They look like they execute better than last year, Connor said Wednesday morning. Everyone's a year older. Troy Smith's got that extra year, Teddy Ginn and everyone else, they're a year older, a year more mature. They look explosive. They look like they can make plays everywhere in the running game and the passing game. They look more experienced and more precise.
That's bad news for Penn State, which on Saturday will try to win at Ohio Stadium for the first time in seven tries since joining the Big Ten.
A year ago, the Nittany Lions shut down Smith and company in a 17-10 victory at Beaver Stadium. Penn State turned the game over to its defense after building a 14-3 lead in the second quarter and was rewarded with one of its biggest victories in recent years.
That game showcased Penn State's rugged linebacker corps. Paul Posluszny made 14 tackles while Connor added 12. They rose to national stardom, an ascent that climaxed with Posluszny winning the Butkus Award following the regular season.
Things are different this fall. Connor is the only one of Penn State's three starting linebackers who is still at the same position he played a year ago. Tim Shaw has been moved to defensive end, while Posluszny has gone from outside to inside linebacker, where he holds down Shaw's former spot. Sophomore Sean Lee has filled in for Posluszny outside.
Those shifts have forced Shaw and Posluszny to make some difficult adjustments.
Shaw, who stands 6-foot-1, 237 pounds, will likely cross paths with Ohio State tackles Alex Boone and Kirk Barton on Saturday. Boone weighs 325 pounds; Barton is listed at 310. Because of the substantial size differential, Shaw has been poring over game tapes in hopes of finding a way past them that doesn't require brute force.
You've got to find out what their weaknesses are, he said. You look at guys who are that big and maybe they have slow feet, maybe they don't move as well. You can't let them lean on you and then shove you around. For me it's just a matter of watching more film and seeing what I can do against their size.
Meanwhile, Posluszny is still adapting to his move inside. He routinely encounters centers and guards in his new role and is not in a position to swoop down on ball carriers the way he did in his first three seasons.
Blockers seem to be all around you now - the center and both guards, he explained. When you're on the outside, it's almost like you only have to work against half of the offensive line. So it's definitely something to get accustomed to. It's a little bit different than being on the outside. With the way our defense is set up, a lot of the running plays will get pushed to our outside linebackers, who are going to make a lot of big plays. You've got guys like Dan Connor and Sean Lee playing those spots. Those guys are going to have great years. Sometimes the ball gets pushed outside to those guys, and by the time the middle linebacker gets there, they've already made the play.
The Lions are hoping their defense works as designed against Ohio State. But it won't be easy keeping the Buckeyes under wraps. They have been ruthlessly efficient in just about every department through three games. And Smith, a Heisman Trophy candidate, has been particularly impressive.
Pigeonholed as a scrambler early in his career, Ohio State's senior quarterback has evolved into an accomplished passer as well. He comes into the game having completed a shade under 70 percent of his passes this season and is averaging 256.3 passing yards a game, second-best in the Big Ten.
And while the passing game appears to pose the biggest threat, the Nittany Lions can't afford to overlook Ohio State's running game. Antonio Pittman averages 113.3 yards a game rushing, fourth-best in the conference.
They definitely are a lot better on offense this year, Shaw said. It's another level, and we have to be that much more ready.
The Nittany Lions view their game against Ohio State as an opportunity to show the country they are better than they looked in a 41-17 loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago. The defense couldn't get off the field in the first half of that game and failed to come up with any turnovers despite a couple of errant throws by Brady Quinn in the first quarter.
Players insist they've been making progress since falling hard in South Bend. How much progress? The answer to that question won't be readily apparent until Saturday evening.
Hopefully, we are where we think we are, Shaw said. It's going to show the country a lot about where we are as a defense.