Resurgent Lions defense faces test in Wisconsin
Penn State linebacker Mike Hull doesn't remember the precise moment that it happened.
Maybe it was halftime of the game at Minnesota. The Nittany Lions were exhibiting the same brand of sloppy play that had marked their previous four Big Ten contests. The Golden Gophers already had 24 points and 241 total yards on the day.
Hull remembered defensive coordinator John Butler, a fiery type to begin with, bringing the heat as he spoke with his unit.
"He was pretty animated," Hull recalled this week.
"Maybe it was a passionate speech by Coach Butler that got us going. He just said to lay it all out on the line, play with a sense of urgency and pride for the rest of the season. I think we've all taken that speech to heart and done that."
The Nittany Lions held Minnesota scoreless and 140 total yards in the second half. They didn't win the game, but the defense's performance set the tone for a late-season resurgence that will be put to the test Saturday against Wisconsin and its devastating rushing attack.
Earlier in the season, defensive players would cite communication issues or "not having everyone on the same page" as the reason for the unit's play. In its first four Big Ten games, Penn State allowed averages of 41 points and 493 total yards.
But in the last three games, even counting the first half at Minnesota, the Nittany Lions have improved their numbers to 18 points and 335 total yards per game. The points do not include two kickoff-return touchdowns allowed by the Lions' special teams.
"I wouldn't say it's been anything system-wise," defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said. "I think it's just been us as players and as a defense. We just took it upon ourselves to play better. We knew we had to improve, because our play wasn't really good. We had to pick it up."
Olaniyan, who shifts over to tackle on occasion, has been a find along the defensive line. The 6-foot-3, 244-pound junior leads the Lions with five sacks and three forced fumbles, and is second with 11 tackles for loss. Last week against Nebraska, he sacked quarterback Ron Kellogg III, stripped the ball from him, and recovered it, all on the same play.
"C.J.'s made a lot of improvement," coach Bill O'Brien said. "He really worked hard in the offseason in the weight room. He got in better condition. He's doing better in school. It all kind of goes together. He's grown up, and he's played some good football for us."
Part of Olaniyan's "grown-up" status comes from the fact that he is a new father. His daughter, Nahla, was born in April.
"Having a daughter made me understand that it's not about me anymore," he said. "Every decision I make, as far as whether it may be on the field or off the field, is related to her."
The 6-foot, 227-pound Hull has grown into a leader. The junior has 24 tackles in his last three games and leads the Lions in tackles per game with 7.9. He missed two games after suffering a knee injury in the season opener.
"We're getting more comfortable with each other out there," Hull said. "We had a lot of guys that were first-time starters and younger guys. We also put it upon ourselves to play with more pride and get better and focus. So I think that carried over to Saturdays."