Penn State's defense, often overlooked, shines against Iowa

IOWA CITY, IOWA -- The water cooler talk over the next week will be about Penn State's offense.

As fans revel in the Nittany Lions' 38-14 win at Kinnick Stadium -- and prepare for Penn State's biggest game of the year, a primetime match against undefeated Ohio -- they'll talk about Matt McGloin and Bill O'Brien's pro-style playbook and the Lions' tight ends. 

It will all be justified; Penn State ran 90 offensive plays, burning the Hawkeyes for 504 yards. Running back Bill Belton recorded his first career 100 yard game and tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James picked up more offensive yards (151) than Penn State tight ends combined for all of last season (122).

But just as important to the Lions' success on Saturday night was their defense. It's an aspect of Penn State's game that has improved immensely in this five game winning streak, but has gone largely overlooked.

For 56 minutes, Penn State pitched a shutout against the Hawkeyes' offense (their first score was on a kickoff return early in the fourth quarter). It was the first time Iowa was held scoreless at home in the first half since 2006. 

Third down conversions? That was an area the Lions struggled mightily with in their first two games. That's when the talk was about how this season was going to spiral out of control fast.

On Saturday, Penn State allowed Iowa to convert on just two of 12 third down attempts. On fourth downs, the Hawkeyes were 1-for-4.

"They play good within the scheme," coach Bill O'Brien said of his defense. "To this point in the season, it's been fun to watch them every week. They continue to get better and play that way."

Said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz: "We didn't block them well, execute well, run or pass. We couldn't get anything going tonight at all, period."

Iowa's offense revolves around its run game. And though it's dealt with a plethora of injuries, the unit was stifled by Penn State's defensive line all night. Iowa mustered just 20 rushing yards on 23 carries.

And at the center of it all, of course, was linebacker Mike Mauti. The senior is an emotional leader for this team, the glue that convinced the younger guys to stick together this summer when everything got tough. He backs up his talk with a performance like Saturday, where he recorded his team-high third interception. He and senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill combined for 17 tackles, including three for loss.

Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg was 17-for-36 with only 189 yards, prompting Ferentz to field quarterback controversy questions after the game.

Earlier in the week, O'Brien came to the defense of his defensive coordinator, Ted Roof. O'Brien said he understood the early criticism -- "it's the media's job to observe and report," O'Brien said -- but he considered his guy one of the best defensive coordinators in the country.

Roof, who coached Auburn's defense in its national championship season, is backing up the praise from his head coach. If the Lions have a repeat performacne against Braxton Miller and the undefeated Buckeyes next week, the praise will surely keep coming.

-Emily Kaplan