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How Good is Penn State’s (Very) Stingy Defense? Let Us Count the Ways

by on November 07, 2019 7:30 PM

Let’s count the ways James Franklin can count on his defense:

Speed (1) and depth (2).

Penn State’s defense is fast from top to bottom, and defensive coordinator Brent Pry uses a revolving door approach with frequent substitutions.

Speed: The Nittany Lions’ fleet of fleet-of-foot defenders will allow them to go mano o mano with the Buckeyes and approaches SEC quality, from whence James Franklin came.

Depth: Pry’s two- and three-deep subbing blends steady and accountable veterans with exceptionally talented youth, keeping legs fresh and gaining experience in the process. Not to mention the application of daily pressure and competition in practice.

“Other than speed and depth,” I asked Franklin this week, “what makes your defense so good?”

James gave me the blinking man meme stare, waited a quick Johnny Carson-like half-beat, then deadpanned back:

“Speed and depth.”

Touche. That’s Franklin’s nuanced humor. And truth, of course.


There’s more, of course.

Like experience (3): Five of the Nittany Lions’ 10 top tacklers are in their final season at Penn State — linebackers Cam Brown and Jan Johnson, tackle Rob Windsor, safety Garrett Taylor and corner John Reid.

Another four of the Top 10 tacklers could, conceivably, declare for the NFL this offseason: D-ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, corner Tariq Castro-Fields and safety Lamont Wade. All are juniors; Toney is a senior academically. Figure YGM to be the surest bet to go early.

That leaves Micah Parsons (4), just a sophomore but Penn State’s leading tackler in 2019, with 57 stops — 13 ahead of Brown, at No. 2 with 44.

Along with Parsons, there is a plethora of young and exceptional talent (5). Take Pry’s Guys at linebacker. You can make a case — as CJF likes to say — that the trio of Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa and Brandon Smith will actually elevate LBU’s play in 2020.

That’s just for starters. Speaking of which, when P.J. Mustipher gets the start at D-tackle vs. Minnesota on Saturday due to Antonio Shelton’s deserved one-game suspension, he’ll be ready. That process began last year.

“Last year we played a bunch of young players (6) that this year are so much more experienced and so much more confident (7),” Franklin said. “I mean, P.J. Mustipher playing as a true freshman, I thought he did some really good things. But now playing as a true sophomore, it's a completely different scenario.

“Micah Parsons, although he played a lot of football for us last year, he was still a first-time linebacker. He was still, you know, a first-time guy playing significant time. Both of those guys now have worked into starting roles, and the confidence and experience that comes with that.”


There are other reasons why the Nittany Lion defense is so good in 2019.

The numbers actually say the PSU D is great. The Nittany Lions are allowing just 9.6 points per game, No. 2 in the nation. They are holding opponents to 1 score every 8 possessions, a key component of an efficiency process that ranks the Penn State defense No. 10 in the nation, according to ESPN.

Part of the reason can be found on Penn State’s offense, which has evolved from a straight RPO to more of a multiple team, especially in its deployment of its tight ends.

“I think our offense, playing more 12 personnel — which is something that was very important to me two years ago when Ricky (Rahne) took over — I think has helped our offense,” Franklin explained.

“…it allows our defense to be more prepared for the regular season (8) when it comes. Because if you’re only seeing spread — if you're only seeing 10 personnel, if you’re only seeing 11 personnel — and that’s all you ever see, then you’ve got to get prepared for a team like (Minnesota) that’s going to line up in heavy sets or 12 personnel or whatever it may be.

“If you've never seen it from a talented offense, on your own team, it’s hard to get ready for that in a week.”

This is Pry’s fourth season as D-coordinator at Penn State (time flies!), succeeding Bob Shoop, and he’s earning every penny of his annual million-and-a-half. Pry was a coordinator elsewhere, but at Penn State the stakes are higher, the talent better, the show almost strictly his own. This is his ninth year with Franklin; same goes for chief Wild Dog Sean Spencer. It is Terry Smith’s sixth year at his alma mater with Franklin and it is Tim Banks’ fourth season at PSU.

It’s a talented group, some of them literally greybeards, with over 100 years of coaching experience. Franklin thinks they are improving with age.

“I also think our coaches have gotten better (9),” Franklin said. “They get better every single year. I think Brent’s ability to work with his staff, as well as Tim’s experience as a coordinator, I think they complement each other very well.”

With that comes with an evolution of style and schematics (10), crafted during an offseason of looking in the mirror and dissecting the roster, i.e., film study.

“I think we do a really good job of in the off-season of saying, ‘OK, this is how we played last year and this was a strength and this was good to us,’ ” said Franklin, offering a laundry list of questions that Pry & Co. answered in the offseason:

“Based on our personnel and our experience, how is the discovery of the Penn State defense for this season? How is it going to be maybe a little different than stylistically? Are we going to play a little bit different? What does our personnel lend us to be? I think we have done a good job of that.”


Then there’s the competition.

While Penn State downed Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State in a 15-day span — with two of the games on the road — and held them to just to just 40 combined points (11) in 180 minutes, the Nittany Lions have not faced any super-powers on offense thus far in 2019.

In fact, based on ESPN’s rankings of the most efficient offenses, Penn State’s opening eight opponents have not been very good on offense (12) — and not just when they played the Nittany Lions. Idaho, as an FCS school, is not included in the rankings, Just as well; the Vandals are 4-5 and averaging just 25 points per game.

For Penn State’s other seven foes in 2019, they rank an average of 73rd — which is just average — among the 130 FBS offenses. And in many cases, rank is the right word:

From worst to best: Maryland is the 97th most efficient offense, followed by Buffalo (94), Pitt (92), Purdue (84), Michigan State (57), Iowa (49) and Michigan (40). Yuck.

It gets a lot tougher, in a hurry: Minnesota is ranked No. 15, followed by Indiana (19, but now minus its starting QB), Ohio State (1) and Rutgers (123).


Still the numbers are pretty stunning to date for the Nittany Lions. Three examples:

Three points (13).

That’s the total number of points Penn State’s defense has given up in the first quarter of 2019. That’s all eight first quarters — 120 minutes worth. No touchdowns, one field goal (a 47-yarder by Iowa’s Keith Duncan with 132 seconds left in the  opening quarter).

77 points (14).

In all, the Nittany Lion defense has given up just 77 points in the 250 minutes and 8 seconds that opposing offenses have had the ball in 2019.

That’s only 9 touchdowns and 5 field goals (from 24, 25, 25, 32 and 47 yards) in 109 drives by opposing offenses. It translates to roughly one score for every eight possession — a 12.5% scoring efficiency.

(By comparison, Penn State’s offense has scored 40 touchdowns and made 5 field goals in 110 possession. That’s a 41% scoring efficiency, roughly one score every 2.5 possessions. These numbers don’t include John Reid’s pick-6 vs. Buffalo).

9.6 points (15).

That’s how many points per game the Nittany Lion defense is giving up through eight games. It’s No. 2 in the nation, trailing only Ohio State (7.9 ppg). Rounding out the Top 10 are: Iowa (10.1), Wisconsin (11.4), Georgia (11.4), Clemson (11.7), Utah (12.2), San Diego State (14.1), Alabama (15.3) and Oregon (15.8).

With the exception of top-ranked LSU, every one of the top 8 teams in this week’s inaugural College Football Playoff rankings is in the Top 10 for stingiest defenses. No surprise.

Seventh since 1965 (16).

Over the last 55 years of Penn State football — dating back to 1965, Rip Engle’s last season — the 2019 Nittany Lion defense ranks seventh in fewest points allowed (77) through the first eight games of the season. That’s generational quality. Here’s the Top 12, with season-ending record and final AP ranking in parenthesis:

1. 1973 – 68 points (12-0, 5th)

2. 2009 – 71 points (11-2, 9th)

3. 1969 – 72 points (11-0, 2nd)

4. 1978 – 74 points (11-1, 4th)

5. 1986 – 75 points (12-0, 1st)

6. 1975 – 76 points (9-3, 10th)

7. 2019 – 77 points (8-0, 5th)

8. 1971 – 79 points (11-1, 5th)

9. 1974 – 84 points (10-2, 7th)

10. 1968 – 85 points (11-0, 2nd)

11. 1981 – 86 points (10-2, 3rd)

12. 2008 – 94 points (11-2, 8th)

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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