PSU secondary struggling

Before the season, assistant coach John Butler would rouse his defensive backs by rattling off negative snippets from the media.

Butler wouldn't have to read long before a theme emerged: They were the defense's weak link, too shallow and too inexperienced. Cornerbacks Stephon Morris and Adrian Amos looked upon those words as motivation.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, they stopped short of admitting those critics were right but -- motivating or not -- they knew they hadn't yet proved those snippets wrong.

"No," Amos acknowledged, "I don't think we've done enough. I think we can make a lot more plays; we just have to start capitalizing."

Penn State's passing defense isn't even ranked in the top 100, and nowhere are the secondary's struggles more apparent than on third downs. In the second half this season, Penn State's opponents have converted 18-of-21 third-down opportunities.

Defensive end Pete Massaro said he was "confused" over that disparity. Bill O'Brien didn't have an immediate answer either. But Morris knew.

"It's pretty much a secondary problem," Morris said, "because they're pretty much going after seam routes and going after the middle. That's the DBs' fault. It's not really the linebackers or the linemen's problem."

All but three of those third downs were converted on pass plays. Even within two yards, opponents still opted to pass two-thirds of the time.

Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco used the space between the hashmarks as a safety net Saturday. He converted a 3rd-and-20 play to tight end Jake McGee and, one quarter later, beat an out-of-place safety on a 3rd-and-16 play -- again to McGee. And the final touchdown pass, on third down? McGee.

"It's always going to be a little frustrating, not getting off the field when you know you're supposed to," Amos said, "especially the way it happened Saturday, with passes to the tight ends and things like that."

The Nittany Lions' pass defense is ranked No. 101 in the country, and its third-down defense is even worse. Only three FBS teams -- New Mexico, Navy and Southern Miss -- have allowed a higher rate of conversions.

With four new starters and virtually no bench, Penn State doesn't have many options to retool. Amos could slide over to safety, but true freshman Da'Quan Davis would then have to replace him at cornerback.

O'Brien said the defense will try to shore up the middle of the field this week. But if that doesn't work, PSU's secondary coach will have another sackful of newspaper clips and printouts to share with Amos and Morris.

And that can only stay motivating for so long.