Killens' forceful hit may have been the pivotal play in Penn State's 26-23 win over the Boilermakers, because Purdue's young backup, John Reeves, was largely ineffective.
Once again, Killens, Penn State's best defensive player so far, had refuted the argument that he is too small to be a quality defensive end. In an era when the typical defensive end at a major college goes about 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and must duel with huge tight ends and mammoth offensive tackles, Killens is a relative dwarf at 6-1, 223.
No matter. The personable 21-year-old senior from Cincinnati leads the 19th-ranked Nittany Lions (4-2) with 5 1/2 sacks as they move into Saturday's Big Ten Conference game against undefeated and 18th-ranked Iowa (5-0) in Iowa City.
"Basically, I think it's just heart and desire," said Killens, succinctly explaining his ability to somehow transform himself into a bigger man when he pulls on the shoulder pads.
His speed, agility and pass-coverage ability make Killens more suited to playing outside linebacker, which is what he was until injuries to State's defensive line forced him to get into a three-point stance and a closer look at the big guys he so often sprints past.
"We've asked Terry to do a lot, and he's responded by doing an excellent job," coach Joe Paterno said. "At times, we've had to put him against guys who go about 265 pounds and he's held his own."
Those who recall Killens as the lone true freshman to play in every game during the 1992 season probably wonder where he was until this season. Even as an 18-year-old, his speed and aggressiveness were evident. But his career slipped off the fast track, partly because of a couple of injuries, mostly
because his head couldn't catch up to his legs. After last year's opener against Minnesota, Killens lost his starting job to Willie Smith.
"The coaches just felt I was inconsistent, that I made mistakes, and that was hard for me to accept," Killen said. "They (the mistakes) probably came
from trying so hard to make the big play all the time. Coaches have to trust that you won't go out and make stupid mistakes, and I used to make a lot of stupid mistakes. I worked harder on knowing what everyone around me is doing rather than just on what I was supposed to do."
So far, this has been an uneven season for Penn State's defenders, who had vowed to improve over last year's up-and-down group, whose sins were drowned out by the noise from the school's most devastating offense ever.
But in the consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State that ruined Penn State's Rose Bowl chances, the Nittany Lions' defense too often broke down on third-down plays, and too frequently yielded huge pass plays.
Questions came up. Was this defense too small, too soft, lacking in leadership? Or is this just a sign of the times? After all, teams are scoring at an uncanny rate this season.
Killens said the defense has plenty of leaders and that, yes, it does seem more difficult to stifle offenses now than a couple of years ago.
"I think it's because of all the different schemes teams run these days, and there's a lot more passing," Killens said. "A couple years ago most teams were running the I-formation. Now, there are so many good receivers and teams are throwing more and getting quicker scores and it's harder for defenses to keep up.
"But just because we're small, I don't think teams are running us over and pushing us around. We're doing well against the running game, but teams are throwing over the top of us.
"I was kind of disappointed in our pass defense from the Rutgers through the Ohio State games. We weren't getting much pressure on the quarterbacks and we gave up too much on third down. But we've worked harder to be effective on third down and I think it's coming along now."
Killens, who hopes to become a sports broadcaster, believes the stiff defense the Nittany Lions played during the second half of the Purdue game will carry through the rest of a difficult schedule.
"Purdue was a big win because it tested our character," he said. "We were down in the first half. We weren't playing well. We weren't hitting people. Joe challenged us at halftime, and I think we responded."