Defense vows to come back stronger

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive tackle Jordan Hill just shook his head.

Penn State wasn't supposed to allow 499 yards of offense in the opener. Ohio wasn't supposed to run for 175 yards. And the defense wasn't supposed to be a liability this season.

A downtrodden Hill short on answers swiveled his head Saturday, looking into media members' eyes, and vowed this would never happen again. "You won't see that all season, I'll tell you that right now," he said. "No other team will do that to us again."

A team hadn't done that to Penn State in a season opener since Miami (Fla.) in 2001, a year when most of the Nittany Lions' current players tossed Nerf footballs or hung on the monkey bars during recess. Matt McGloin was 11 years old at the time; others were as young as 7.

Penn State defenses just didn't struggle. Not like this. Sure, the Lions allowed 600 yards against Houston in January's TicketCity Bowl -- but the Cougars' No. 1-ranked offense averaged 599 yards a game.

This was different. The players didn't know the numbers, but they felt it: Penn State's defense fared worse than most of Ohio's lower-level opponents last year. Ohio's offense averaged just 449 yards a game last year; Penn State permitted half-a-football-field more than that Saturday.

"From the history of our defense, we all know we can do better than this," defensive end Deion Barnes said.

Players seemed beside themselves and at a loss to explain the change. Linebacker Michael Mauti stared at his feet outside the locker room, and Bill O'Brien treated Saturday's press conference as if he were late for a doctor's appointment.

Penn State had last allowed more than 490 regular-season yards on Nov. 24, 2001, against Michigan State -- just a few weeks after that Miami game (602 yards). The Nittany Lions finished 5-6 that season, a year sandwiched between those forgettable "dark days" of Penn State football, a time when the Lions found just one winning season over the span of five.

In the face of July's sanctions and a loss to a MAC team -- which last happened against Toledo in 2000 -- the specter of those "dark days" now hangs over Happy Valley. Hill and Mauti swore Saturday this was just a warm-up, not the beginning of a trend, but Penn State's next opponent (Virginia) will better answer that.

"We're not going to let this carry over to next week," Mauti said.

If Penn State's defense struggles for a second straight game, Saturday's loss to Ohio can no longer be treated like an exception. Either Penn State simply lacks talent on a defense that lost four starting DBs to graduation or defensive coordinator Ted Roof's scheme fits like a jigsaw piece to the wrong puzzle.

Roof's aggressive style boosted poor defenses at Duke and Minnesota, but he struggled with a solid team in Auburn. Behind first-round NFL draft pick Nick Fairley in 2010, Auburn finished 60th in total defense. In 2011, it finished the regular season in 78th.

This early in the season, players turned to the bright side. But it's not yet clear if that's the right side.

"We have to come back to work on Monday," Hill said. "We still have 11 more games to go."