It wasn't as if the defense had been giving up a ton of yards or big plays. The Nittany Lions held South Florida to 13 points and Cincinnati to 24 (14 of which were meaningless and came in the last minute of the game), but they just weren't making the big tackles in the backfield.
Any talk of sloppy tackling, however, was crushed like an ant beneath a Nike Saturday, as the Penn State defense accounted for eight sacks along with eight other tackles for loss while holding Central Michigan, a team that was averaging 190 yards rushing per game going in, to a dismal 14 net rushing yards.
There was reason to be worried about poor tackling against the Chippewas, whose slippery quarterback Kent Smith accounted for 478 yards of total offense in CMU's win over Miami (Ohio) the previous Saturday.
We got our composure back because last week we missed a lot of tackles, said senior defensive tackle Jason Alford. This week we got them all.
We did a couple more drills during practice this week, just tackling, added DT Scott Paxson. I felt like we improved in that aspect.
At the heart of the defense's play Saturday was the defensive line, which accounted for five sacks and nine tackles for loss. Tamba Hali, a senior defensive end, had 2.5 sacks on his own.
Tamba Hali does not get enough credit, said coach Joe Paterno. We've had some great defensive ends here, and he ranks right up there with Courtney Brown and the rest of them.
While that was a very bold statement from Paterno, Hali certainly deserved high praise after his performance Saturday.
The dude's motor is just unreal, said Paxson of Hali. I mean he raises the bar.
Along with Hali's performance, the other three-fourths of the defensive line also played well. Seniors Matthew Rice and Alford had one sack each, and Paxson added a half of a sack.
Those guys are just so gifted and talented, said linebacker Tim Shaw, referring to the play of the front four. They were just toying with that offensive line today, just beating guys, getting to the quarterback, causing problems all day. They were animals.
The defensive line and the secondary work hand in hand, added senior cornerback Alan Zemaitis. If we cover, they sack, if they put some pressure, we pick it.
Those guys did a great job today, said linebacker Paul Posluszny. Scott Paxson, Tamba Hali: They played unbelievable. They're the reason that we were able to play so well defensively and I think that their play will determine how we play defensively this year. When they're playing well we're going to be a great defense.
While the defense has played well in the first several weeks of the season, questions still abound as the team enters its Big Ten schedule next weekend at Northwestern. The conference slate will be a much tougher test than the first three games of the season, but Paterno seems pretty happy with the play of his defense.
We've got a good, solid defensive football team, said the coach. If we're not where we ought to be, we're close.
While the Nittany Lion defense did hold Central Michigan to three points, as usual the players weren't exactly satisfied with their play.
We played good, but there was another level we could have played at, said Paxson.