“It's big, especially since we're like, exactly in the middle of the year,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “It's big just to get rested up. All the bumps and bruises will go away. We're going to get a chance just to relax for a couple days.”
Hill headed home to his native Steelton, Pa., Friday. But during the week's light practices he and the other Nittany Lions were “basically scouting ourselves just to see what we can get better at.”
Six games down - the last four of them victories. Six yet to come. Coach Bill O'Brien told reporters Tuesday he considers the upcoming schedule “Murderers' Row.” It begins with a visit to Iowa Oct. 20, and continues with a home game against Ohio State the last weekend of the month.
So the idea now is to apply some polish. The Lions' defense is in the middle of the Big Ten pack in most statistical categories - sixth in yardage allowed (33.9.2) and passing yards allowed (212.3), seventh in rushing yards allowed (126.8) and pass efficiency (120.6 rating) '- but has allowed the second-fewest points (16.0).
PSU has yet to allow a first-quarter point, and has yielded 23 in the first half to date. Northwestern's two second-quarter touchdowns were the first TDs the Lions have allowed before intermission this year.
In Hill's mind the defense has to continue its strong starts, while avoiding “momentum plays” on the part of an opponent. He would also like to see the Lions accumulate more sacks, even though they have 15 to date, third-most in the conference.
“We've hit the quarterback a lot in these last six games - more than we have since I've been here,” Hill said. “Now we've got to take it to that next step, where we're actually sacking him more than we're hitting him.”
Neither strength nor conditioning are the problem; under the new regimen employed by Craig Fitzgerald, Hill said everyone is stronger, and has noticed “as a whole front seven, how we can overpower an offensive line.”
But they have faced a number of offenses that have employed three-step drops, which has kept them from getting home as much as they might like.
“Now,” he said, “we've just got to bring better effort and go get the sack.”
Hill said he was impressed by the progress of the secondary, which has four new starters this year. Each week, he said, that quartet has played with increased confidence. Each week somebody else is making a big play.
And he finds it “disrespectful” that outside linebacker Mike Mauti has not been included on the Lombardi Award watch list.
“There's not too many guys playing like he has,” Hill said. “It's disappointing, but one thing I always say is, as a football player you use anything for motivation, and he can use that as a motivation.”
There was also much discussion of O'Brien during Hill's conference call with reporters. Hill said he hasn't paid much attention to the work being done by other coaches, but believes the Lions' first-year boss would be “the best guy” for Coach of the Year honors.
O'Brien gets high marks from Hill for his ability to motivate, strategize and assemble a staff.
“It's fun going out there and playing for him,” he said, “because he wants you to do the best you can do, and if you can do that, he's going to be happy for you.”
He knew little about O'Brien before he was hired, beyond the oft-shown video clip of him yelling at Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during a game last December, when O'Brien was wrapping up his stint as New England's offensive coordinator.
“That's the only highlight they seemed to show,” Hill said. “That's basically all I knew about Coach O'Brien, but once he got here and gave us that first speech and talked to us as a team for the first time, I was pretty sure that he was the right guy. … I'm glad he got the job.”