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Does Penn State Football’s Defense Deserve a Better Offense?

23.36 points.

That’s how many points Penn State’s offense has averaged in its 11 Big Ten Conference games under O-coordinator Mike Yurcich in 2021-22.

The 17 points that Penn State — hampered by driving rain and a flood of five turnovers — hung on Northwestern on Saturday didn’t help things, either.

Blame that very average scoring average on Cliff’s injury against Iowa. Or the Roberson Experience that ensued. Or the eight points Penn State scored in nine overtimes against Illinois. Or the offensive line. Or stout Big Ten defenses. Or that Drew Allar should get the starting nod at QB.

Or the inability of James Franklin — a former offensive coordinator at both Kansas State and Maryland — to establish a consistent and consistently effective offensive identity since Nov. 28, 2017; that was the day Mississippi State hired Joe Moorhead away from Penn State to be its head coach.

The fact remains, since the start of conference play last season, what passes for Iowa’s offense has scored more points Penn State’s offense — 268 to 257.

For further comparison, stack up Penn State’s 23.36 ppg in the Big Ten in 2021-22 with Ohio State’s 47.2 ppg (elite) and Michigan’s 33.5 ppg (near-great).

The paucity of Penn State points is not a (dis)function of playing a tough Big Ten East slate, either: 

— In six games against the full complement of East opponents, the Nittany Lions have averaged 25.2 points.

— In five games against West opponents (Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern), they have averaged just 21.2 points per game.

In 2021-22, Penn State’s defense has been the second stingiest in the Big Ten, yielding just 17.2 points. Meanwhile, its offense is 10th in scoring. Which makes new DC Manny Diaz’s task all the tougher.

BACK, BACK, BACK

No offense, but I think the Nittany Lion defense deserves better. Though they won’t say so.

“The whole thing, man, that kind of brings us back to it is having your brother’s back,” said defensive end Nick Tarburton, who recovered one fumble and caused another on Saturday. “And then run out there, man, strapping the hell up and going to war for your brothers.”

The PSU D had its backs to the wall several times on Saturday, thanks to their brothers’ ineptitude. Penn State’s offense turned the ball over five times — fumbles by every running back who played, in the persons of Nicholas Singleton (2), Kaytron Allen and Keyvone Lee, as well as a pick thrown by Sean Clifford.

All five times the Penn State defense kept Northwestern off the scoreboard. Bottom-line, thanks to Penn State’s defense, Northwestern scored zero points off of turnovers on Saturday as the Nittany Lions didn’t pay once for its offensive indiscretions. In detail:

  QuarterNW Obtained BallPlays-Yds., TimeNW Drive Ended
    1fumble3-5, 1:04punt
    1interception3-(-1), 1:26interception
    2fumble2-(-7), :41fumble
    3fumble3-3, 1:50punt
    4fumble4-8, 1:06downs

That string of stops doesn’t even count the sterling goal line stand by the Penn State defense at the start of the fourth quarter, when Northwestern went 74 yards in 10 plays, only to see their drive end 36 inches from paydirt and what could have been a tight 17-14 deficit thanks to a big stop by PJ Mustipher & Co.

“Having a great defense like that helps out a lot,” said PSU tight end Brenton Strange. “If we make a mistake, we have guys like Tig (Brown) and Chop (Robinson) and really everybody on defense to back us up. It’s very important to play complementary football.”

When it comes to complementary football, Brown had nothing but compliments for the PSU offense after the game. As friends.

I asked Brown if the Penn State “offense and defense mesh.” He enthusiastically replied that they do — off the field.

“This offense and defense is a brotherhood,” said Brown, who had an interception and six tackles against Northwestern. “This is the tightest offense and defense I’ve been a part of. I hang out with the wide receivers all the time. I hang out with Parker Washington all the time. I hang out with Sean Clifford all the time.

“It’s just a big family with us. That’s why we can go out there with a sudden change (following a turnover) and protect our brothers. We show up when we need to show up and they show when they need to show up. It’s not just offense and defense. It’s a team thing.”

THE POINT

In its 29 Big Ten games since the start of the 2019 season, Penn State has scored more than 30 points a total of eight times (27%). By comparison, in the heyday of Franklin’s Penn State big-time offenses, Moorhead’s guys scored over 30 points in 14 of 19 Big Ten games (74%) in 2016 and ’17.

In Kirk Ciarrocca’s only season as Penn State’s offensive coordinator, the Nittany Lions scored over 30 points four time in nine Big Ten games (44%) and averaged 29.8 points despite myriad COVID-19 hurdles (compared to Yurcich’s two B10 games over 30 points and that 23.36 points per game average). For his service, Ciarrocca was fired by Franklin.

Ciarrocca returns to Happy Valley on Oct. 22, as the O-coordinator of Minnesota for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff that is both Homecoming and a Whiteout. 

The Gophers are part of an October that features three games in 15 days that couldn’t be tougher, especially for the Penn State offense.

Minnesota, which lost 20-10 to Purdue on Saturday, has given up just 14.7 points per Big Ten game in 2021-22. Penn State’s other remaining October foes are equally as strong — in that time, Michigan has yielded just 19.4 points per game and Ohio State only 20.0 points.

As the chart below shows, Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota rank 1-2-3 in the Big Ten in 2021-22 for the widest margins between average points scored and average given up in conference match-ups. (Wisconsin, at No. 9, is basically a break-even proposition, which helps explain, though not justify, the firing of Paul Chryst.)

Oh, brother.

Team                 Avg. MarginPts. ScoredPts. Given Up
Ohio State+ 27.247.220.0
Michigan+ 14.133.519.4
Minnesota+ 11.426.114.7
PENN STATE+ 6.223.417.2
Iowa+ 5.123.818.7
Purdue+ 4.226.322.1
Illinois+ 2.220.718.5
Nebraska+ 1.027.526.5
Wisconsin+ 0.824.924.1
Northwestern– 0.631.331.9
Michigan State– 2.925.027.9
Maryland– 13.122.936.0
Rutgers– 17.613.030.6
Indiana– 21.112.633.7