Defense Looks to Stand Its Ground

Back on home turf, the Nittany Lions intend to build on their mixed performance vs. UCF in Dublin.

So, back to this continent. Back to the familiar.

And back to the regular game-week grind.

It’s enough to give everyone in Penn State’s traveling party whiplash, much less jet lag, for now they must turn their attention away from Saturday’s last-second 26-24 victory over UCF in Dublin, Ireland, toward this week’s home opener against Akron.

“I think a win like that definitely brings you closer together,” middle linebacker Mike Hull said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Definitely gives you a lot of momentum going into the next week.”

Cornerback Jordan Lucas did not disagree. At the same time, he said the first order of business is “just to get UCF out of our minds.”

“That game,” he added, “is over and done with.”

It was a game that left the Lions’ defense with much to build on, as well as some things to clean up. New coach James Franklin said Tuesday that liked what he saw from tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, who in his mind “have a chance to be special.” Zettel in particular was a nuisance to the Knights, making six tackles, three of them for losses, while also recording a sack and a fumble recovery.

Franklin said the linebackers have been “a pleasant surprise” to date, but the defense as a whole needs to do a better job of limiting big plays. After building a 13-3 lead midway through the third quarter Saturday, the Lions saw the Knights scored three touchdowns on their last five possessions, all on drives of 70 yards or longer.

UCF quarterback Justin Holman was the culprit, replacing an ineffective Pete DiNovo at halftime and making one big throw after another. He hit Breshard Perriman for a 50-yard gain, setting up Holman’s one-yard sneak late in the third quarter. He found Perriman for nine on a third-and-eight snap, leading to a 10-yard TD pass to Josh Reese with 11:31 left in the game. And on the Knights’ final possession Holman zipped a 37-yarder to Reese on fourth-and-10, then ran six yards for the go-ahead TD with 1:13 remaining.

Only a clutch drive on the part of PSU, one that resulted in Sam Ficken’s 36-yard field goal at the gun, rescued the Lions.

Franklin said it was hard to criticize the coverage by cornerback Trevor Williams on the fourth-down pass to Reese, who made a leaping grab. “It was a perfect throw and an unbelievable catch,” Franklin said. “They’re on scholarship, too.”

And neither Hull nor Lucas would like to believe that there are any deep-seated concerns on defense.

“I really think we played well the whole game,” said Hull, who made a team-high 11 tackles. “They just hit a few long plays that put them in good position and put us in bad position, but if you take away those … plays, I think even the second half we played really solid.”

The asterisk is that UCF’s top running back, William Stanback, and top receiver, Rannell Hall, did not play because of injuries. The other asterisk is that DiNovo posed little threat as a passer; Holman was an entirely different matter.

Lucas nonetheless believes that the secondary “did what we had to do, for the most part.”

“Plays are going to be made,” he said. “It’s our job to let that go and don’t let that bother us throughout the rest of the game. … It’s the first game. Things happen at DB. We’re only going to get better from there.”

“Plays are going to be made. It’s our job to let that go and don’t let that bother us throughout the rest of the game.”

The Lions left Dublin soon after the game, arriving in State College at 2:30 Sunday morning. They practiced late that afternoon, as Franklin has changed up the schedule so that his team practices every Sunday throughout the season. It is something the Lions have not done under previous regimes, but the new coach has decided that his players will be off Monday, not Sunday.

When he first heard of the change, Lucas said, “I was kind of thrown off because it’s like, ‘Practice on Sunday, right after a game? Are you serious?’ ”

He’s OK with it now, though, saying it is a short practice, designed to address problems that arose in the previous day’s game. He also likes that it affords everyone an opportunity to study film on Monday.

One small problem this particular week.

“My body felt like it was still in Ireland,” Lucas said, adding that no matter when he has gone to bed the last few days, he has awakened at 7 a.m.

But again, it’s time to look ahead. And Franklin would like to see more out of his guys in the days leading up to a game, regardless of the day or the circumstances.

“We’ve got to learn how to practice more consistently,” he said. “The more consistent we are in practice, the more consistent we’ll be in games.”

Akron is coming off a 41-0 defeat of Howard, an FCS opponent, in its opener, a game assessed this way by coach Terry Bowden during a conference call Monday: “There are games you are supposed to win, and that’s a game we are supposed to win. And we won it.”

Quarterback Kyle Pohl, a returning starter, went 22-for-35 for 304 yards and a career-high four touchdowns, with three of those TDs coming before the game was 10 minutes old. Hull said he expects the Zips to attack the Lions on the perimeter with quick throws and screens, that PSU’s defenders will have to make plays in space.

As Lucas noted, “I think the most important thing is being able to get off blocks.”

The Lions, for their part, can be counted upon to be more aggressive on defense -- that, Lucas said, is definitely the MO of Bob Shoop, the new coordinator -- and it wouldn’t hurt if they think back to two years ago, when another Mid-American Conference opponent, Ohio, upset PSU in Beaver Stadium.

“I think people realized, especially after the Ohio game and the sanctions, that no game is going to be an easy game,” Hull said. “You’ve got to fight for everything you get, and that it’s going to be a battle, every single Saturday.”

Lucas, then just a freshman, swears he doesn’t think about that game, though in his mind it shows that “anybody can be beaten.”

“That’s proven,” he added, “week in and week out, in college football. No team is invincible, so I don’t even think about things like that.”

Certainly, though, this year’s opener left the Lions with many other things to consider. Especially on defense.

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