Opponents preview: Penn State defense

Part three of BadgerNation.com's three-part look at the 2005 Nittany Lions

For the second consecutive season Penn State has the best defense in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions have a very good defensive line, an elite corps at linebacker and in the secondary. If they can develop a consistent pass rusher, the Lions will be truly dominant. The rush defense was suspect at times last year, but do not expect that to be a problem.

2004 by the numbers

Total defense: 291.6 yards allowed per game (No. 10 nationally); 300.4 yards allowed per conference game (No. 2 Big Ten)
Scoring defense: 15.3 points allowed per game (5); 15.5 (1)
Passing defense:162.3 (6); 155.2 (1)
Passing efficiency: 99.9 (4); 92.8 (1)
Rushing defense: 129.3 (34); 145.1 (6)
Touchdowns allowed:14 – 5 passing, 9 rushing ; 10 – 2 passing, 8 rushing
Third-down defense:39.0 percent on 67 of 172; 40.3 percent on 50 of 124
Turnovers gained: 24 ¬– 16 interceptions, 8 fumbles recovered (40); 18 – 13 interceptions, 5 fumbles (2)
Net punting: 36.7 (44); 38.3 (3)
Kick coverage: 20.9 (70); 24.1 (10)
Punt coverage: 12.6 (99)

Defensive line analysis

The fact that this is the weakest aspect of Penn State's defense speaks volumes for just how good the Nittany Lions' defense is this year. The Lions' front four is one of the best in the Big Ten. It is just that their linebackers and defensive backs are among the best in the country.

Penn State struggled at times against the rush last season, allowing 288 yards to Minnesota and 186 to Northwestern, for instance. But those teams almost always have success running the ball. Furthermore, part of the reason PSU finished sixth in the conference in rush defense was because teams had such a miserable time throwing the ball against them. Allowing 3.9 yards per carry in all games is nothing to be sorry about.

However, the Nittany Lions could be more physical up front and could use a consistent pass rusher. If those wishes come true for PSU, this will be a lights out dominant defense, even better than Wisconsin's was for the first nine games of last season.

All four starters return to the front line, though senior defensive tackle Scott Paxson (6-foot-5, 284 pounds) must work his way back into the lineup after serving a suspension last spring. He is listed on the third team on the Lions' official media guide depth chart.

Last season, Paxson had three sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and a nation-leading five blocked kicks. He can be a disruptive force in the middle.

Junior Jay Alford (6-3, 285) returns at the other tackle spot. He had 25 tackles and one sack last year. He has started eight games in each of the past two seasons.

PSU has little experienced depth at tackle; Alford and Paxson are the only returning letter winners at the position.

Junior Steve Roach (6-2, 304) has bounced around between the offensive and defensive lines but came out of spring ball as a starting defensive tackle. Sophomore Elijah Robinson (6-2, 285) and junior Jim Shaw (6-3, 260) are also high on the depth.

Seniors Tamba Hali (6-3, 267), Matthew Rice (6-4, 256) and Lavon Chisley (6-5, 259) return at defensive end.

Hali is a solid performer who may be ready to break out. He started 11 games at defensive tackle in 2003 (53 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 tackles for loss), before switching to end last season. He only had two sacks last year, but he had 12 tackles for loss and 51 stops overall.

Rice enters his third season as a starter at defensive end. He had 51 tackles, 3 sacks and 6 tackles for loss last year and 32-1-2 in 2003. Was one of only two players to beat UW left tackle Joe Thomas for a sack last year.

Chisley started nine games as a sophomore in 2003, recording 41 tackles and four sacks. He played in every game, starting once, last season and had 14 tackles and one sack. Chisley has the potential to emerge as the team's best pass rusher.

Linebackers analysis

Dan Connor (6-3, 220) lived up to his billing as a future star as a true freshman last season. Just a part-time starter in his first campaign, Connor was second at PSU with 85 tackles, including 50 solo and 4.5 tackles for loss. He is an exceptionally athletic player with a great feel for the position. The Big Ten is absolutely loaded with linebackers, so he will have to battle to be a second-team all-conference pick this year, but watch for Connor to be a future All-American and perhaps even play at that level this season. After primarily playing inside last season, Connor will move into Derek Wake's outside spot this year.

Junior Paul Posluszny (6-2, 230) is already an All-American caliber linebacker at the other outside spot. Posluszny led the Lions with 104 tackles, including 12 for loss, 52 solo and 3 sacks in his first year as a starter last season. He is an intuitive player with elite-level ability who can make plays in all facets of the game. Posluszny deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with A.J. Hawk, Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge and Tim McGarigle among the conference's truly superb linebackers. Connor is not far behind.

Junior Tim Shaw (6-1, 233) started seven games last season and should be a solid player in the middle. A former tailback, Shaw is a good athlete who had 50 tackles last season.

Wake started 10 games last year and will be missed, but the Lions have plenty of talent at the position. The scary thing is that all three starters — a corps that is right up with Ohio State and Iowa among the best in the league and nation — are underclassmen.

The top reserves also have eligibility to spare, including redshirt freshmen Spencer Ridenhour (6-0, 204) and Tyrell Sales (6-2, 233). That tandem tied for a game-high with seven tackles in the spring game.

Ridenhour is a very good athlete who should be a factor, particularly on special teams. Sales is a physical athlete who provides solid depth inside.

For the second straight year, junior J.R. Zwierzynski (6-2, 235) will back up Posluszny at outside linebacker. Zwierzynski had nine tackles last year and should be more involved this time around.

Secondary analysis

When a team has one very good cornerback, the other tends to get a lot of attention. When a team has two very good cornerbacks, the run defense tends to get a lot of attention. So it is with Penn State, where seniors Alan Zemaitis (6-2, 201) and Anwar Phillips (6-1, 182) compose probably the best cornerback duo in the Big Ten.

Zemaitis, a consensus second-team All-Big Ten pick last season, has the size, ability and experience to be a shutdown corner. He started as a sophomore in 2003 and had 71 tackles and four interceptions, setting a Big Ten record with 207 interception return yards.

Understandably, opponents avoided his side of the field more last year, but Zemaitis played just as well, if not better, in tallying 47 tackles and two interceptions.

Phillips was very good on the other side and should be even better in his second year as a starter. He had 41 tackles and four interceptions last season and he led the Lions with 10 passes broken up.

PSU must replace honorable mention all conference free safety Andrew Guman, who had 67 tackles and 7 pass breakups last year. But the Lions have the luxury of turning the position over to senior Chris Harrell, who started two seasons before being sidelined with a neck injury all of last year.

Harrell (6-2, 210) is a physically imposing, versatile athlete. He was a backup corner as a true freshman in 2001, making six tackles. He started 11 games at hero, or strong safety, as a sophomore and was fourth on the team with 85 tackles, including four for loss. A force against the run, he is also a good pass defender.

In 2003 he started seven games, sharing the free safety position with Guman. Harrell had 49 tackles that year.

Completing the quartet is an exceptional strong safety in Calvin Lowry (6-0, 200). He tied for the team high with four interceptions last season and had 50 tackles. A good athlete, he has also been the team's punt returner the past two years. Lowry and Harrell give PSU a lot of flexibility in that they are both very good against the run and the pass.

It is not an accident that the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense, pass defense and pass efficiency defense. This may be the best secondary in the nation.

True freshman Justin King (6-0, 180) is an instant-impact type of player. A terrific athlete who should see playing time in the nickel and dime, King gives the Lions incredible potential at cornerback. Redshirt freshman Tony Davis (5-10, 189) and sophomore Brent Wise (5-10, 198) provide solid depth.

There is also good depth at safety. Senior Paul Cronin (6-2, 216) started three games last year and had 23 tackles. He can play either safety position. Junior Donnie Johnson (6-0, 205) is a former wide receiver and corner who blocked two punts last year.

Special teams notes

Junior Jeremy Kapinos (6-1, 222) was an honorable mention all-conference punter last year, his second as a starter. He averaged 41.8 yards per punt, knocking 20 inside the 20 against nine touchbacks. He also forced 14 fair catches, which was important because PSU's coverage was suspect.

Kick coverage could also stand to see some improvement after finishing No. 10 in conference play last year.

Matching up with Wisconsin

Last season, the Badgers took advantage of the one area where Penn State was susceptible — interior run defense — and pounded fullback Matt Bernstein again and again, until he had rumbled for 120 second-half yards.

This year PSU will be better against the run, but UW should also not be relegated to relying on Bernstein for all its offense. The Badgers will certainly work to establish the run, hoping center Donovan Raiola and Bernstein can lead a path up the middle. This may be a game for reserve tailback Booker Stanley to shine; he is more adept at running between the tackles then Brian Calhoun.

Then again, the Lions are not exactly going to roll over and let UW run it down their throats. Their senior-laden line should be better at getting a push versus the run this year and with his added experience Shaw should be stout against the run in the middle. Connor and Posluszny will be honed in on UW's running game, which will make for a long day for the Badgers unless John Stocco and Co. can get something going in the passing game.

That, however, is unlikely. UW's receivers are pretty good, but PSU's secondary has a clear advantage. In order to have any success, the Badgers will need to control the game with the run and hope their defense can hold down the Lions' suspect offense enough to win.

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