First I want to give you a glance over of the defense to give you a feel for how nasty they are. The Nittany Lions are ranked #10 in the nation in rushing defense giving up only 87 yards per game on the ground. They are ranked #47 in pass defense giving up 191 yards per game through the air, but that is somewhat deceiving. Many teams abandoned the running game against the Lions early. Penn State ranked #11 in pass efficiency which is a truer measure of how well they defend. They are also ranked #8 in the country in sacks averaging 3.2 per game. Overall, the Nittany Lions finished #16 in total defense and #11 in scoring defense giving up just under 15 points per game. The bottom line is they will make you fight for every yard. Scared yet? Let me tell you about some of the players. I will include their numbers for your reference as you watch the game since as I'm sure you know, there is no name on their jersey.
The defensive line is anchored by the defensive tackles, Ed Johnson(#92) and Jay Alford (#13). Alford was named third team All American by the AP and is the more athletic of the two. What Johnson gives up in athletic ability (and conditioning) he makes up for in sheer strength. He has no fancy moves. No lightning speed. He will simply line up between Parker and McNeil and plow through the gap with amazing success. He probably will not sack Ainge unless he holds the ball too long, but he will force the him into rushing a throw or moving around giving one of his teammates a shot at him. Against the run, these guys don't make a lot of tackles. Their job is to eat up blockers to allow the linebackers to roam free.
As good as the defensive tackles are, the defensive ends are quite average. Tim Shaw (#20) anchors the right defensive end spot lining up across from Sears. Shaw played linebacker last year and he was a running back as a freshman. He does an adequate job at DE playing the run by containing the outside and altering the angle of the play to give the linebackers a lane, but as you would expect he is small for a defensive end and I wouldn't expect him to get much of a pass rush against Sears. The other defensive end spot is a platoon of players Jim Shaw (#99), Josh Gaines (#47), and Maurice Evans (#48). Shaw is a powerful senior that has been struggling with ankle injuries all year. Gaines is a solid player but not a dominating defensive end. Evans has tremendous potential, but he is only a freshman and didn't get much playing time this year. With three weeks of practice before the game, don't be surprised if Evans has a breakout game and makes an impact with a sack or two.
There is a lot of talk about how much more athletic the SEC defensive backs are versus the Big Ten secondaries. The Penn State secondary is extremely athletic and may be the deepest pool of talent in the Big Ten. There are guys buried three deep on the depth chart with 4.3 speed. Sophomore cornerback Justin King (#1) is the star of the group. Many publications considered him the top cornerback coming out of high school a few years ago. Most games he is completely invisible on the field and the boxscore. That's because he is a shutdown corner that most teams try to avoid. Against Ohio State, he held Ted Ginn Jr. to 2 catches for 15 yards and intercepted a pass that was intended for him. He's good.
I expect you will see your Volunteers try to pick on Tony Davis (#11) who lines up across from King at the other cornerback position. Most teams have all year with little success. He's a great athlete in his own right, but given the choice between he and King, most teams choose Davis. He didn't intercept a pass all year, but he broke up 13 on the year. Like King, Davis is undersized compared to most wide receivers (both stand around 5'11"), but he makes up for it with athletic ability that forces quarterbacks to hit tight windows.
The safties are Anthony Scirrotto (#7) and Donnie Johnson (#6). Johnson is a big hitter that loves to play the run. He is a senior and very experienced, but he can be taken advantage of in the passing game since he doesn't have blazing speed for a defensive back. Scirrotto is a playmaker that tied for the lead in interceptions for the Big Ten. He can bait a quarterback into making a poor throw, but if he is forced to make an open field tackle, well, let's just say I get a bit nervous. He makes a lot more than he misses, but he misses too many.
The strength of this squad, as I'm sure you are aware, is the linebackers. Paul Posluszny (#31) is the stud. You know the story. Two Bednarik awards. One Butkus. All American. He's great. Many people said he looked a step slow this year after coming off knee rehab in the off season. He was, but not because he was injured. He was playing with a bulky brace on his knee and he switched to inside linebacker from his normal outside linebacker spot. By midseason he went to a smaller brace which he still wears and he got used to the MLB spot. The second half of the season he was a complete animal and back to his 2005 form.
As good as Poz is, many Penn State fans would argue that Dan Connor (#40) is better. Poz will finish his career as the all time leading tackler in a Penn State uniform. Next year Dan Connor will most likely pass him. I like to say Poz is the play maker. He will fly into the backfield to sack the QB or run down a tailback from behind showing amazing ability. Dan Connor is the rock of the defense. Always in position. Always beating his man. Always making the tackle. He is probably the most consistent player on the defense. If not for playing in the shadow of #31, he would probably be the media darling as the best linebacker at Linebacker U.
The third linebacker is sophomore Sean Lee (#45). Lee is a tremendous athlete and sure to be an all-conference linebacker before his career is over. He had 83 tackles on the year which is pretty impressive considering he is the guy that gets pulled in nickel situations. If you need any proof of how good Sean Lee is, consider this. Tim Shaw was moved from linebacker to defensive end and Posluszny was moved to middle linebacker just to get Sean Lee on the field. He is that good.
Penn State uses the linebackers to try to confuse the offense. You will see them move around prior to the snap to make the quarterback guess if they are blitzing, playing the run, or dropping back into coverage. They are extremely active. They have what you hear people say "game speed". They watch tons of film and anticipate extremely well. If there is one weakness to this group, it is covering good tight ends. Judging by Chris Brown's stats, I would say he shouldn't pose much of a problem for Poz and company.
So there is a rundown on the Penn State players. Now let me tell you what I think Penn State will do. I think the Nittany Lions are confident they can contain the Tennessee running game with the front seven. Until the Vols prove they can run the ball, Penn State is not going to respect the run much. If Tennessee abandons the run like Purdue and Michigan State did, Penn State will switch to the nickel defense and they are not afraid to go with it the entire game. Nolan McCready (#24) is the nickel back. He is a fifth year senior and plays extremely well.
In the passing game, I expect Penn State will play tight man coverage on the wide receivers. King will match up on Meachem. The safties will play cover 2 deep zone to take away the big play. The linebackers will mix up their blitzes. All three will blitz often, and the game for Ainge and the offensive line will be guessing which one is coming. If I were Tennessee, I would play three wide receivers and try to spread out those linebackers to take them out of the game. I suspect the Nittany Lions will go with the nickel coverage often on 3rd and long and possibly sometimes on 2nd down. They will work to take away Meachem and force Ainge to beat them with someone else.
Like I said earlier, the bottom line is the Vols are going to have to work to get yards and score points. If this guest post sounds like a lot of gloom and doom for Rocky Top, good. It was meant to be. But before you write this off as a stupid Penn State homer's opinion I would ask you to wait until you read my intro to the Nittany Lion offense. I promise you the news gets better for Tennessee fans.