Rudel: Defense springs too many leaks

UNIVERSITY PARK – Most expected Central Florida to provide the stiffest test Penn State had seen so far this season and maybe even come in here and win.

Almost no one, though, could have envisioned the Nittany Lions’ defense being bludgeoned to the extent that it was in a 34-31 loss Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

En route to allowing 507 yards of total offense, Penn State struggled equally in failing to stop the run (219 yards, 5.8 per rush) and pass (20-for-27-288).

“We felt we would be able to handle both better,” defensive coordinator John Butler said.

Butler credited Central Florida – “our tackling was an issue, and their skill was an issue,” he said – and its coaches.

“We knew what we needed to stop, but we didn’t,” he said. “They did a better job collectively of executing their game plan.”

Bill O’Brien was also effusive in his praise for UCF and preferred not to heap blame on his defense.

Like Butler, he acknowledged, “we didn’t tackle very well,” but he was quick to mention that the offense, special teams and coaching could have been better, too.

And, like all coaches in the emotional moments following an unexpected loss, he said he’ll have a more definite opinion after watching the films.

What he’ll see, though, will be startling.

After the Lions opened the season with two strong defensive performances, they were housed by a team that ran through and passed over them.

When the Lions sent blitzes at Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, his quick feet eluded them, and Penn State did not manage a single sack. And when the Nits sat back in coverage, giving too much ground like they did early, Bortles picked them apart – particularly exposing their young cornerbacks.

Butler made some changes in the second half, shifting Adrian Amos back to cornerback and inserting Ryan Keiser at safety.

“We tried everything – we emptied the game plan,” Butler said. “We tried man, zone, half-man, half-zone.”

Down 31-24, the defense did rally and appeared to force a change of possession until a late flag following a third-and-9 incompletion with 12 minutes to play came flying in from Centre Hall.

“Those are big,” Butler said, adding it’s a “buzz-kill” of a raucous crowd that certainly saw an entertaining game, albeit not the desired outcome.

Butler didn’t argue the call, at least in the Beaver Stadium media room, instead calling it “a bang-bang play.”

Maybe it was an official’s error, but the Lions’ defense had already been torched so complaining about that penalty – especially since that seemed to be about the only really big call Penn State didn’t get – would have been sour grapes.

The Lions’ lack of defensive depth was a major concern entering the season. Linebackers Mike Hull and Ben Kline returned for spot duty Saturday, but the entire back seven appeared to suffer from not having much contact in practice because the coaching staff needs to limit the injuries.

It’s a domino effect that, on this night, fell apart like a Jenga game.

Nonetheless, O’Brien and Butler were confident the Lions would bounce back emotionally. After all, it’s not like a bowl bid was lost.

“Our players,” Butler said, “have been through a lot worse than losing to Central Florida.”

Isn’t that the truth?

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or You can also follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.