Defense a tough issue to tackle for PSU

STATE COLLEGE – Josh Reese wove through the Penn State defense – sometimes bobbing through spaces and other times running free from closing defenders – taking a 25-yard Blake Bortles pass into the end zone as Central Florida opened a 28-10 lead to start the second half in what became a 34-31 UCF victory Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

It wasn’t always as heroic as that. Penn State players were credited with 65 tackles, and while missed tackles aren’t kept as an official statistic, there were a few on that play alone and many, many more throughout the game.

Nittany Lion coach Bill O’Brien admitted several mistakes after the game, but said he needed to watch film before making further judgments.

He’ll see the same thing Penn State fans will judge from the TV highlights – his team’s defense needs plenty of work, whether it’s getting better pressure from the defensive line, better coverage from the secondary, and perhaps most obvious from Saturday, better tackling.

And while this would be an obvious weakness for any team, double that for one starting a true freshman quarterback in Christian Hackenberg. He played a decent third straight game, completing 21 of 28 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown, but not enough to overcome this.

Central Florida gained 507 yards on a Nittany Lion defense that allowed 443 combined in beating Syracuse and Eastern Michigan.

“I don’t know. I felt good coming in, but it’s a team loss. There were mistakes on both sides of the ball,” said O’Brien. “No one’s going anywhere. We’ll go back to the drawing board tomorrow and get them to play better.”

Improvement on the defensive line and secondary may come from more experience or different schemes or personnel shuffles. Improvement on tackling is a little trickier, since Penn State doesn’t fully practice it as part of its “Thud” routines – the art of hitting the offensive player but not taking him all the way to the ground.

NFL teams have used it to avoid injury – it’s one of O’Brien’s imports from the New England Patriots but it’s rare in the college game. Penn State frequently uses the “Thud” as a way to stay healthy with limited scholarships from NCAA sanctions.

“Everyone wants to say we don’t tackle in practice, so we don’t tackle in games,” said PSU defensive coordinator John Butler. “I don’t know. I watched a lot of football today with our 6 o’clock kickoff, and I saw missed tackles across the board. Central Florida had the athletes who made us miss.”

And while superior athletes will do that Ohio State and Michigan figure to bring plenty of them later this season putting Penn State’s superior athletes in the best position to stop them is a tricky situation.

Butler noted that the last thing his team would want is to go from 62 to 57 scholarship players over injuries from a hard-hitting week of practice. There’s no taxi squad in college, no free agents like the NFL, so the Nittany Lions must figure out how to prevent in-season roster attrition.

“We work on tackling every day, even in the team periods we work on tackling,” said Butler. “Spacing, leverage, inside, outside, the only thing we don’t do is take it to the ground.

“It’s fair to have that concern. We’re drilling them, but we may need a faster speed,” said Butler, who didn’t think the philosophy had any effect on the team’s ability to play physical.

With that, Butler made a vague reference to the external circumstances that put Penn State in this situation.

“One thing people should know about our players is that they’ve been through worse than losing to Central Florida,” said Butler. They’re shaken, but they’ll come back Monday and move forward.”

Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at