STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - Wrap up the tailback on the tackle. Knock blockers to the ground. Fly to the ball.
They seem like simple directives for a defense. Yet missed tackles plagued Penn State all last season, starting with the 21-point thumping in Tuscaloosa to Alabama in September.
A year later, with the No. 3 Crimson Tide rolling into town this weekend, the 23rd-ranked Nittany Lions vow they have learned from their mistakes.
“I watched last year’s game so many times and I can speak for a lot of guys on the defense,” linebacker Michael Mauti said. “Our performance was kind of embarrassing.”
The goal: avoid a repeat performance.
Alabama’s Trent Richardson, a bruising 5-foot-11 tailback, bowled over the Nittany Lions for 144 yards, accumulating extra ground after escaping would-be tacklers. Penn State had four turnovers, including three inside the 30-yard line, while the Nittany Lions defense couldn’t force one.
One of the points of emphasis for this season for the defense was to create more big plays. It’s not exactly a situation you can re-create in drills, like a zone blitz or an end-around.
“There’s no real to practice that … that comes from effort,” defensive end Jack Crawford said. “Once we take off, do anything. It’s about keeping someone from setting a block. It’s about finishing.”
Penn State is off to a good start so far. As an example, Crawford pointed to defensive tackle Jordan Hill’s recovery of a fumble he forced in the 41-7 win last week over Indiana State.
“It’s plays like that that lead to big-time plays and turnovers,” Crawford said, “which causes everybody to finish the play and get to the ball.”
But stopping Alabama figures to be a much tougher task than manhandling an FCS team like the Sycamores.
Richardson is still a force. Coach Nick Saban this week called his offensive line “inconsistent” in the Tide’s 48-7 win over Kent State, though the front five still features standouts Barrett Jones and William Vlachos.
“They’re a very physical team,” Vlachos said. “I think it played to our advantage playing here last year, it being hot and all. We’re expecting a whole different deal up at their place.”
If there’s any place on the field that the defense can exploit, it might be at quarterback. Alabama is breaking in a two-player tandem in sophomore A.J. McCarron and freshman Phillip Sims to replace last year’s starter, Greg McElroy.
Might Penn State put eight men in the box to stop the running game and force the quarterbacks to beat them?
“The coaches have the gameplan. We’re still going to run the ball. You can’t stop us from running,” said Alabama running back Eddie Lacy, who had 134 all-purpose yards and a rushing touchdown last week.
“But A.J. and Phillip Sims are going to be able to make the big plays down the field to take them out of the box.”
At least the Nittany Lions can field a healthy defense again, a problem for much of last season. Slowed last year by a foot injury, Crawford played well last week against Indiana State. Hill and fellow tackle Devon Still are considered strengths up the middle.
Mauti leads a deep, talented linebacking unit. The veteran secondary features four senior starters including safety Nick Sukay, who is back from a chest injury.
Cornerback D’Anton Lynn said the defense will draw on their miserable experience in 2010 in Tuscaloosa.
“We’ve learned from our mistakes last year. We’re breaking down their film, we’ve improved. Everyone we have has been able to experience big games,” Lynn said. “It’s not going to be new to anyone. So we feel like we’re prepared.”
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