October 16, 2012 at 1:53 AM
Defensive Line (B+)
Offensive lines' double teaming of Jordan Hill has freed up guys such as Deion Barnes, whose four sacks lead Penn State and stand sixth in the Big Ten. As a whole, the line is still looking to wreak more havoc in the backfield, and they could very well get a healthy Pete Massaro back this Saturday to help reach that end. Still, after losing three starters (Devon Still, Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore) to graduation, this group has done an excellent job of plugging the trenches and dirtying the quarterback.
Penn State's trademark position is the main reason the Lions defense has allowed the least amount of points in the Big Ten this year. Stellar senior seasons from Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges could soon be rewarded with careers in the NFL. Mauti alone has forced two fumbles, recovered one, and intercepted two passes -- one for 99 yards. He's played a part in 2.5 tackles-for-loss that cost opponents 29 yards. Mauti and Hodges, along with Glenn Carson, account for one-third of Lions' tackles (29 other Penn State players have at least one tackle). Furthermore, backups like Mike Hull, Michael Yancich and Ben Kline have proven clutch off the bench to keep Penn State's starters fresh.
Defensive Backs (C+)
Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has officially worked his way out of some early season obscurity, and appears to have cemented himself as a starting safety. Cornerback Stephon Morris leads the secondary in tackles, and corner Adrian Amos has shown his versatility in multiple spots on the field. The defensive backs certainly haven't had a terrible game yet this season, but they can't be happy about not having an interception through six games. It will be interesting to see if the starters can hold up as Penn State gets into the grind of its schedule. The Lions have very little depth this season in the secondary, with former walk-on Jacob Fagnano and true freshman Da'Quan Davis as the only real relief right now. If a player gets hurt, Jesse Della Valle may find himself in some defensive schemes.
Kicking (F): Whether O'Brien admits or not, the Lions' special teams have altered the way they play football. Penn State has tried to convert 20 fourth downs in 2012, and that's less because of the team's guts than it is about it is about the team's options. The fact is the Lions have a better chance at scoring if they go for it, given kicker Sam Ficken's poor success rate. At some point, Penn State's near-inability to score three points on stalled drives in field goal range is going to come back and bite them against good defenses. Iowa has the third-best scoring defense in the Big Ten, and playing the Hawkeyes on the road this weekend won't be easy for the Lions' offense on fourth downs.
Punting (C-): Alex Butterworth has improved at punter. He's starting to look more comfortable on the field, but he still prone to shank the occasional punt. He's shown a few signs of 50-plus yard leg strength, but he still sits at the bottom of the conference in average yards per punt (36.5). His 24 attempts are eighth in the Big Ten — deflated in part due to Penn State's fourth down aggression.
Coverage (B+): O'Brien hasn't hesitated to use his starters on Penn State's coverage teams, especially for punts. Guys like Mauti, Carson, Michael Zordich and Derek Day have added major experience and athleticism in stopping the return. Mauti has been exceptionally lights out, highlighted by a career game in Illinois where he stuffed the returner at least twice.
Returns (C-): While there's been a few good runbacks, nobody has been lights out. Among Alex Kenney, Evan Lewis, Bill Belton, Della Valle, Amos and Hodges, none have a return over 30 yards this season. Della Valle has shown good vision on punts, but he's still relatively new at it and the explosiveness hasn't been there. It's tougher on kick returns where the kickoff often goes out the back of the endzone, but Kenney — one of the fastest guys on the team — hasn't switched it into next gear. And Hodges, well, his days as the deep man appear long over.