Shouldering the Load

Penn State strong safety Astorino emerges as a leader in the secondary this season despite playing hurt.

Drew Astorino is still feeling the effects of a stinger he suffered in preseason practice. The left shoulder injury hasn't kept Penn State's sophomore strong safety out of action, but he appeared to be heavily taped in last week's game at Northwestern.

Although he doesn't know exactly what's wrong with his shoulder, Astorino downplayed the injury's significance, saying that he rehabs during the week and generally feels fine on game day, although he admitted that the shoulder sometimes becomes sore.

“It's something that I can play with,” he said. “It's not really a big deal.”

Part of a major off-season overhaul of Penn State's secondary, Astorino ranks fourth on the team with 41 tackles in his first season as starting strong safety. He also has an interception and two fumble recoveries.

Astorino played free safety last year, serving primarily as Anthony Scirrotto's backup. When all four starting defensive backs departed in the off-season, the coaching staff decided to try untested sophomore Nick Sukay at free safety and move the 5-foot-10, 194-pound Astorino closer to the line of scrimmage.

“I think our football team is better with him at strong safety, because we can get him involved in more things than we can at free safety,” Joe Paterno said. “Sukay had not played a lot and was an unknown factor, and we didn't know if we had a free safety. So I think that Astorino, in the position we have him in, can be involved in more plays and have more leadership impact. I think that's worked out pretty good.”

The Lions are ranked first in the Big Ten against the pass, with 10 interceptions and only three touchdown passes allowed, so yeah, so far so good. However, Northwestern's Mike Kafka was picking Penn State's defense apart, with 14 completions in 18 attempts last week, before suffering a hamstring injury that forced him out of the game and likely cost the Wildcats a chance at an upset.

Ohio State sophomore Terrelle Pryor doesn't attempt as many passes -- or complete as many -- as Kafka. In fact, his 54.6 percent completion rate is the lowest of the league's top 10 passers. But he's probably the most versatile quarterback the Lions will face in the regular season, and while he's taken some heat in Columbus for not developing as quickly as some would like, the Buckeyes are the second-highest-scoring team in the Big Ten at 31 points per game.

Astorino said Pryor's run-pass threat makes Ohio State a big challenge to stop. “Once [he] gets into the second level, he's like a big, big running back. He can run really well, and he can throw the deep ball really well,” Astorino said. “It's tough to decide when to try to go up and tackle him and when to stay back in coverage.”

The last time the Buckeyes played on the road, they looked strangely unprepared, falling to Purdue, 26-18. Pryor had a disappointing day, completing 17 of 31 passes for 221 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, and rushing for only 34 yards on 21 carries. But he's been sharper in the two games since then, and the Lions are bracing for Ohio State's best effort Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

“They're a really good team,” Astorino said. “Our defense is going to have to play a good game, our offense is going to have to put some points on the board, and we're going to have to play a really good game to beat them.”

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