Defense Looks to Rebound vs. UVA

The Nittany Lions have had trouble stopping anyone from moving the ball since late last season. They hope that changes soon.

The season-opening collapse against Ohio is behind Penn State now. Meetings have been held. Film has been watched. Pep talks have been given.

And now, defensive tackle Jordan Hill said Tuesday morning, “We don't want Ohio to beat us two times in a row by basically coming out and laying an egg this week (at Virginia).”

But there is the gnawing thought that the Nittany Lions' defense is not the strength it was thought to be, after a game in which the Lions allowed the Bobcats to reel off 21 unanswered points in the second half, en route to a 24-14 victory.

And pile up 301 of their 499 yards after intermission. And convert 11 of 12 third downs (13 of 21 in all).

Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton was 16 of 19 in the second half, 31 of 41 in all, for 324 yards and two touchdowns.

Running back Beau Blankenship rushed for 71 of his 109 yards following the break.

All of which might be dismissed as an anomaly, except for the fact that the Lions have allowed their last three opponents -- Wisconsin and Houston at the end of last season (the latter in the Bowl), and Ohio now -- to generate 99 points and 1,549 yards between them.

The Houston and Ohio games would appear especially analogous, since both offenses went with no-huddle offenses that relied on quick passes, off three-step drops. And the Lions, as a result, were unable to apply any pressure -- they had one sack Saturday, for a single yard -- leaving their secondary (all new this year) vulnerable.

Coach Bill O'Brien said during his weekly news conference Tuesday that he didn't believe that his team was physically or emotionally spent in Saturday's second half, despite the Bobcats' brisk pace. But Hill said during a conference call with reporters that he was “definitely tired” -- so much so that he went to bed around 10 p.m. Saturday. And safety Malcolm Willis said it was a matter of the Lions “not being able to sustain our emotions.”

“It was a very emotional day for everybody,” Willis said. “We came out very high. We just have to learn how to sustain that. … We have to come out and play four quarters every weekend. That's really going to be the main emphasis this week: We have to play a full game and (not) take any plays off, and be able to make plays when the opportunity presents itself.”

Hill agreed that the team was “more mentally than physically” fatigued, that mentally the Lions “just lost it a little bit” as the game progressed.

They seemed to sag after a would-be interception by safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong early in the third quarter caromed instead to Ohio wideout Landon Smith for a 43-yard touchdown, the Bobcats' first TD of the day. (And a correction here: While it appeared on FOS photos that Willis touched the ball on that play, he said Tuesday he did not.)

But Willis insisted that was not the turning point.

“As I said after the game, that one play doesn't play out the whole game,” he said. “It's multiple plays that happened, that had an effect on the outcome of the game.”

That's probably true. One third-down conversion after another is bound to wear away at a team's will. But back to the larger point for a moment, the one about the continued poor play of the defense -- especially against quarterbacks who favor the three-step drop.

When they do that it's “almost impossible” to get sacks, according to Hill -- something he also said after the loss to Houston. Rather, he said, “You have to stop your rush and get your hands up and try to bat down balls.”

“We just have to play better coverage,” Willis said. “It all works hand in hand. If we're getting a lot of three-step drops, the defensive backs … (and) the linebackers have to play tighter coverage and force the quarterback to hold the ball a split-second more to allow our front four to get to him.”

Willis said the Lions have discussed the nickel defense, but have not so much as practiced it. O'Brien said that's because the coaching staff trusts the coverage abilities of outside linebackers Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges.

Now the Lions, 10-point underdogs Saturday, face a Virginia team quarterbacked by junior Michael Rocco, who has deep PSU ties. His dad, Frank Jr., was a backup QB on the Lions' 1982 national championship team, and his grandfather, Frank Sr., was an administrative assistant and an assistant coach under the late Joe Paterno. Two uncles also played for the Lions.

Michael Rocco, a native of Lynchburg, Va., considered Penn State after reneging on a commitment to Louisville when there was a coaching change. But because of the Lions' recruitment of Rob Bolden and Paul Jones, he opted for Virginia instead.

A season-long starter in 2011, Rocco completed 60.7 percent of his passes, for 2,671 yards and 13 TDs. He was intercepted 12 times. He threw for 311 yards, one shy of his career high, in a season-opening 43-19 rout of Richmond.

The Cavs also rotate three running backs. The best of them is senior Perry Jones, who rushed for 915 yards last year. He had 14 carries for 52 yards and a TD against the Spiders. Sophomores Khalek Shepherd (10-52) and Kevin Parks (14-49) are also in the mix.

All three stand 5-8, and weigh between 185 and 200 pounds. They operate behind a line that averages 300 pounds.

The fact that the game is on the road adds, perhaps, another dimension. It is the first time the Lions will be away since the Jerry Sandusky verdict and the NCAA sanctions were handed down. That might lead to some ugliness, though Willis is operating under the assumption that it will be “just like any other road game.”

And Hill didn't seem to harbor any trepidation.

“We've been up here since August,” he said. “I don't think anything that happened plays a role, but we've been up here for camp and things like that. It will be cool just to get off campus for a little bit, a weekend.”

O'Brien told his players in a team meeting to look forward, not backward. Mauti and fellow senior Michael Zordich addressed the squad Monday, and encouraged everyone to remain united.

“We're tough-minded,” Willis said, “and we stick together, no matter what. … There's an even bigger target on our back, and we just have to stand in the face of adversity and face it.”

Still, there are some serious questions facing the defense -- long-standing questions that would not appear to have easy solutions.

“That's big for our defense in general, just to go out and get a couple stops,” Hill said. “When we go out and get a couple stops, that's a lot of confidence, not only for the defense, but your offense, too. That will help throughout the whole game, if we keep that up.”

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