UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The low point came against Ohio State, because giving up 63 points cannot be considered anything but a nadir. Since then, the Penn State defense has made steady progress. It has not solidified into a strength, but it has not been a weakness, either.
In the past four games, Penn State has not allowed more than 24 points, holding opponents to about 21 points per game. These opponents have averaged about 7 percent more total yards against Penn State than they do against other Big Ten opponents, but the saving grace has been turnovers. Penn State has forced eight turnovers in the past four games after forcing four in the first three conference games.
Safety Ryan Keiser said the defense has not done anything schematically different.
“We’re going out there and being more aggressive,” he said.
This change of pace and intensity happened at halftime of the Minnesota game Nov. 9. That’s how linebacker Mike Hull remembers it.
In the first half, Penn State allowed Minnesota to score 24 points. The game came after Penn State allowed 40 or more points in three of its previous four, and defensive coordinator John Butler was angry and animated. Hull doesn’t exactly remember the content of Butler’s speech, but it fired up everyone.
“He just said lay it all out on the line,” Hull said. “Play with a sense of urgency and pride for the rest of the season. I think we’ve taken that speech to heart and done that.”
Penn State didn’t allow a point in the second half of the 24-10 loss.
Along with Hull, freshman linebacker Brandon Bell had the defensive play of the game for Penn State against Nebraska. On third-and-goal in the fourth quarter, Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellogg III sprinted for the end zone and looked ready to cross the plane. Then Hull and Bell got in the way. They stuffed him at the goal line, saving a touchdown.
Bell had six tackles and a forced fumble Saturday. He has 18 tackles for the season, and his time at linebacker has increased significantly in the past two games. Bell started the year primarily playing on special teams, but has seen more playing time because of linebacker injuries and his encouraging development.
Hull called him a “rock” at weakside linebacker.
“I think he’s one of the most improved players on the team, especially defensively,” Hull said. “Since he’s gotten here, he’s just made a lot of strides and he’s made a lot of big plays for us in the past couple weeks, and we needed it. So everyone’s pretty pleased with the way he’s coming along.”
Running back Bill Belton should be able to play Saturday against Wisconsin, coach Bill O’Brien said. Belton missed the Nebraska game with a shoulder injury and because of strep throat. He is listed as a co-starter at running back with Zach Zwinak.
Injured punt returner Von Walker should also be healthy, O’Brien said.
Penn State does not have classes this week, which O’Brien said will give the players extra time to rest and allow them to better prepare for Wisconsin.
“Being able to sleep in a little bit, come over, get some treatments in the training room and then come back after practice and get another treatment, I think that will help,” he said. “And there’s only one game left, so you should — our guys will be ready to go out there and lay it on the line.”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.