CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Penn State’s defense might have taken a one-half detour on its way to becoming another stout unit.
Lost in the kicking mess of this past Saturday’s 17-16 loss to Virginia was the return to form of some of the Nittany Lions’ best and most experienced players.
One week after allowing 499 yards, including 301 in the second half, against Ohio University, the defense limited big plays, forced turnovers and put the Nittany Lions in position to win a tight road game.
The one-week turnaround suggests the unit might be adapting to new coordinator Ted Roof’s system while building upon last year’s successes. Last season, Penn State held nine opponents under 20 points.
“I thought they played their tails off and they did a lot of things really well,” Coach Bill O’Brien said. “They got a bunch of turnovers. There were a couple of third-and-longs here or there, but they played very well.”
The unit’s rebound effort included:
Holding slick Virginia running back Perry Jones to 14 yards on eight carries. The Cavaliers, who averaged 162.1 rushing yards per game last year, gained just 32 yards on 25 attempts. None of their runs went longer than seven yards.
Collecting seven tackles for losses. Deion Barnes led the unit with two sacks. The Nittany Lions had just one tackle for a loss against Ohio.
Forcing four turnovers. Michael Mauti forced and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong recovered a first-quarter fumble. Defensive tackle Jordan Hill made a interception in the second quarter. Gerald Hodges recovered a fumbled snap in the third. Barnes stripped quarterback Phillip Sims and Mauti recovered the ball in the fourth. The defense didn’t force a turnover against Ohio.
“We made a lot of progress on turnovers and that was the big thing from the last game,” linebacker Glenn Carson said. “We weren’t able to make any turnovers against Ohio. This game we found a lot of turnovers. That’s definitely an improvement.”
The front seven is a veteran unit — Mauti, Carson, Hodges, Hill and Sean Stanley are returning starters — so many objectives such as forcing turnovers are implied. Carson said the unit didn’t practice “anymore than usual” on causing turnovers last week.
“Every day we are practicing swatting the ball, making sure we get interceptions not just tipped balls, ripping the ball out and covering the ball,” he said.
As the Nittany Lions (0-2) prepare for Saturday’s home game against Navy (0-1), one glaring defensive problem must be corrected. The Nittany Lions again struggled on key third-down plays.
Virginia went 7-of-9 on third down in the second half. On their final drive, the Cavaliers converted were 4-of-4, with conversions ranging from 5 to 16 yards. Tight end Jake McGee had two third-down receptions on the drive, including the game-winning 6-yard touchdown grab. McGee also had a 44-yard reception to extend the drive.
“We’ve got to make a play when it’s time to make a play,” Mauti said. “That’s what it really comes down to.”
Opponents are converting 86 percent of third-down attempts in the second half. Ohio went 11-of-12 after the half in the opener. Penn State held opponents to a 38.4 percent success rate on third down last season.
“That’s something we are really struggling on,” Carson said. “We need to improve in practice and keep working on it. I’m not exactly sure what went wrong in coverage.”
It’s possible the defense has faced its two biggest early-season challenges.
Navy (0-1) scored just 10 points in a season-opening loss to Notre Dame. After playing Navy, the Nittany Lions face Temple, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa, a quartet that averaged 17.5 points per game this past weekend.
Hodges said the Nittany Lions are staying positive despite their first 0-2 start since 2001.
“It’s there,” Hodges said. “It’s inches. We are inches from winning both games. Now we have to get into detail with what we need to do better. We need to try to fix our mistakes the best we can.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy