Among the highlights of the “work week” for Penn State’s defensive players is coordinator Bob Shoop running down where the unit ranks in the Big Ten and nationally.
“A lot of the guys are really interested in those numbers,” defensive co-captain Mike Hull said. “You hear guys talking about it in the locker room. It definitely gets people excited.”
The Nittany Lions are making a case that they have the best defense in the FBS. Penn State ranks among the top four in scoring defense, total defense, first downs allowed, rushing defense and opponents’ pass efficiency.
In the latter two categories, the Lions are No. 1 in the country.
“The goal is to try to be No. 1 in every category possible,” senior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said. “It kind of helps us going into practice for that week with a different mindset. If we’re second ranked in a certain category, we try to get to No. 1 and try to improve — whether it’s our technique or assignments — to make sure we get No. 1 next week.”
PSU is allowing an FBS-best 83.1 rushing yards per game, 4.3 fewer than No. 2 Louisville. Opposing quarterbacks have a 96.89 pass efficiency against the Lions. Only three other teams have held opponents under 100.
The 16.2 points per game Penn State allows trails only Ole Miss (11.9), Alabama (14.5) and Wisconsin (15.3). The Big Ten rival Badgers (244.0) and Clemson (262.1) are the only teams to permit fewer yards per game than the Lions’ 256.6. Wisconsin (129) also is the only team to have allowed fewer first downs this season than Penn State’s 140.
“Our defense is really good. Really good,” coach James Franklin said.
“It’s an awesome thing. We’re very proud of the accomplishments that they’ve made. But ultimately, it’s about wins. If we could finish this season going undefeated one week at a time and trade some rankings on defense, we’d do that.”
None of Penn State’s four defeats can be pegged on the defense: PSU’s offense produced 12.0 points per game during regulation of those losses, and oftentimes the offense or special teams gave the defense short fields with which to defend.
PSU’s 6-4 record likely precludes this defense from being remembered as one of the best in school history. But the numbers — even in today’s hyper-offensive, high-scoring era — suggest that perhaps it should.
• The total defense number is Penn State’s best since the 11-1 team of 1978.
• Penn State’s defense allows 4.1 yards per play, its fewest since the 1990 squad allowed 4.0.
• The most recent defense to hold opponents to fewer than 85 rushing yards per game was the national championship team of 1986.
“It’s just pretty amazing that we’re able to be that high in a lot of those categories,” Hull said. “It’d just be great to go out on a high note as one of the better defenses to come through Penn State.”