The keys to Penn State’s recent success sound about as vanilla as their blue-and-white uniforms.
Strong defense has led the way in Happy Valley, with an assist the last few weeks from the running game.
The Nittany Lions (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) aren’t complaining about the results, especially after a confidence-building 13-3 win last week over Iowa.
“Our offense can move the ball, run the ball. Our defense can make stops in key situations,” linebacker Nate Stupar said Wednesday. “That’s obviously going to be a big confidence-booster going into this week.”
Purdue (3-2, 1-0) is up next Saturday for Penn State, which is riding a sorely-needed morale boost. The defense has played well all year, though Linebacker U. clicked into a higher gear in dominating Iowa — a school that had won eight of the previous nine contests.
Monstrous 6-foot-5 tackle Devon Still spearheads everything up front. He’s playing so well this season that he was added this week to the watch list for the postseason Bednarik Award presented annually to the nation’s top defender.
The unit’s gaudy statistical rankings include being No. 4 in the FBS in total defense (250.8 yards per game) and No. 5 in scoring (10.5 points). Penn State is also first in the Big Ten and 15th in the country in forcing 14 turnovers.
A rash of injuries led to an unsettled lineup and a lack of cohesion for the defense on a team that finished 7-6 last year. This season, Stupar said the attitude on defense is different behind strong senior leaders like Still — though he couldn’t pinpoint a specific offseason workout or preseason practice when the camaraderie evolved.
“Everyone just deciding, ‘Let’s go. We want to do something special’,” Stupar said. “We’re sick of mediocre seasons.We want to do something great.”
The stalwart play has helped make up for the shortcomings for the two-quarterback offense. The Nittany Lions have scored just 21.5 points a game, ahead of only Minnesota (18.0 points) in the Big Ten.The red zone remains a big concern, with Penn State having scored just 11 touchdowns in 23 trips inside the 20 with just a 73.9 percent conversion rate. Only Michigan State (72 percent) is worse in the league.
“We’re definitely looking to improve on it or it’s going to come back to bite us pretty soon,” right guard DeOn’tae Pannell said.
Coach Joe Paterno said he planned to spend extra time this week on red zone offense and make the red zone playbook “more compact.”
Paterno couldn’t pinpoint specific reasons for the woes, though he said there were tasks inside the 20 “that could have given us a little bit more confidence down there that we didn’t come through with ... as I mentioned, fumbling on the 3 and that kind of stuff. It almost gets to be a self-fulfilled prophecy.”
The good news for Paterno is that the running game appears to have regained traction. Paterno last week questioned the line’s toughness; he clarified his remarks this week after pointing to benchmarks for mental toughness, such as discerning the difference between playing physical and recklessly. Whatever the reason, the rush is improving — Penn State has averaged 212 yards over the last two weeks.
“Guys took it upon themselves, took it personally, that people didn’t think we could run the ball really well,” Pannell said. “We put it on our backs and have been able to have success with it.”
Featured back Silas Redd, a 5-foot-10 slasher with a crowd-pleasing spin move, has run for career-highs two straight weeks, including 142 yards against the Hawkeyes. Bruising 6-foot-1, 235-pound backup Curtis Dukes has become an effective, between-the-tackles complement, also rushing for career-highs the previous two weeks. He had 60 against Iowa, taking advantage of increased playing time with Brandon Beachum (right foot) and Stephfon Green (off-field issues) missing time recently. Dukes said Wednesday he received some tips two weeks ago from Curtis Enis, who ran for 3,256 yards and 36 touchdowns from 1995-97 at Penn State.
“Just to be really patient, and to set up my blocks, make the right reads and hit the hole hard,” Dukes said.
Simple advice that fits right into the team’s recent back-to-basics success.