STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Linebacker U. didn't live up to its lofty standards this season.
Penn State allowed an uncharacteristically high 164 rushing yards per game and lacked a pass rush. They were porous in the red zone, allowing foes to score 30 of 32 times inside the 20 (24 touchdowns).
So a defense ravaged by injuries sees the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. Florida (7-5) as a chance to take the first step toward shoring up the holes in 2011.
"I think we've grown tremendously as linebackers and that's going to move on toward these next couple practices and to the bowl game and after the bowl game to next season," junior linebacker Nathan Stupar said. "I have a feeling that you guys are really going to see that next season."
There were flashes of dominance at times, but those moments were outnumbered by periods of middling defense — not a term that typically comes to mind when talking Penn State football. This is the program, after all, that has produced linebacking greats like Jack Ham and Shane Conlan, not to mention more recent standouts like Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman. Those playmakers left last season, along with defensive tackle Jared Odrick, three stars who commanded attention from opposing offensive coordinators.
The defensive line, though, couldn't get enough push up front, and two juniors pegged for breakout campaigns — tackle Devon Still and end Jack Crawford — fell short of expectations. Penn State (7-5) is ninth in the Big Ten with 16 sacks. Crawford was slowed by a foot injury much of the season, but wasn't playing well, even when healthy.
He was part of a lengthy list of defenders sent to the sideline. Among the other notable names, safety Nick Sukay (chest) is out for the year, while it's unclear whether defensive end Eric Latimore (left wrist) will return for the Outback Bowl.
Penn State should have top linebacker Michael Mauti back, though, at 100 percent for Florida after being hampered by a right shoulder injury the last few weeks of the season.
The sophomore stopped short of saying the linebacking crew took a step back this year, but did note the unit had three new starters replacing three players drafted into the NFL. Poor tackling was a yearlong, team-wide issue, too.
"The more we play, we're just going to get better," Mauti said. "That's what we tried to do all season."
Not that 2010 was a complete disappointment. The Nittany Lions are second in the league in pass defense, and for the most part, didn't stray too far from coordinator Tom Bradley's "bend-but-don't break" scheme.
And for all the talk from coach Joe Paterno about the youth of the team — only three seniors are listed as starters on the defensive depth chart — the hope is that the younger players benefited from the more-than-expected playing time.
It was enough of a concern for Paterno that he told his staff to concentrate on developing the younger players during the first couple days of bowl practice. Players are taking finals now, and practice picks up in Florida on Sunday.
"I said, 'Let's not worry too much about the older kids'," Paterno said. "I was really pleased with the way some of the younger kids reacted. There's more personnel, better personnel, with some of the younger kids than I thought."
Like Penn State, Florida struggled at times in conference play. The Gators, used to winning the SEC, stumbled to a 4-4 finish in their league. But Paterno knows, in many ways, that Florida is still Florida. And that means the Gators could have a speed advantage over the Nittany Lions.
So, a stout, passionate performance in Tampa could be just the confidence boost this Penn State defense needs to prepare for 2011.
"I think we showed some high points during the season, but we also showed a couple of low points," Still said. "That's something for us to look at during the offseason."