Penn State Defense is on the Case

As the TicketCity Bowl nears, the Nittany Lions are trying to find a way to slow down Houston's record-setting quarterback.

Penn State will face the most prolific, fast-paced offense it has seen all season in the TicketCity Bowl Monday. No. 16 Houston leads the country in most major offensive categories and averages 599 yards per game.

So what does Penn State's defense, a top-10 unit in its own right, have to do to stop such a force?

“We gotta line up,” co-defensive coordinator Larry Johnson said Friday at Penn State's practice at Bishop Lynch High in Dallas. “That's the most important thing. We gotta line up and play fast and hope to get an incomplete pass. We'll substitute guys in to give them a break. It's going to be interesting because they get the ball out real quick.”

FBS passing record-slasher Case Keenum isn't a mobile quarterback like Dan Persa or Russell Wilson or other guys Penn State has seen in the Big Ten, but rather sits comfortably in the pocket and picks defenses apart.

Keenum is smart and has a quick release that makes him difficult to sack. Johnson will rotate his players to keep them fresh in order to keep constant pressure on the quarterback. However, Houston's hurry-up style makes it difficult for defenses to make substitutions.

“We have to get his eyes on us and take his eyes off downfield,” Johnson said.

Johnson said this week in practice the offensive scout team has featured two complete units. They will quickly rotate to simulate Houston's hurry-up offense.

“You can't simulate [Keenum], but you can make it faster and that's what we're trying to do,” he said.

Before the Cougars fell to Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship (their first loss of the year), Keenum had a touchdown to turnover ratio of 43/3. It currently stands at 45/4.

Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar, a guy who likes to cover the pass, is anxious for this matchup.

“I mean it's exciting to show off my pass coverage skills,” he said. “Maybe get a couple interceptions.

“We just need to make plays,” he added. “We've been watching film and getting our assignments down and we just need to play football out there and really make plays in open space because they run a lot of plays. The key is to make a lot of tackles and not miss them so they can't get extra yards.”

Keenum is the heart of the Cougars' offense and has outside weapons in triple threat Tyron Carrier, Justin Johnson and Patrick Edwards. But UH can run the ball, too, if the pass isn't on. Running backs Michael Hayes and Charles Sims are a fast tandem in the backfield.

“They're very versatile,” co-defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden said. “They make a lot of big plays. To slow down the pass rush, they have every screen you could imagine, so you can't just pin your ears back and go get them. You gotta defend everything. Then they mix the running game in there to keep you honest.”

Johnson said players like Devon Still, Jordan Hill, DaQuan Jones and James Terry will be crucial in bringing pressure on Keenum from the inside, and mobile linebackers such as Gerald Hodges and Stupar will be counted on to drop into coverage and blitz on occasion.

Still did not practice Thursday due to turf toe. He is expected to play Monday, though.

Besides that, Vanderlinden said that everyone, at least on the defensive side, should be healthy and ready to play.

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