The most analyzed part of Penn State’s defense awaits an opportunity it hasn’t received the past two weeks.
After facing two straight listless passing offenses, the secondary has spent this week preparing for Saturday’s trip to Illinois. The Fighting Illini’s passing offense ranks 92nd nationally. So what’s the big deal?
The Fighting Illini (2-2) are on the mend — quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s sprained ankle is healing — and they follow Navy and Temple on the schedule.
The Midshipmen are ranked 114th among 120 FBS teams in passing offense, three spots ahead of the Owls. Penn State (2-2) held both teams under 140 passing yards.
Penn State’s secondary experienced tepid beginnings, as Virginia and Ohio University combined for 587 yards. Big pass plays helped both teams convert more than 80 percent of their second-half third downs. No member of the unit has intercepted a pass.
“I definitely think we have a lot to prove,” cornerback Stephon Morris said. “The defensive line has been doing really well, the linebackers are doing a great job, so the finger is always pointed at the secondary when something goes bad.
“We have definitely come a long way and we are improving.”
Some personnel shifts might help the unit handle Illinois’ spread offense featuring four-and five-receiver sets.
The development of true freshman cornerback Da’Quan Davis is allowing sophomore Adrian Amos to play more safety. Athletic sophomore linebacker Mike Hull provides a jolt in what Morris calls the Nittany Lions’ “Roadrunner” packages.
Morris said the 5-foot-10, 161-pound Davis will be a key part of the defense the next two weeks. Northwestern, which also utilizes a spread offense, visits Beaver Stadium next week.
“That kid just has something in his heart,” Morris said of Davis. “He has that little man complex we like to see. He’s extra feisty. He’s learning a lot. He’s humble. You can tell he’s been through a lot in his lifetime.”
The ideal number
Penn State’s offense posted season-highs in total (491), rushing (173) and passing (318) yards in the victory over Temple. But the gaudy totals yielded just 24 points, only two above the Nittany Lions’ season average.
Quarterback Matt McGloin was asked earlier this week about an ideal point total.
His response? “Our offense is improving each and every game as we get more comfortable,” he said. “I would like to put up 35 points a game. It’s definitely going to be tough with the Big Ten schedule.”
Bill O’Brien also fielded the same question. He said the flow of a game determines what number might be obtainable.
“I don’t put a point total on it,” he said. “I just try get a feel for how they’re playing in the game and then that kind of helps me decide.”
Sophomore Jesse Della Valle isn’t returning punts for free.
Della Valle, who has emerged as Penn State’s top punt returner, earned a scholarship this past summer.
O’Brien said secondary coach John Butler, who works closely with the special teams, identified Della Valle as a possible punt returner before the Virginia game.
“Some guys have a knack for that,” O’Brien said. “They can catch it. They can understand the return. They have good vision. He’s got a little bit of a knack for it, and we’re going to stick with it.”
Della Valle plays cornerback on defense.
Still in school
O’Brien said on his weekly radio show Thursday that Paul Jones will finish the semester at Penn State before transferring to another school. Jones, a high-profile quarterback recruit in 2010, left the team for personal reasons Wednesday. O’Brien moved Jones to ‘F’ tight end earlier this week.
“It was a tough decision for Paul and a tough decision for us,” O’Brien said. “We wish Paul the best. I have a lot of great feelings for Paul. His dream is to be a starting quarterback somewhere. That’s what he wants to try and do.”
Five will stay
O’Brien said five players who participated in last week’s walk-on tryouts will remain with the team. He didn’t reveal the names of the new players.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy