The Penn State defense Maryland will face on Saturday is built from the middle out.
First-year Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Bob Shoop coaches a 4-3 base defense, and its best two players are right at its heart: middle linebacker Mike Hull and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. Both are among the better players in the country at their positions.
Hull is the defense's leader, both in tackles and otherwise. He isn't big at 6 feet and 225 pounds, but he's become the latest in a remarkable line of linebackers to come out of Penn State, a list that includes Michael Mauti, Sean Lee, Paul Posluzny, Tamba Hali, LaVar Arrington and others. Hull will make life hard on both the Maryland pass and run games.
"I think when you take a look at their defense, it starts with Mike Hull. That guy is all over the place. He is a tremendous football player," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said.
"That guy's all over the place," left tackle Michael Dunn said of Hull, too, matching his coach verbatim. "He's always running to the ball - just a football player."
Hull does a bit of everything for Penn State. He leads the team with 47 unassisted tackles, which is basically triple the output of anyone else on the roster. He has two sacks, seven tackles for loss, an interception and two pass break-ups.
Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said Hull's blend of smarts, strength and quickness make him a handful for blockers, rendering fundamentals all the more important.
"We have to do a good job, when we get on him in the second level, of not getting overextended and leaning, because you are not going to get the downhill thump and separate like some linebackers," Locksley said. "It's because he is so athletic and so quick."
Zettel moved from defensive end to tackle before the season and has excelled in his new spot. He brings athleticism from his time on the line's edge and still has an end's build, at 6 feet 4 inches and about 275 pounds. He's disruptive against the run, and four of his eight tackles for loss to date are sacks. He's also one of just two defensive linemen in the country– the other being top-ranked Mississippi State's Preston Smith – to have two interceptions on the year.
No one on Maryland's offense has to be more aware of either Hull or Zettel than center Sal Conaboy.
"The two inside [tackles] are big, strong guys. They're physical. They're good players," Conaboy said. "They've got a good linebacking corps."
Edsall and Conaboy both pointed to Austin Johnson, who starts as the other defensive tackle next to Zettel in Penn State's four-down base defense, as an important part of the Penn State front. (As it's been pointed out in the comments, in Penn State's 4-3 defense, the inside tackles aren't technically lined up on the nose.)
Penn State allows only 83 rushing yards per game.
"They all swarm to the ball. They do a good job of shrinking the field. They play with a lot of energy, enthusiasm," running back Brandon Ross observed.
In the passing game, Maryland expects to see a lot of blitzing, but with mostly zone coverage behind it, as opposed to the man-to-man coverage Wisconsin brought last week against Maryland's receivers and quarterback C.J. Brown.
Given Brown's accuracy problems, facing zones should be a helpful change of pace, even if it takes away lanes for deep passes Brown has had a hard time completing anyway. Locksley said Maryland welcomed the zone coverage, because it would widen windows for Brown to deliver passes.
"It will still come down to me calling a good game and our players on offense executing the game plan under pressure," Locksley said.
Penn State's secondary will be without injured free safety Ryan Keiser, but strong safety Adrian Amos headlines what remains a pretty effective coverage group. As a team, Penn State has surrendered just a shade more than 200 yards passing per game, on 6.6 yards per attempt.
Brown, like Locksley, said handling pressure and avoiding mishaps were at the top of his agenda.
"Just handling the pressure, not hurting ourselves," Brown said. "I know this sounds old, but it's kind of been our Achilles' heel."
Turnovers, overthrows and penalties – including a hefty five false starts – plagued Maryland in last week's blowout loss to Wisconsin, a game Maryland coaches and players alike have tossed aside quickly. Locksley said Maryland's linemen had a hard time adjusting to a series of callouts from the Wisconsin defense, which locked linemen up and tripped them into false starts.
"We weren't very good last week. We had five or six of those calls," Locksley said, "and to me, that says that we weren't ready to play, because those are unforced errors that we talk about all the time."
For whatever struggles the Maryland line might have going forward, it appears unlikely communication would be among them. The Terps have started the same five linemen – Dunn, Silvano Altamirano, Conaboy, Andrew Zeller and Ryan Doyle – in every game, and Conaboy didn't anticipate the penalties would become a trend.
"When guys are jumping off that much, you know there's something wrong with the focus. And I think guys know that and have been working on it and working on executing, so we'll be all right," Conaboy said. "That's not really a worry of mine. That's not who we were, who we are, Saturday, and that's not who we're going to be."