Rudel: Nits’ defense finally responds

UNIVERSITY PARK – The common thread in Penn State’s losses this season were defensive performances that did not remind anybody of Linebacker U.

Whether it was the 34 points put up by Central Florida, the 44 at Indiana, the first half at Minnesota and obviously the 63 that Ohio State pinballed, the Nittany Lions’ defense hasn’t needed a Band Aid as much as it’s needed a tourniquet.

Even the Lions’ best win of the season, a 43-40 shootout over Michigan, put the unit on the defensive.

Saturday changed that.

Penn State was beaten 23-20 in overtime by Nebraska, and while nobody left happy, there was deserved consensus in the Nittany Lion camp that the defense in particular had earned a better fate.

“I thought the defense played a good game,” Bill O’Brien, who also serves as offensive coordinator, said. “They did a good job tonight. We had a good game plan. The coaches did a good job on that side of the ball.

“We [offense] didn’t hold up our end of the bargain, but you win as a team and lose as a team.”

While the offense, no doubt affected by the bone-chilling wind, dropped a half-dozen passes and the special teams completely collapsed, the defense kept the Lions in the game.

“I think as a defense we played very well,” sophomore cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “When we had to make plays, we did. This is college football; offenses are going to have their share of plays, but in the long run, I think we did a good job of minimizing their [big] plays.”

And in the process, maybe, just maybe, the defense finally turned a corner.

“Defense played their hearts out,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “I was really proud of them.”

The unit allowed just one touchdown drive as it forced Nebraska into three short field goals and twice denied the Cornhuskers touchdowns at the PSU goal line.

“Especially on the goal line,” Carson said, “we had a bend-don’t-break mentality, and we played Penn State football today.”

With Nebraska threatening to take a 14-6 lead, Malcolm Willis stripped Ameer Abdullah in the second quarter, and in one of the game’s most dramatic moments, Brandon Bell and Mike Hull combined to drill Husker quarterback Ron Kellogg III at the PSU 2, turning away a potential touchdown that would have put Nebraska up 24-20 with five minutes left.

“Both sides of the ball,” O’Brien said, “I thought we had great effort.”

Hull, receiving treatment after the game, was unavailable for comment after turning in an exhibition reminiscent of his play last year. The junior has dealt with a variety of injuries all season, but Saturday he looked fast enough to corral Abdullah on the edge and strong enough to deck Kellogg.

“That was a huge play,” Carson said. “Mike is an instinctual player, and it really showed on that play, as well as how tough he is. He just stoned that guy.”

If Hull looked like a senior on senior day, that’s because, DaQuan Jones said, “It feels like he’s a senior now, the way he talks and the way the guys look up to him.”

Hull’s play has helped raise Penn State into its best defensive stretch of the season.

The Lions’ defense – not their special teams, their defense – has allowed just three touchdowns in the last 10 quarters and an average of 21.0 points over its last four games after being scorched for 34 or more four times over a five-game midseason stretch.

“We’re finally going out there and playing fast and not overthinking,” Carson said.

“I think we’ve made some improvements in small areas as the year has gone on,” Jones said, “and hopefully today showed that.”

Lucas, one of the defense’s best young players, is glad improvement has been shown, but he also admitted it was needed.

“It might be a little late for that, but as the season has gone on, slowly but surely we’re coming together as a defense and going into next year that will be very big for us,” he said.

Other than Carson, the defense loses its standout tackle in Jones, part-time starting tackle Kyle Baublitz and veteran safety Malcolm Willis but will return a dozen regulars who have started.

“We’ve got a great coach in coach [John] Butler and coach [Larry] Johnson will still be here with the line,” Jones said. “I think they’ll be fine.”

They’re at least putting together a November to build on, but before looking too far ahead, they’ll need that positive vibe heading into Wisconsin.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or