It is hardly a secret to anyone watching Big Ten football that Penn State is getting by this season on the strength of the defense. With an offense struggling to find a rhythm behind a shaky offensive line, Penn State’s defense has had to carry the team to hard-fought victories. On Saturday it was the defense that once again led the way, this time guiding Penn State to its sixth win of the season to clinch bowl eligibility.
Early in the season, Penn State had the final two years of a postseason ban lifted by the NCAA. When the ban was lifted, James Franklin cautioned fans and his team there was still plenty of work to be done in order to be making bowl plans. Fortunately for Franklin, he has one of the top defenses in the country at his disposal.
Penn State was receiving plenty of fight from upset-minded Temple, with the Owls looking for a rare win over Penn State to clinch their own bowl eligibility. Penn State’s offense was once again off to a rough start, but the defense, led by players like linebacker Mike Hull, and defensive linemen Deion Barnes and Anthony Zettel up front, provided all the sparks needed in the second half. Penn State forced five turnovers to squash any upset plans Temple had in mind. This time it was the secondary that came up with the big plays with four interceptions being hauled in by Adrian Amos, Jesse Della Valle and freshmen Grant Haley and Christian Campbell. Through mid-November, Penn State now has the nation’s top passing defense efficiency rating with 15 interceptions and just six touchdowns allowed.
The turnovers turned a tight game into a bit of a blowout in favor of a celebratory Penn State. Not only did the Penn State defense keep a game within reach, it was the defense that helped deliver the knockout blows.
Penn State has allowed just 16.2 points per game, and they have had to play at that level. Penn State’s offense has been a constant work-in-progress with a shaky offensive line leading to quarterback Christian Hackenberg feel pressure to make plays which lead to bad decisions. The running game has had a tough time getting on track as well. Penn State’s defense has been put in some difficult situations all season long, but they have always managed to keep games within reach, with the exception of the Northwestern game.
Penn State’s defense has had moments where it has to resort to a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, but more often than not that seems to work. This defense also finds ways to get off the field. On 155 third-down situations this season, opponents have converted just 45. Only five schools have a better defensive success rate on third down. Penn State has also limited touchdowns inside the red zone. Opponents have reached Penn State’s 20-yard line 29 times this season, but have scored just 13 touchdowns. They have had to settle for nine field goals as well, leaving seven red zone trips with zero points produced against Penn State’s defense.
By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)