, normally a tackle, saw time off the bench at end. Glenn Carson and Michael Yancich were pressed into service at linebacker, Malcolm Willis at safety.

“When you're going to be good on defense, you've got the same group of guys working to get better -- seeing the same things over and over again,” Bradley said.

Not so when you're “constantly mixing and matching,” as he said.

The newcomers, he pointed out, “haven't seen things enough times. A lot of things are new to them. You get a guy that's been in there and played a lot of football, he's seen it before. He can react to it. Sometimes (the inexperienced guys are) just worried about being lined up correctly, and going from there.”

Starting cornerback Stephon Morris agreed that the influx of backups “takes away a lot,” that the Lions are forced as a result to “stick with a basic defensive scheme.” No zone blitzing. No disguising coverages. Just pure vanilla.

But again, there are other issues.

“I thought at times we didn't fight in there,” Bradley said. “I thought we were catching (as opposed to taking on blockers and runners). When you see the pile going forward, that always bothers you from a defensive standpoint. And once again, we've just got to do a better job tackling.”

A point Morris emphasized as well.

“We've got to tackle,” he said, his voice rising. “We have to tackle. We have to strip the ball. We have to help the offense. Anything we can do to help the offense, that's what we have to do. … We've just got to do our job. We can't worry about the offense.”

As defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu said, “We can be on the field for 1,000 plays and the offense can be on the field two plays -- we've got to stop some people.”

To do that, they have to get healthier. But they also have to get better.

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