For Penn State, Defense Can’t Rest

Nittany Lion defenders know they must continue to play well — and perhaps even do more — for the team to have a chance of knocking off No. 13 Ohio State Saturday night.

James Franklin On Creating Turnovers

Turns out that Penn State middle linebacker Mike Hull, acclaimed all season for his play, has another admirable attribute: candor.

Asked on a conference call with reporters Tuesday if he and his fellow defenders ever grow frustrated with having to shoulder the load for the Nittany Lions' struggling offense, he first emphasized that everyone is “in this together, offense and defense.”

But he also said this: “Yeah, you get frustrated whenever that kind of stuff happens, at points. Anybody would. But at the same time I personally like the challenge, and I think the other guys on the defense like the challenge as well, and it makes us step up our games and play at a higher level. That's kind of one of the driving forces behind our defense, I think.”

To date Hull and Co., who lead the Big Ten in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense, have met the challenge. But the workload figures only to increase Saturday night, when No. 13 Ohio State visits Beaver Stadium.

The Buckeyes (5-1) are averaging 46.5 points and 533.8 yards -- numbers that are fourth and ninth, respectively, in major college football -- and have piled up 224 points while winning four straight since an upset loss to Virginia Tech the second week of the season.

The triggerman has been redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, who at the season's outset replaced an injured Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Barrett stumbled against the Hokies (9-for-29, three interceptions) but has been rolling ever since, with 11 touchdown passes and no picks in his last three games, and a 17-to-1 ratio over the last four.

Barrett, atop the conference in passing efficiency and total offense, went 19-for-31 for 261 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 56-17 rout of Rutgers, and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week and Freshman of the Week.

In all the 6-1, 225-pound Barrett has completed 65.2 percent of his passes, for 1,615 yards and 20 TDs, with five picks. He has also run for 383 yards on 78 attempts (4.9 a carry).

He is, in other words, “the whole package,” as Hull said.

“I think he's gotten so much better in the last four or five games for Ohio State,” Hull added. “He doesn't turn the ball over. He makes smart throws. He's a great runner. … We're really going to have to make it a point of emphasis to stop him.”

The problem, said safety Ryan Keiser, is this: “They've got a lot of guys that can hurt you.”

Guys like running backs Ezekiel Elliott (630 yards, 4.7 ypc) and Curtis Samuel (251, 7.0). Like receivers Michael Thomas (21-377, 5 TDs), Dontre Wilson (14-221-1) and Devin Smith (12-355-5). (Elliott also has 14 catches.)

The Lions, 4-2 and riding a two-game losing streak as they emerge from their second bye week, cannot reasonably be expected to outscore OSU. Not with an offense that is averaging 21.2 points, 375.5 yards and 93.2 rushing yards a game -- leaving them with respective rankings of 108th, 88th and 118th among the nation's 125 major-college teams.

Their best (and perhaps only) chance would be to slow the Buckeyes down. To date PSU has allowed, on average, 60.8 rushing yards, 283.3 total yards and 15.2 points a game -- first, sixth and sixth in the country in those respective categories.

“We’re going to have to have a great effort, but I think we’re going to be up for the challenge, and we’re going to do everything in our power to hold them in check.”

But this is “definitely” the best offense they have faced so far, in Hull's estimation. The backs are not only big but have “a little bit of shake to them,” he said. They “break a lot of tackles and make a lot of people miss,” coach James Franklin noted, as do the receivers.

“We're going to have to have a great effort,” Hull said, “but I think we're going to be up for the challenge, and we're going to do everything in our power to hold them in check.”

A big point of emphasis is forcing more turnovers. The Lions have harvested just nine so far -- two fumble recoveries and seven interceptions -- while coughing it up 10 times, a minus-1 ratio. That shortcoming was particularly notable in the 18-13 loss at Michigan on Oct. 11, a game in which Hull and Keiser each had a shot at an interception, but failed to come up with the ball.

The play involving Keiser was particularly notable, as he was unable to highpoint a poor throw by Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner down the middle of the field in the first quarter, and saw wide receiver Devin Funchess snag the ball instead. Funchess then continued to the end zone for Michigan's only touchdown.

Making a play on the ball, Keiser said, is “something we've noticed that we haven't been doing like we need to, myself included. … That's something that has been our focus throughout the season, but it's something that we need to improve as we go on.”

But in general it is difficult to find fault with the defense.

“I think,” Hull said, “it's kind of returned to where Penn State's defense should be, and what my perception of a Penn State defense is.”

That's because they have stopped the run, he said, and consistently fulfilled their assignments -- two things they aim to do this week, while taking full advantage of some peripheral issues.

First, there is the fact that Ohio State hung a 63-14 loss on the Lions last year in Columbus -- that they were “just basically embarrassed,” as Hull said.

“We got it handed to us on national TV,” he added, “and that wasn't the Penn State team that I knew we were. I knew we were better than that, so it hurts when you have a performance like that. But we're going to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn't happen this year, and that we're prepared for them and we come out with some juice.”

Added Keiser, “It's obviously disappointing to go in there and lose like we did. It's a new season, new year. I know we both have different teams. We're ready to go out there and compete, and give it our best on Saturday.”

Then there is the fact that this game figures to be Penn State's first home sellout of the season, and its only White Out. And the Buckeyes will be playing only their second true road game.

“I do think coming on the road in this type of environment is going to be difficult for them,” Franklin said.

Or so he hopes. Just as everyone hopes the defense can continue to hold the fort.

“We're a team,” Keiser said. “When one of us struggles, we pick each other up, so when we struggle the offense has got to pick us up, as we've seen in the past. We're a team. We're going to embrace the challenge, like Mike said, and we're going to give it our best effort -- control what we can control. The offense, we have complete faith and trust in them.”

That is not an opinion that is widely held outside the locker room. For the Lions to compete -- this week above all others -- the defense cannot afford to rest.

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