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Penn State Football: Seven Numbers Behind The Success Of 2017

by on January 15, 2018 1:00 PM

Penn State football's 2017 season was as good as any in program history when it comes to explosive offense, reliable defense and consistency on the field. Did the Nittany Lions reach all of their goals? No. Do they want a few plays back? They sure do, but that doesn't take away from an otherwise memorable season.

So what was the key? A lot of things played into the success Penn State had on the field this year, but at least seven numbers show how it came to be.


That's how many points per game Penn State's defense allowed on average. That's a figure good enough for 7th best in the nation and the best Penn State has posted since finishing 3rd with 12.2 points a game in 2008. Overall the Nittany Lions have finished in the Top 10 of scoring defense four times since 2008. Most recently in 2014. This change is particularity impressive when you consider Penn State was 47th in the nation just a season ago having given up 25.4 points a game.


The best thing to go with good defense is good offense and it's safe to say Penn State's 40+ points a game was a strong compliment to that. The Nittany Lions finished 6th nationally in points per game up from 37.6 points in 2016-17. All told Penn State posted its highest scoring offense of the past 10 years, with the 2008 squad finishing with 38.9 points a game. 


That's how many fumbles Penn State lost this season of the eight balls dropped on the field. That's the lowest since 2014 when Penn State had 14 fumbles and lost four. If Saquon Barkley doesn't get enough credit for something it's his ball security, and he was not responsible for any of the lost fumbles this season. Penn State hasn't finished with single digit fumbles and fumbles lost this past decade which makes this number all the more impressive.


It's safe to say punter Blake Gillikin is about as well known as any punter in America in the eyes of Penn State fans and with returners only gaining 4.29 yards a punt return, it's easy to see why. Gillikin is booming them deep and high for the lowest return average since 2013. Certainly this has a lot to do with Penn State's coverage units, but after a few season of wayward punts from a handful of punterrs, Gillikin has been as big of a part of Penn State's special team's success as anyone.


Penn State fans couldn't really blame the refs this year with the Nittany Lions averaging under 40 yards of penalties per game which is eighth best in the nation. The 54 total penalties called against Penn State in 2017 is 12th best nationally and the fewest for the Nittany Lions since 2008 when they were only flagged 53 times. Staying on schedule via fewer sacks and fewer penalties had a big part in Penn State's success and this next number.


That's Penn State's third down conversion percentage at the end of the year, 5th best in the country. For Penn State it's the best mark in that department since the 2009 and 2008 seasons when the Nittany Lions finished 8th and 6th respectively on third down. This number is boosted a bit by Trace McSorley's brilliance in the Fiesta Bowl, but the point remains the same. 171 third downs, 82 conversions.


Finally, 460 yards a game, 19th best in the country. The reason this is noteworthy is simply because Penn State managed to put up a better-than-average yardage number while finishing 8th in total points scored at 534. The point being the Nittany Lions were getting a good bang for their buck when it came to yardage gained and points scored. Of the many issues of the John Donovan/Christian Hackenberg era, it may simply have been Penn State gaining yards and failing to finish drives. In 2017 Penn State only averaged 125 more yards per game than in 2014 but put up almost twice as many points. Efficiency is key.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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