Bill O’Brien made it mightily clear from the onset of his weekly press conference that he was in no mood to talk about last Saturday’s disappointing result at Beaver Stadium. He’s focused on Purdue, and he believes his players are as well.
“We have moved on from Ohio State. Hopefully we have corrected the mistakes from that game in practice and will continue to do so over the next three days, but we have a big challenge for us at Purdue. We’ve turned the page,” said Penn State’s head coach responding to a question about the high amount of penalties the team committed in Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes.
One component of the game that he might not want to be so quick to forget about is the improved play of the secondary — a group that was heavily questioned headed into the season.
The relatively inexperienced position group did little to quiet the critics after allowing a combined 582 yards and 4 touchdowns in losses to Ohio and Virginia to open the season. Since those two disappointing results, the pass defense has seen great improvement. The last two quarterbacks to face the Nittany Lions defense — James Vandenberg and Braxton Miller — have both completed less than 50 percent of their attempts against the unit. The only quarterback to throw for more than 200 yards in that 6 game span has been Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase, and it featured 46 passes in a blowout loss to the Blue and White.
In that same span, the defense has only allowed 5 touchdowns through the air, after surrendering 4 through the first two games, and is responsible for 6 interceptions. Oddly enough, the secondary — the unit normally most responsible for defending the opposing team’s passing attack– did not come down with an interception until sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos picked off Miller Saturday night.
For comparison’s sake, last year’s secondary recorded an interception 8 minutes into the season and had 8 through the first 8 games. It was nice to get the first one, but there have been plenty of other missed opportunities, and O’Brien recognizes the need for more turnovers.
“We work very hard on takeaways, whether it’s fumble recovers, interception drills, tip drills, whatever it may be, we work extremely hard every single day on all of our guys and their ball skills so we will continue to see improvements on that in the weeks ahead,” explained O’Brien.
Amos chalks up the improvement to more repetitions and experience. The fifteen bowl practices last year, and some advice from more experienced players including senior cornerback Stephon Morris and junior safety Malcolm Willis, has aided in his development. “Stephon is probably the most fiery guy in the secondary. He’s talked to me about being competitive, and Malcolm taught me a lot about playing safety when I was flipping back and forth between positions,” said Amos.
There will be no bowl practices this December, but the opportunities throughout the season so far has led to better results from the group. “Experience helps out a lot, just knowing the speed of the receivers, and the speed of the overall game,” said Amos.
All of this will be a factor on Saturday against a Boilermakers squad that has been intercepted 11 times over 8 games but also has been on the end of 19 receiving touchdowns. “They’re probably the fastest team we’ve faced,” said Amos.
O’Brien realizes it too. “They’re a varied, multiple offense. You’re going to have to defend the field horizontally and vertically. It’s a big challenge for us.”
- Tight end Kyle Carter (foot) is listed as probable on the injury report, but O’Brien said his status would be monitored throughout the week. In practice, he stretched with the team but did not participate in position drills.
- O’Brien revealed that kicker Sam Ficken has been dealing with a quad injury for the past few weeks. Ficken did participate in practice and was successful on his attempts.
- O’Brien had high praise for defensive end Sean Stanley who had been dealing with a back injury early on in the season.
- Without revealing who the kick returners will be, O’Brien acknowledged that the unit needs to be much improved on Saturday against the Boilermakers.
- O’Brien was diplomatic when asked about Big Ten referees but made it clear that he would stand up for his players when needed. “I’m sure certain crews haven’t had a lot of fun with me. I’m going to fight for my staff and for Penn State.”
- O’Brien on strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald’s pregame routine that has included doing the worm on the field: “I’m going to recommend Fitzy for “Dancing with the Stars” because since he’s been at Penn State — he’s become a rock star.