So maybe it's no surprise that the Lions' defensive backs are harboring mixed feelings as the team tries to regroup in time for its game Saturday against visiting Northwestern. Asked if it's realistic to think that the team can win its remaining eight games, sophomore cornerback Justin King was short and to the point.
It's very realistic, he said. We feel like we can beat anybody we play if we play up to our abilities. But if we don't, we could lose to a lot of teams.
The Lions gave up 69 total points in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State. That's a distressing number, but it's also deceiving. The Buckeyes and Irish combined for three defensive touchdowns in those games, and one of Notre Dame's scores was essentially a special teams touchdown as a 43-yard run on a fake punt put the Irish at Penn State's 5-yard line. Subtract those 28 points from the ledger and the Lions' defense doesn't look quite so generous.
The defense played valiantly against Ohio State, and King was one of the key factors. He intercepted Troy Smith in the first quarter and helped shut down the speedy Ginn. The Buckeyes' star junior receiver had two catches for 15 yards and wasn't able to break the game open. The Buckeyes managed only one big pass play, a fourth-quarter thunderclap on which Smith eluded defensive end Tim Shaw and bought enough time for Brian Robiskie to get open for a 37-yard touchdown catch. Aside from that play, the Buckeyes' offense was relatively quiet.
Before the season began, the secondary was one of Penn State's foremost concerns with four new starters set to debut including King and fellow sophomore Tony Davis at cornerback. The Lions' 41-17 loss to Notre Dame didn't do much to allay fears, as Brady Quinn completed 25 of 36 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns.
But Notre Dame's success was due in part to a savvy no-huddle scheme that wore down the Lions in the first half, and perhaps to a conservative approach by the Lions that some say left Quinn with too much time to throw.
The Ohio State game was a different story. Whether it put some swagger back in the Lions' step is debatable. As King noted, I always had confidence, so I'm not sure if it did too much for me in that area. But it did cheer Joe Paterno somewhat.
I think the secondary has played well against two Heisman Trophy candidates in Quinn and [Smith], the Lions' coach said. They gave up one touchdown pass on Saturday that was just a super play by Smith. They tackle well and haven't given up a lot of big runs. Overall, they have done a good job.
On Saturday, the Lions will face a more vulnerable opponent than either Ohio State or Notre Dame. Northwestern still runs its familiar spread offense, but some of the key components are new. The biggest difference is at quarterback, where Mike Kafka has replaced the graduated Brett Basanez. A redshirt freshman with only one season of high school experience at the position, Kafka is one of the greenest quarterbacks in the country. He's a good runner with an erratic arm, as evidenced by his five interceptions (against just one touchdown pass).
Making matters worse, as of Thursday Kafaka's availability for this game was in doubt due to a hamstring injury. Redshirt freshman Andrew Brewer has taken the majority of first-team practice snaps this week and Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald said he will not announce the starter until game day.
Even though sophomore tailback Tyrell Sutton is a formidable challenge — he ran for 112 yards and two scores vs. PSU in Evanston last season — the Wildcats must field a robust passing game in order to spread defenses thin and open up running lanes. That means Kafka or Brewer will look to attack King and Davis.
The strength of their offense is the pass, even though they have a great tailback, King said. The pass opens up the run. It's going to be an exciting game. They do a lot of things we haven't seen so far, but we're going to be ready.