UNIVERSITY PARK - It's been a season of learning on the job for Penn State sophomore Jordan Lucas in the Nittany Lion secondary.
At times, the first-year starter has made some eye-opening plays at cornerback, displaying a knack for making bone-jarring hits, in particular. And there have been times that the New Rochelle, N.Y. native has looked lost, especially in coverage.
"I don't think anything has been really tough to pick up, because I've been playing defense all my life. It's just that you have to get more comfortable, and you have to roll with the punches," Lucas said. "It's a long season, and you're going to learn. If you don't learn from the mistakes you're going to make every game, what's that called? That's insane, right, to keep making the same mistakes? That's what I try not to do."
Lucas' year almost is that of the 2013 Lion defense in microcosm. However, after hitting some historic lows, the Lions came out of 45-21 win over Purdue in which they forced three turnovers and came up with six sacks on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium feeling that they might be finally starting to get it all together.
"I think the communication has been better the second half of last week and this whole game," said linebacker Mike Hull, who forced and recovered a fumble to go along with six tackles. "That helps with consistency. We've just got to keep at it and keep working at it."
The Lion defense came up big twice at pivotal junctures.
Penn State had dominated the first quarter, but it looked like Purdue might be able to tie the game at 14 when it recovered Bill Belton's second quarter fumble at the Lion 35.
Lucas, though, registered his team-leading third interception of the year, and his return combined with a personal foul on the Boilermakers put Penn State in business at the Purdue 33, leading to a Zach Zwinak touchdown run.
Adrian Amos and DaQuan Jones sacked Purdue freshman quarterback Danny Etling on back-to-back plays the next time Penn State was on defense, and the Lions scored again to take a 28-14 lead.
"I knew exactly what I was getting, so I played it, and I was able to make the play," Lucas said of the interception.
Purdue, though, got back to within 28-21 when it took the ball to near midfield midway through the third quarter. But Nittany Lion defensive end Deion Barnes, who hasn't been able to build much momentum off a strong freshman year in 2012, sacked Etling and forced a fumble that Austin Johnson pounced on.
Penn State capitalized with another Zwinak touchdown and was in great shape with a 38-21 lead. For good measure, Nyeem Wartman sacked Etling into another fumble, this one recovered by Hull to set up the Lions' last score.
"We got the win and forced three turnovers. I thought we played well. We played hard. We played with some juice," said safety Ryan Keiser, whose seven tackles were one off of Amos' team-high. "It's huge to get turnovers."
Penn State registered 17 sacks and five forced fumbles in its first nine games.
"Turnovers change the game. Whenever you get turnovers, it allows people to pick up their level of intensity, and everyone gets excited," Hull said.
There was a lot of talk of complementary play among the Lion defensive players following the game, and Saturday's win was a good example of it. In addition to the six sacks, Penn State hurried Etling several times - middle linebacker Glenn Carson delivered a huge, clean hit on Purdue's second play, making the Boilermakers freshman quarterback unload the ball a split second earlier than he wanted to and miss B.J. Knauf by a few feet on a deep pass that might have gone for a touchdown - while the secondary did a solid enough job of coverage to give the Lion rushers a little extra time to get after the passer.
"The pressure up front really helps out the DBs," Carson said. "We were able to feed off each other. Big hits in a football game are big momentum changers."
Carson, though, tempered his optimism a bit. This was a Purdue team that entered the contest with 31 points in Big Ten play. There were a couple of occasions when Penn State let the Boilermakers move down the field a little too easily for comfort, like a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the first half that stunted a 14-0 Penn State lead and a seven-play, 84 yard scoring march in the second half.
On the latter drive, Etling scored untouched from 11 yards out on a read option. The play before that, Wartman badly missed a tackle on a pass to Akeem Hunt near the line of scrimmage, allowing him to pick up 8 yards before being run out of bounds by Keiser.
"We can't let that happen. It's happened too many times in the last couple of games," Carson said. "We're holding ground well, holding ground well and some third downs or even some big second-down runs get them some [big] plays. We have to focus on fundamentals and not give up those plays."
Even Lucas was guilty of that on Saturday. He had one interception, but he had both hands on two other Etling passes that might have ended the game sooner. One was caught by the Purdue receiver behind him for a first down. Trevor Williams needed to finish the other breakup or it looked like it would have been caught, too.
"I should have come up with the picks," Lucas said. "That's on me."
Despite that, Lucas still is third on the team in tackles in addition to leading the Lions in interceptions.
"He's a guy that we can trust at a very young age. He's a ballplayer," Carson said of Lucas. "He's everything we want as a Penn State defensive back."
Lucas doesn't lack for confidence, but he has an idea of what he expects from himself in the future.
"I just want to be one of the most aggressive, physical, poised, tenacious defensive backs. That's what I want to be. I've never been afraid to hit," Lucas said. "There's no such thing as being too aggressive."
The defense appears to be getting reinforcements from a couple of other young Lions: Brandon Bell looked very good in spot duty at linebacker with three tackles, and Malik Golden saw some action in the secondary. But it's clear they'll need to build on this facing bigger offensive challenges against Nebraska and Wisconsin the next two weeks.
"Coming off the second half against Minnesota, this game, I think we responded very well," Lucas said. "We could have done a lot of things better, but, going the season, our attitude is to keep everything positive, because we want to send the seniors out with two wins."