Fairly or unfairly, Penn State’s defense is the unit most people blame for the Nittany Lions’ scintillating 11-3 season falling short of something even better in 2016. While the offense put up big numbers almost every week, the defense allowed 42 points or more in the losses to Pittsburgh, Michigan and Southern California.
It’s an interesting twist, then, that the offense’s biggest weakness — generating consistent gains on early downs to set up manageable third downs — was a strength for the Nittany Lions’ defense this past season.
This space spent two posts last week breaking down how the phenomenon known as the dead play — one that goes for a negligible gain or a loss — contributed greatly to Penn State’s offensive struggles on third down and in the red zone. You should check those out, because they’ll give you a better understanding of what we’re about to talk about here. But the gist is this: The Nits too often found themselves in situations of 3rd-and-7 or longer to consistently move the chains.
If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about the 2017 prospects for a defense that broke down at key moments this season, though, the number of dead plays it created on those early downs is a good place to start.
First-year coordinator Brent Pry’s group was seventh nationally in average yards allowed on first down at 4.68, and it was eighth in the percentage of first downs allowing four-plus yards at 41.30 percent, according to College Football Analytics. This helped force opponents into an average third-down distance of 7.92 yards, which they converted at just a 37.6 percent clip.
To put that in perspective, these numbers compare very favorably with Michigan’s conference-leading defense. The Wolverines forced an average third-down distance of 8.39 yards, allowed just 35.6 percent of first-down plays to go for four-plus yards and held the average first down gain to 4.42 yards, en route to allowing just a 21.2 percent third-down conversion rate.
This isn’t to say you can expect Penn State to turn into Michigan in 2017. But the similarities reflect well on a Nits unit that isn’t widely considered close to that neighborhood. And once you dive further into the numbers, it’s easy to see why opponents couldn’t make much hay on early downs.
Penn State generated sacks — the ultimate dead play because of how many yards they generally push an offense back — at a clip of three per game, the 15th-best rate nationally. When they weren’t hitting the quarterback, they were limiting pass gains to an average of 6.16 yards and run gains to 3.88 yards. Penn State ranks in the top 35 in both categories.
To put up numbers that low, you have to be sprinkling a fair number of short gains or losses among the longer gains. Penn State’s problem is that it tended to let the big ones come in bunches.
Against Pitt, the yards per carry figure ballooned to 6.1 as the Panthers’ veteran offensive line mauled Penn State’s front, often for big gains on first down that made converting on second down, let alone third down, a breeze.
That misery got worse against Michigan, which put up an even fatter yards per carry number at 6.7 even as the Nits held the Wolverines to a manageable 5.4 yards per pass.
Then quarterback Sam Darnold and USC had their way in the passing game, especially late in the Rose Bowl, when Darnold completed 10 consecutive passes at one point in the fourth quarter and helped the Trojans put up a 8.4 yards per pass as the Nits’ rush struggled to create much pressure.
It’s at this point that I should remind you Penn State was missing at least two of its three best linebackers for most of all three of these games, and that’s certainly a contributing factor.
But so is failing to win the battle on early downs. The Nits did it at a prolific pace most of the rest of the season, and one or two players shouldn’t make that big a difference, statistically.
So 2017 will be about consistency for this unit. Keep doing what worked in holding opponents under 30 points in nine of the 11 victories and find a way to make it translate to every game.
Even if the defense can only do that for a quarter or two against the tougher offenses it faces, it can make a huge difference in the outcomes with an offense as dangerous as Penn State’s.