Mark Brennan: Penn State has had some outstanding defensive tackles the past six or so years. But we've not seen this good a starting tandem since Jimmy Kennedy and Anthony Adams nearly a decade ago. Devon Still and Jordan Hill are dominating the trenches and making plays. Meanwhile, the defensive ends have largely avoided the injury bug that was such a problem in 2010 (save losing Pete Massaro last spring). Sean Stanley is making things happen off the edge and Jack Crawford is rounding back into the form he showed in 2009. Depth is solid here, too. My one beef is that the ends have combined for only five sacks so far this year.
Mark Harrington: The interior of the line has been more than dependable if not dominating at times with Still/Hill. They have been a formidable duo and have provided opportunity for the ends. Unfortunately, senior ends Crawford and Eric Latimore have been sporadic and not been able to consistently take advantage of the leverage the tackles have given them. Sean Stanley has been a plus. Massaro continues to be missed.
Mark Harrington: Losing Michael Mauti to an ACL injury was huge, although his leadership is still a valuable contributing asset to the unit. Overall, I think Gerald Hodges, Glenn Carson and Nate Stupar -- along with Khairi Fortt -- have been a formidable group, particularly when the staff has let them loose with some blitz packages. Big plays by the 'backers were key in the Temple and Iowa wins, in particular.
Mark Brennan: It was too bad Mauti went down with another ACL injury. The good news is the Lions went at least seven deep at linebacker before that happened, and, with Stupar stepping in, this crew has not missed a beat. If anything, Hodges and Carson have elevated their games. The only thing preventing an A here is the lack of turnovers caused by the 'backers (two). In closing, we'll say this one last time and then let it go: What was the staff thinking by leaning so heavily on overmatched veterans in 2010?
Mark Brennan: Penn State ranks fifth in the nation in passing defense and fourth in pass efficiency defense. Granted, strong defensive line play has made life easier for the secondary. But the DBs are stepping up, too. They already have seven interceptions as a group (they had a total of nine in 13 games last season). We can nitpick some dicey tackling at times, but in the end the numbers speak for themselves. This unit is playing well.
Mark Harrington: The group has created some impressive turnovers, but as you alluded to the sporadic tackling and up and down play impacts my grade here. The loss of D'Anton Lynn was a blow, but freshman Adrian Amos has been a nice plus. Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino have had some oohh and ugh moments. Overall, given the veteran status of this group, I think it can play at a higher level. Chaz Powell has played well, outside of a couple of senseless personal foul penalties early on.
Mark Harrington: I give a tip of the hat to the defense. The boost of this grade goes to Tom Bradley unleashing the hounds against Iowa after seeing the Hawkeye offensive line could not handle the blitz, which forced the quarterback into some rushed decisions. The personnel and depth development have also been assets thanks to the coaching efforts.
Mark Brennan: Bradley and company have done a great job of getting the right personnel on the field and compensating for key injuries. Given how poorly the offense has played -- which at times has left the defense with no margin for error -- you have to credit the coaches on this side of the ball for pushing most of the right buttons.
Mark Brennan: With all of the positives I've mentioned, there is one area where the defense must improve as the competition is stepped up down the stretch. Through six games, Penn State ranks last in the Big Ten in red-zone defense, having allowed its opponents to score every time they've entered the red zone. Granted, foes have had only 11 chances. But they scored six touchdowns and booted five field goals. To be a great defense, this unit has to start making plays when opponents get within striking distance.
Mark Harrington: This group ranks No. 4 in the nation in total defense and has flat out kept Penn State in games and led the team to victory in some cases. If this unit doesn't play up and shut down opposing offenses there is no way Penn State is able to overcome the offensive hiccups and pull out some wins. In my book, the defense gets the bulk of the credit for wins over Temple, Indiana and Iowa.