After losing senior standouts Jordan Hill, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges to the NFL draft, Penn State's defensive front seven was a question mark. Despite the return of known entities such as Deion Barnes and Glenn Carson, several new faces would have big shoes to fill.
Adding to the uncertainty was new defensive coordinator John Butler, who was taking over for Ted Roof.
But after wins over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, this defense seems to have picked up where the 2012 unit left off. Outside of a one-play, one-yard touchdown drive by Syracuse following an interception, Penn State has allowed just 10 points in 2013.
And despite what you've heard, the offense hasn't been doing the defense any favors.
Although Hackenberg has shown flashes of greatness, his offense is struggling in key areas. The Nits have converted an abysmal 7.7 percent (2-of-26) of their third down attempts, ranking them last among all FBS teams, according to ESPN.com. On top of that, the offense has turned the ball over six times, often putting the defense's back against the wall.
Despite being run out onto the field more often than they should, and having to play on a short field on a few occasions, Butler's defenders have held opponents to 22 first downs and a minuscule 1.83 yards per rushing attempt. As bad as Penn State has been at converting third downs, the defense has been staunch, allowing conversions on just 25 (9-of-36) percent of opponent's attempts.
As clichéd as it may sound, the success starts up front.
Senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is off to an All-American start with 18 tackles, including five for loss. Both are startling numbers from an interior lineman.
A disruptive force in the middle of a defense can open things up for the rest of the squad. That may be why senior middle linebacker Carson has had such a successful start to his season. He's second on the team with 16 tackles and has added a sack and two pass deflections while covering the field from sideline to sideline.
Although it is breaking in two new starting corners, the secondary has been stout, benefiting from several third-and-long situations. The corners have quickly found their groove, deflecting two passes apiece, and Trevor Williams hauled in the game-clinching interception in Week 1.
Veterans Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos have done a fine job of putting the backfield in the right position, and utility man Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had a standout performance against Syracuse with a sack, interception and a forced fumble that he recovered.
The Nittany Lions hope that they got their ground game on track this week, which would go a long way toward lessening the burden on the defense. Hackenberg will continue learning and will need to get away from unforced mistakes. In the meantime, the defense looks more than willing to bail him out as he feels his way through the out-of-conference schedule.
If the offense can cut down on its turnovers and figure out how to stay on the field on third downs, this defense might have the goods to keep Penn State in every game this year.
(All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.)
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