Running Debate: Is Speed an Issue for Lions?

Penn State players are out to prove that the conventional wisdom on their bowl matchup — which has them struggling to keep pace with athletic SEC opponent Tennessee — is wrong. Defensively, at least, they appear to have a point. This story includes a FREE FOS TV clip of Paul Posluszny.

The stereotypes are as old as the conferences themselves. Namely, the Southeastern Conference is about speed and finesse; the Big Ten is about brute strength and size.

And true to form, many are painting Penn State's Jan. 1 Outback Bowl matchup with Tennessee in Tampa as an old fashioned clash of Northern muscle vs. Southern sizzle. FoxSports.com says, “Penn State's defense, and the running of Tony Hunt, could be enough to battle the overall athleticism of the resurgent Vols.”

The Nittany Lion players, however, are taken aback by such talk, especially the defenders.

“I just think that's the old-school way of looking at things,” All-America linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “Both conferences obviously have good athleticism.”

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge is on record as saying the Penn State defense is “not as athletic, positions one through 11, as some teams we've faced this year in the SEC.”

Yet the Nittany Lions fielded one of the best — by November perhaps THE best — defenses in the Big Ten during the regular season.

The Penn State defense, despite being counterbalanced by a struggling offense, held three teams now in the top eight of the BCS standings (No. 1 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 7 Wisconsin) each to two touchdowns or less. It allowed a meager 14.8 points per game in the regular season despite facing four top 11 BCS programs.

In fact, PSU ranks 11th in the nation in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, and 16th in total defense.

And that certainly was not a function of the group's collective size. The starting defensive line, with 237-pound converted linebacker Tim Shaw at one end, averages less than 270 per man. The linebacker corps, featuring Posluszny, Sean Lee and Dan Connor, checks in at less than 230 per man.

Everything the front seven did during the regular season was predicated on pressing a speed advantage against opponents. Penn State gave up 10 passing TDs on the year. Three of those came in week 2 at Notre Dame, when Posluszny was struggling with a knee brace and a move from outside linebacker to inside 'backer, and Shaw was getting used to playing on the edge.

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Once they settled in, they used their quickness to confuse opposing offensive lines. In the final 10 games of the regular season, PSU gave up six passing TDs while registering 30 sacks. The Lions now have more sacks (38) than any league team other than Michigan (42). Only seven teams in the nation have more sacks that PSU, and only one of them — LSU — resides in the SEC.

The most receiving yards by a single player in a game against Penn State in the regular season? It was not Jeff Samardzija or Rhema McKnight or Ted Ginn Jr. or Anthony Gonzalez or Steve Breaston or Dorien Bryant; but rather Minnesota tight end Matt Spaeth, who had 99 yards.

The Lions did not surrender a pass play longer than 42, and that was to another Gopher, wideout Logan Payne, who took advantage of a broken coverage to turn a short throw into a big gain before being tracked down from behind — by Posluszny.

If anything, State's lack of size was a liability against the run. Penn State allowed 100 yards on the ground to five opponents and lost four of those games. The only Lion win in that group was against Illinois, which powered its way for 202 rushing yards in a losing effort. Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall broke a 79-yard run in that game, but failed to score when cornerback Justin King made up a 10-yard disadvantage to drop him from behind.

The Nittany Lion defense gave up one scoring play of more than 30 yards on the year; that was the amazing 37-yard scramble and throw from Ohio State Heisman winner Troy Smith to Brian Robiskie.

The average passing TD against the PSU defense covered 20 yards. The average rushing TD covered 3.43 yards. The average TD overall against the defense covered 13.2 yards.

Simply put, big plays did not consistently hurt the Lions because they moved well enough to prevent them.

So while the speed vs. power portrayal of the Outback Bowl may be a convenient one, it is not necessarily accurate; especially when comparing the Volunteer offense to the Nittany Lion defense.

In fact, a Tennessee offensive front that averages 6-foot-4, 309 pounds per man figures to present a greater challenge for Penn State. So, too, does a tight end, Brad Cottam, who goes 6-8, 260.

The beauty of the speed debate is that Penn State will have every opportunity to prove itself in that regard come Jan. 1. The Nittany Lions, especially those on defense, view it as a challenge.

“A lot of teams think the Big Ten is slow,” Lee said. “We want to come out and show we're as fast as anyone in the SEC.”

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