Penn State’s secondary has been living with the identifier all season.
Safety Malcolm Willis said the team’s defensive backs were identified as its soft spot early in the season. And though the Nittany Lions have limited opponents to a 48.7 completion percentage in their last three games, Willis noted the defensive backs aren’t forgetting about their label.
“We try to pride ourselves as making as many plays as possible, because coming into the season we were labeled as the weak link of the defense, the weak link of the team, really,” Willis said. “We wanted to come out and relay a message that we’re more than capable of playing with whoever it is.”
The thin secondary was tested last Saturday as Purdue threw the ball 62 times — the most of any Penn State opponent this season. But the unit passed the test.
A trio of Boilermaker quarterbacks completed only 33 of the 62 throws (53.2 percent), and the completion they had for a touchdown was meaningless as it came in the last second of Penn State’s 25-point victory.
Penn State has allowed 211 passing yards per game, which is good for sixth in the Big Ten. The team has also vastly improved its pass defense since its first two games of the season.
The Lions surrendered a combined 587 passing yards in their first two contests — losses to Ohio and Virginia, respectively. But in the last seven games, in which Penn State is 6-1, the team has restricted teams to less than 200 yards passing on five occasions.
Cornerback Stephon Morris said the secondary has come a long way since early September.
“We just got better each and every game,” Morris said. “We just tried to correct our mistakes in the room with [secondary coach John] Butler and things like that. I definitely think we’ve improved a lot, especially the play with the safeties.”
Both Morris and Willis have said hearing negative comments about the secondary has been a motivator all season. And even though the defensive backs have been playing better in the last handful of games, Willis said the “weak link” label is going to stay on players’ minds until the end of the season.
“When people come out and say things like that and it’s directed at you or your unit, you have to take offense to it,” Willis said. “If you don’t take offense to it, you’re not a competitor.”
The secondary has clamped down on passing yards and completion percentage, but one thing it has not done well all season has been capitalizing on turnover opportunities. As a team this season, Penn State has seven interceptions. The Lions’ secondary, however, accounts for one.
Willis said he doesn’t think the secondary has done enough to fully shake its label, and he cited the unit’s lack of interceptions as the main reason why. Coach Bill O’Brien said he thought the team’s defensive backs were one of the team’s most improved units, but he did note their lack of interceptions is a concern.
“We’ve left some interceptions on the field we could’ve caught,” O’Brien said. “Our players know that, and our players work extremely hard at that with ball drills during practice. It’s not as easy as [wide receiver] Allen Robinson makes it seem, catching the football is an acquired skill.”