A week after dominating Iowa's offense by holding the Iowa Hawkeyes to just three points, the Penn State defense came back to earth a bit against Purdue on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Emphasis on "a bit."
For many teams, holding an opponent to 18 points in a game is a pretty solid performance, and that's exactly what the Nittany Lions were able to do against the Boilermakers in their 23-18 victory. For a unit yielding an average of just 11.6 points per game (sixth best in the nation) through seven games, though, it's easy to see Penn State's effort against Purdue as a bit of a setback. The Lions would be just 4-3 at this point if they'd given up that total of points in every game, after all.
One big problem the defense had on Saturday was an inability to stop the big play. Purdue racked up eight plays of 15 yards or more, and five plays of 20 yards or more, including a 50-yard pass play for Boiler quarterback Caleb TerBush to receiver Justin Siller in the first quarter and a 39-yard run by running back Ralph Bolden in the second quarter.
The TerBush-Siller connection and the Bolden rush were the biggest pass and run plays the defense has yielded all season, respectively.
"We missed a couple of tackles," safety Drew Astorino said of the lapses after the game. "We've got to fix that because we don't like big plays."
Thanks in large part to those big plays, the Boilermakers were able to post the second biggest yardage total (344) of any Penn State opponent this season.
In his post game press conference, coach Joe Paterno speculated that part of Penn State's problem on defense may have been over-preparing for pass defense against the traditionally throw-happy Boilermakers.
It's a sentiment linebacker Khairi Fortt shared after the game.
"Throughout the whole season we've been good at stopping the run so that wasn't really a big focus during practice," Fortt said. "We just ran a lot of nickels."
The stats bear Paterno and Fortt's concerns out to a degree. Purdue is just 94th in the nation in passing yardage this season while its running game is ranked No. 24 nationally.
The news wasn't all bad, however. In fact, for every big play the Lions conceded, it seemed like they were able to come up with one of their own to make up for it.
Linebacker Nathan Stupar notched two interceptions on the afternoon, and Nick Sukay registered one as well as Penn State won the turnover battle 3-1. Lion defenders were also credited with breaking up six passes and registering five tackles for loss, including a sack by defensive lineman Sean Stanley.
Perhaps the biggest play of them all, however, came after Purdue scored a touchdown to make the score 20-18 in the fourth quarter. On the point after attempt, TerBush scrambled toward the end zone as the Boilermakers tried to tie the score at 20 with a two-point conversion but Fortt met him at about the three and stopped him in his tracks, allowing the Lions to cling to their two-point edge.
"A big play had to happen," Fortt said. "The quarterback, he had been scrambling all day, so I just figured that he was going to run. I came up, hit him, and they didn't get those two points. It was a nice feeling."
All in all, it was a mixed performance for the defense, and Astorino hopes the unit can take the good and leave behind the bad as Penn State enters the meat of its Big Ten schedule starting this coming weekend at Northwestern.
"We're making plays," Astorino said. "We've just got to limit the big plays. That hasn't been a problem yet this year but today it was."