In the view of Joe Paterno (and a great many other coaches, for that matter), a handful of plays can determine a game.
Penn State continues to let those plays slip through its fingers, especially on defense.
The defenders played heroically in Saturday's 27-11 loss to Alabama. But again and again they were put in an untenable position by the impotent offense. Again and again they were given insufficient time to chill on the bench. As defensive tackle Devon Still said, I feel like we got worn down a little bit.
Nobody else would cop to that; not in so many words. But everybody agreed that the defense needs to make more plays, that in particular it needs to force more turnovers. They didn't create any against the Tide, though they were close to doing so on several occasions.
I guess that's where we are, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. We're close, but we've got to come up with those plays.
It's just a matter of inches, defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. That's how football is. You could see that today. We were half a second late for a couple balls. We've just got to get there.
This is nothing new. While the Lions forced three turnovers in the season-opening victory over Indiana State, they only created 14 last year, while coughing the ball up 24 times themselves. They had three giveaways against the Tide, and might have had a few more; they were nearly intercepted on four consecutive offensive snaps in the second half -- the first two passes by Rob Bolden, the last two by Matt McGloin.
Bolden and McGloin were a combined 12 for 39 for 144 yards, and PSU managed 251 yards in all, 32 fewer than it had in last year's 24-3 loss at Alabama. The defense allowed 359, 196 of that on 41 rushes.
But it might have, uh, stemmed the Tide early. On Alabama's second drive, quarterback A.J. McCarron thwarted a possible interception by defensive end Jack Crawford
and the Tide converted a fake punt
and safety Nick Sukay was a step late on a big third-down completion
and linebacker Gerald Hodges narrowly missed an end-zone interception on a five-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to tight end Michael Williams.
'Bama thus assumed a 7-3 lead, and never trailed again.
So while Penn State's defenders were encouraged by their play -- especially in comparison to last year's game against the Tide, in which they were out-physicaled, in the eyes of linebacker Mike Mauti or gave up, as Crawford said -- there is still that nagging flaw.
I think we learned as a defense we can play with anybody, Mauti said. We have a defense that's confident. We know what we're doing. What we need to do is just create turnovers. That's what we need to do, No. 1 -- create turnovers, as a defense. We do that, we give ourselves a better chance to win big games. That's the bottom line.
Crawford, rushing from right end, was thinking sack on his near-pick. Then McCarron turned his head and tried to loft a pass over Crawford's head, to running back Trent Richardson in the left flat. Crawford deflected the ball high into the air, and gave chase.
But before he could gather it in, McCarron grabbed the collar of Crawford's jersey and pulled him off-balance. That's perfectly legal, once a ball is tipped -- though that was news to the London-born Crawford, who is still relatively new to the game.
I thought they were going to throw a flag or something, he said.
Two plays later, Alabama converted a fourth-and-1 from the 40 via the fake punt, as tight end Brad Smelley, the personal protector for punter Cody Mandell, took a direct snap and nudged the ball forward just enough, despite the combined efforts of Hill, Hodges and middle linebacker Glenn Carson.
Paterno thought it debatable as to whether Smelley made it, as the referees' measurement showed. Carson didn't think there was any debate at all.
I definitely think I had it stopped, he said.
But Penn State had already used its three first-half timeouts and as such could not ask for a video review of the spot.
Three plays later, McCarron fired to Marquis Maze for a gain of 29 on third-and-6, as Sukay arrived a hair late in coverage. And four plays after that, McCarron squeezed the TD pass to Williams between Carson and Hodges.
I think that was on the middle linebacker on that one, Bradley said. That wasn't on Gerald.
I think Carson had to slide over.
Carson said he has a lot of responsibilities when the tight end goes out, that he has to think about receivers who might be deeper in the end zone.
It's not as easy as it looks in that case, he said, but I wish I got a hand on that ball.
Hodges nonetheless appeared to have the better shot at it.
So close, man, he said. I should have broke on it a little quicker, but it happens. It didn't go through my hands. I just missed it.
Kind of the way things have been going for the defense, which nonetheless remains unbowed. As Mauti said, PSU played 10 times better on that side of the ball than it did last year against the Tide. It's just a matter of making more plays.
That, and getting more help.
I just feel we've got to come together as an offense and a defensive team, Hodges said. Once we're able to come together as both, put it all together, we'll be good.