The Big Ten’s East Division features two of the best defenses in the nation, even if they are remarkably different.
Michigan has the No. 1 scoring defense and is allowing the fewest passing yards per game in the nation. Ohio State boasts the No. 3 scoring defense and has actually allowed fewer defensive touchdowns than its rival to the north. The Buckeyes have also scored four touchdowns while playing defense.
The big difference between the two powerhouses is age and experience. Michigan’s defense is loaded with seniors and fifth-year seniors. Ohio State’s is filled with underclassmen and players in their first year as a starter. Both are scary, and a huge reason why either team could win the national championship.
The next two best defenses behind Ohio State and Michigan are big surprises for a few reasons. Neither of them is Michigan State, which has played excellent defense for years with Mark Dantonio in charge but not in 2016.
Penn State’s defense is the third best in the East, according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rating, even though the Nittany Lions have been gashed on the ground by Pitt and Michigan and are 73rd nationally in points per game.
Indiana’s play on defense might be one of the best developments of the season in the conference. The Hoosiers have been masquerading as a Big 12 team — great offense, defense optional — for years with Kevin Wilson, but new defensive coordinator Tom Allen could be a contender for national assistant coach of the year.
The Hoosiers are 49th in the nation in total yards allowed per game. Not impressed? They were 121st last season. And 95th in 2014. And 123rd in 2013.
Penn State (No. 17), Indiana (No. 30) and Maryland (No. 44) give the East five above-average defenses, according to Connelly’s advanced stats-based formula. Michigan State is down at No. 59, and the Spartans have allowed at least 398 yards in four of the past five games.
With the season at about the midpoint, here is Land of 10’s all-East Division offensive team:
P — Blake Gillikin, Penn State, Fr.
Blake Gillikin is second in the East in punting average (42.3), but he tried to kick through an injury in one game, and has been a huge upgrade after years of trouble punting the ball for Penn State.
PR/KR — Janarion Grant, Rutgers, Sr.
It was an awful break to see Janarion Grant’s season end with a gruesome injury after a highlight-reel play against Iowa. Sure, Grant only played in four games, but he returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown, and the only other guy who is on his level as a return man is going to show up later in this post.
DE — Chris Wormley, Michigan, Sr.
Chris Wormley has been a versatile, disruptive force for the Wolverines. He’s got 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks despite not playing late in blowouts and rotating with other talented defensive ends while the games have still been in doubt.
DT — Ryan Glasgow, Michigan, Sr.
Trying to choose which Wolverines defensive linemen deserve to be on this team is not easy. Taco Charlton has only played in four games. Multiple reserves have better stats than the starters, including true freshman Rashan Gary, who has lived up to his status as the No. 1-ranked recruit in the nation.
Glasgow, Wormley, Gary, Charlton, Maurice Hurst, Matthew Godin … it might be the best defensive line in the country, though some folks in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and College Station, Texas, would have pretty good reason to disagree.
DT — Kingsley Opara, Maryland, Jr.
The Terps have five defensive linemen among their top 10 tacklers, and it is a really solid group despite a lack of high-profile recruits. Opara has 23 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
DE — Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State, So.
Michigan’s defensive line is incredible, and Ohio State’s is incredibly close to that as well. It’s a similar story. Ohio State is playing so many talented defensive linemen and has blown out enough teams that some of the reserves have better numbers than the starters. Tyquan Lewis has 5.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles, but Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Robert Landers are all deserving.
LB — Ben Gedeon, Michigan, Sr.
Ben Gedeon is less heralded than some of the other stars on the Michigan defense, but he leads the Wolverines with 47 tackles and has three sacks. He reached double digits in tackles against Colorado and Penn State.
LB — Tegray Scales, Indiana, Jr.
Tegray Scales has been everywhere for Indiana’s improved defense. He’s tied for third in the conference with 57 tackles, tied for sixth with 7.5 tackles for loss and scored a touchdown on an interception return in the season opener.
LB — Jerome Baker, Ohio State, So.
Jerome Baker is not as famous as Raekwon McMillan, who was one of the few standouts from last season to return to Columbus. Baker does lead the team in tackles with 39. He also has five tackles for loss and returned an interception for a touchdown.
CB — Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State, So.
Three members of Ohio State’s secondary from last season are currently with the Giants, Saints and Seahawks of the NFL, but the Buckeyes’ new-look crew has been stellar. Marshon Lattimore joined returning starter Gareon Conley on the outside, and Lattimore has three interceptions, nine passes defended and a touchdown.
CB — Channing Stribling, Michigan, Sr.
Channing Stribling might be the “other guy” when Jourdan Lewis is across the field from him, but Lewis missed three games and Stribling has three interceptions. Two of them came in Michigan’s toughest test to date against Wisconsin, and he returned the other for a touchdown against Hawaii.
S — Malik Hooker, Ohio State, So.
Malik Hooker leads the conference with four interceptions and he’s third in the nation in interception return yards. He’s also got 29 tackles, and nearly half of them (14) came against either Oklahoma or Wisconsin.
S — Marcus Allen, Penn State, Jr.
Marcus Allen is tied for third in the conference with 57 tackles, including a 22-tackle effort against Minnesota. While Penn State has struggled at times against the run, the Nittany Lions have been stout against the pass with Allen and cornerback John Reid leading the way.
LB/DB/Terminator — Jabrill Peppers, Michigan, Jr.
One of the unique players in college football, Peppers is second in the conference in tackles for loss while leading the league in punt return yards. He’s also carried the ball five times for 98 yards, has 39 tackles and is a tactical nightmare for opposing coaches. He’s a contender for several national awards on defense, and could stay in the mix for the Heisman Trophy as well.