Third and better: Third down defense a major improvement for Penn State in winning streak

When Penn State began the season 0-2, there were some positives for the Nittany Lions: Matt McGloin looked more confident than he ever has, Bill O'Brien's new offense produced points and the holes at running back and wide receiver -- left by Silas Redd and Justin Brown, respectively -- didn't appear as deep as some fans worried.

But there was one glaring deficiency, one huge area of concern that was a large reason the Lions could not pull out wins against Ohio and Virginia: The Lions just couldn't get their opponents off the field.

In both games, Penn State allowed opponents to convert on 22 of 36 (61 percent) of third downs. The statistic was especially troubling in the second half of the Ohio game, where the Lions allowed the Bearcats to convert on 11 of 12 third down opportunities. 

Since then, the Lions have rolled out five straight wins. And the biggest area of improvement? On defense, Penn State is third and better -- by a long shot.

In the five game stretch, Penn State has allowed only 17 of 67 third down conversions (25 percent). In the win against Iowa -- at Kinnick Stadium, a place Penn State had not won at since 1999 -- the Lions limited the Hawkeyes to just two of 12 third down conversions. Penn State held a 16 minute edge in time of possession in that game.

In the win against then-No. 24 Northwestern, Penn State limited the Wildcats to four of 13 third down conversion attempts. Against Illinois -- O'Brien's first Big Ten road game -- the Illini only capitalized on four of 15 third down attempts.

On the season, despite the woeful start, the Lions are allowing opponents to convert 37.3 percent of the time on third down.

So what changed? It hasn't been a change in game plan, per se. The Lions still haven't played much nickel this year, mostly because of a lack of depth at secondary.

O'Brien said he's been harping on third down defense more in practice, specifically when the team watches game tape. 

"We did put a bigger emphasis on understanding the yardage, seeing the sticks and understanding what the team needs," O'Brien said.

Senior linebacker Hodges wouldn't say how much more tape of third down defense the Lions have been watching, but it is a lot, he said. The Paulsboro native said the biggest change has been a change in mentality. This is his senior season and the way Penn State performed in its first two games is not how Hodges wants to go out.

"I guess it's more of a pride thing, "Hodges said. "It's the backbone we've established for ourselves and being able to bump it down. I guess it's more of a want than a have to."

-Emily Kaplan