The Penn State football team is 4-2 and in its second bye of the 2014 season. With 12 games on the slate (not including a now-possible bowl), by our math that would put James Franklin's team at the midway point of the campaign.
Which makes it the perfect time for our midterm grades. We'll handle this in Take Your Marks format, meaning FOS staffers Mark Brennan and Mark Harrington will handle the analysis and both will supply a grade for each area.
Our overall grade will be the average of the two (rounding up when that average falls between grades, because we are nice guys). We'll continue with the Nittany Lion defense.
Brennan: This unit has been the key to Penn State leading the Big Ten in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense. It has played with an outstanding balance of aggression (PSU has 16 sacks) and discipline (guys staying in their gaps and preventing long runs). Three-technique DT Anthony Zettel has come to personify the aggressive end of things, with seven tackles for loss, three sacks, three batted passes, a fumble recovery and an interception. (By the way, is anyone else wondering why the previous staff didn't give Zettel more action, either at DE or DT?) Fellow DT Austin Johnson has come to personify the discipline, clogging things up from the one technique and allowing State's athletic linebackers to make plays. DE Deion Barnes is enjoying a bounce-back year and fellow DE C.J. Olaniyan has continued his solid play from 2013. A pleasant surprise here has been the depth, led by redshirt freshman DT Parker Cothren, especially considering this unit lost two men from last year's depth chart to the offensive line. If there is an unsung hero on this staff, it is DL coach Sean Spencer. He had some big shoes to fill and has done so admirably. The only thing preventing an A grade from me is the fact that we have not seen this line excel against a top-quality opponent. It'll get that chance this week.
Brennan Grade: B+
Harrington: Certainly the central strength of the defense, the line has arguably not missed a beat transitioning from Larry Johnson to Spencer. At the heart of the unit is Zettel, who has been incredible off the snap and demands double teams regularly. It is amazing that he was basically on the shelf under Johnson given the way he has performed this season. Austin Jonson is a great supplement inside to Zettel; they work well together and coordinate their roles well. Barnes has made a pleasant reemergence and Olaniyan has been a consistent force. In fact, Penn State's defensive front is the backbone of the best rushing defense in the nation, allowing just 2.01 yards per attempt. Coach Chaos (Spencer) has been impressive in his ability to step in and not miss a beat from where PSU's defensive fronts have performed in recent years. Toss in the fact that the depth with emergence of Cothren is strong despite depleted forces and the unit looks even more impressive.
Harrington Grade: A-
FOS Grade: A-
Brennan: There were some concerns about this reshuffled unit heading into the season, but it has been much better than most of us expected. That's due primarily to the smooth transition of senior Mike Hull from OLB to MLB, where, as defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has said, he is playing as well as any 'backer in the nation. Hull was hobbled with a bad knee for most of 2013, but now that he is back at full speed -- and speed is the operative word there -- he's been terrific. As of this writing he ranked second in the Big Ten in tackles (nearly 11 per game), which is amazing considering PSU opponents are averaging only 63 offensive snaps. With emerging Nyeem Wartman (will) and Brandon Bell (sam), the Lions' starting unit is legit. The primary concern is depth. With Wartman out vs. Northwestern, the staff tried walk-on Von Walker, who struggled, before taking rookie Jason Cabinda out of a redshirt. Cabinda was fine against the run but had issues in coverage. Shoop has also been creative here, playing a DB at the sam in obvious passing situations.
Brennan Grade: B+
Harrington: The linebackers were among the biggest concerns for Nittany Nation fans heading into the season. While depth remains a significant concern, Hull has been the stalwart of Penn State's signature unit. Hull has been a force, both leading by example on the field and off the field as an emerged vocal commander. Bell and Wartman have rounded out the unit well, but as you pointed out, Mark, the coaches don't have a ton of options beyond them at this point, which is concerning.
Harrington Grade: B+
FOS Grade: B+
Brennan: The bottom line here is that Penn State surrendered only three passing touchdowns in its first six games. Overall, this group has been solid. The starters have defended a total of 16 passes and made 75 tackles. But something has been missing. Outside of spearheading a five-interception effort against Rutgers, this veteran unit has not been as good as it should be at generating turnovers. That was never more evident than in the Michigan game, when senior S Ryan Keiser had a pick all lined up, only to see Wolverine WR Devin Funchess swoop in and steal it for a score when Keiser didn't high-point the ball. And even when the DBs are intercepting passes (they have five of the team's seven picks), they have only returned them for a total of five yards. I know there is an element of nitpicking here. But again, the starters are veterans, and in Shoop's aggressive scheme they should be making more plays. Individually, CB Trevor Williams had a tough opener vs. UCF, but rebounded nicely and had been consistent since. Fellow CB Jordan Lucas can look like a star on one play but then get out of position when he freelances on the next. Expect Keiser to learn from his mistake vs. U-M, and be more aggressive down the stretch. Finally, S Adrian Amos kind of personifies this group. He has been good, but the wow factor many expected out of him just has not been there. Also, a tip of the cap to the staff for working a host of young DBs into the rotation here. We saw very little of that in the past.
Brennan Grade: B-
Harrington: While Lucas and Williams can have streaks of brilliance, each has shown issues with their consistency. At safety Keiser and Amos have been reliable, but also had their own set of issues. My biggest concern with the unit though is the scheme, allowing huge gaps in the middle of the field for receivers to run wild across. For an aggressive scheme, it seems to go old school cushion soft at times, which has allowed some big third-and-long situations to be converted at key points in games. In terms of that Michigan touchdown, Keiser's lapse was dropping his hands low to grab the pass with Funchess on his hip rather than jumping up to just knock the ball down. There are these sorts of issues across the unit's play, but they do seem to be improving steadily. The gaps have to be closed up though or teams will have a field day in the second half of the season.
Harrington Grade: C+
FOS Grade: B-
Brennan: Shoop has been the coaching MVP for Penn State this season. The defense is much more experienced than the offense, and he is taking advantage of that quality to the fullest. The schemes have been creative, aggressive and multiple. As much blitzing as PSU has done, opposing offenses really have not burned the Lions for many big plays. If the defense can start generating more turnovers, it can even further offset the struggles of the very young offense.
Brennan Grade: B+
Harrington: Based on where the defense was overall under Bill O'Brien, I'm overall impressed with where it has come under Shoop and his staff. The gaps in the secondary and lack of turnovers are points to focus on, but overall it's hard to argue that Penn State is not in a better defensive situation overall than it was a season ago.
Harrington Grade: B+
FOS Grade: B+
See what Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith did Saturday morning.