Penn State defense has a big test against Michigan

ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State safety Malcolm Willis: 'We can do better.'
ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State safety Malcolm Willis: 'We can do better.'
Posted: October 11, 2013

STATE COLLEGE -This weekend provides somewhat of a crossroads for Penn State's defense.

A traditionally strong unit, the Nittany Lions' defense has been burned in two of their last three games by Central Florida and Indiana, with a shutout against Kent State sandwiched in between. Some doubt started to creep in after Penn State surrendered 507 yards to an expeditious UCF attack, but more questioning of John Butler's group arose after Indiana posted 486 yards and five touchdowns last Saturday.

With some fans lacking faith and a sour taste in the players' mouths, Penn State will get a chance to prove itself on a big stage Saturday. No. 18 Michigan visits a sold-out and whiteout crowd at Beaver Stadium, where Penn State and its limping defense will try to regain form on Homecoming.

"Overall, we feel like we can do better than what we have," senior safety Malcolm Willis said of the team's defense. "There's always room for improvement. If I wasn't to say that, then I feel like there would be a problem with my answer. We can do better than what we've done, and we're trying to start this week with Michigan."

The 5-0 Wolverines have an offense that averages 397 yards per game. Quarterback Devin Gardner is a dual threat, and Penn State linebacker Mike Hull said it will be important to limit his runs to make him "one-dimensional." Gardner is averaging a combined 270.8 yards per game, but he's not the entire offense.

Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint averages 79.4 yards per game and is tied for second in the conference with seven touchdowns. Meanwhile, Gardner's favorite targets are Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess - who are both in the top 10 in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game. Gallon, a wideout, had a huge game against Notre Dame, with 184 yards and three scores, and Funchess, a tight end, had seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown last week against Minnesota.

"They're a physical group. They want to run the ball, they run the ball very well," Willis said. "And they have a lot of explosive plays. So, we have to try to limit those explosive plays and really, really be physical. The bottom line is we have to come out and try to intensify our play."

Explosive plays, or "X plays" as coach Bill O'Brien has called them, are something that plagued the Lions in their two losses. Penn State allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or longer against UCF, and surrendered seven gains of at least that length last week against the Hoosiers.

Multiple defensive players said some of the big gains against the Hoosiers were a result of missed assignments. Willis noted he thinks it's a "correctable" mistake, and senior linebacker Glenn Carson said knowing responsibilities will be a focus leading up to Michigan.

"If you see how you practice on the field, it will translate onto the game field," Carson said. "If we have a good hard week of practice and know our assignments, get in the film room, that's what's going to pay dividends in the end."

One silver lining for Penn State's defense from last week was the return of Hull, and the outside linebacker had his best game of the season.

Hull injured his right knee in the season-opener against Syracuse, was sidelined for two games and limited in the other - against UCF - before returning last Saturday. The Canonsburg native tied Carson for a team-high in tackles with 10. He said he feels about 90 to 95 percent healthy now and expects to be more effective against the Wolverines.

"I'm trying to fly around and make plays for my team," Hull said. "I don't want to try to do too much, that's how you hurt your defense. But I want to play fundamental, sound football."


On Twitter: @SPianovich

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