Penn State’s formula for success on defense wasn’t entirely different from how the offense thrived in 2016.
The Nittany Lions struggled at times early in the season, particularly against the run, but improved dramatically as it progressed and Penn State’s Big Ten title run gain steamed. The defense’s biggest strength was creating negative plays, and depth at every position that allowed the unit to both survive major injuries and dominate fourth quarters.
Penn State finished second in the Big Ten with 40 sacks, and it was a group effort. No one had more than 6. The Nittany Lions were also a top-25 team nationally against the run in two advanced statistics from Football Study Hall, adjusted line yards and stuff rate.
After losing three defensive linemen to the NFL before the season and all three starting linebackers to injury by Week 4, Penn State was forced to find new players to step in and survive. The coaching staff, led by Brent Pry, who was promoted to lead the defense after Bob Shoop left for Tennessee, took a strength-in-numbers approach.
They often rotated nine or 10 players along the defensive line. Former walk-on Brandon Smith, former defensive back Koa Farmer and true freshman Cam Brown ended up as key contributors at times at linebacker.
The result not only included improved depth when injured players returned, but improvement as games progressed. Penn State ranked 61st in the nation in first quarter defense, according to S&P+, but climbed to No. 20 in the third quarter and No. 9 in the fourth.
Here’s a statistical look at how the defense performed in 2016:
|BY THE NUMBERS||2016||Big Ten rank||NCAA rank|
|3rd down %||38.36||9th||52nd|
|20+ yard plays||59||10th||T-57th|
|40+ yard plays||9||T-2nd||T-12th|
And here is how those same numbers looked at midpoint of the regular season, before Penn State faced Ohio State:
|BY THE NUMBERS||2016||Big Ten rank||NCAA rank|
|3rd down %||37.5%||9th||56th|
|20+ yard plays||25||T-11th||T-66th|
|50+ yard plays||2||T-4th||T-28th|
Defensive line: B+
Pittsburgh and Michigan dominated the Penn State defensive line. The Nittany Lions were overrun in the middle and exploited to the sidelines with misdirection plays.
While the offense’s incredible rise will be remembered as a dominant storyline for the 2016 team, the in-season improvement of the defensive line cannot be understated. It controlled the second half of the game against Ohio State, which eventually allowed Penn State to steal the game with a couple of blocked kicks on special teams.
Garrett Sickels was the only returning starter from 2015, and he played well enough to skip his senior season and declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. Evan Schwan embodied Penn State’s rise, a last-second addition to the 2012 recruiting class who blossomed as a leader and playmaker in his fifth year with the program.
If this were just grading the second half of this season, Penn State’s defensive line would deserve an A. So many players earned significant playing time, and the line’s future looks bright even without Sickels and Schwan in 2017.
Penn State began the season with Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White at linebacker. At one point during the Michigan game, the Nittany Lions were down to their sixth- or seventh-best option at middle linebacker.
Bell and Cabinda returned to help lead a second-half surge. Smith went from walk-on to Big Ten defensive player of the week, furthering an already incredible individual story. Manny Bowen showed flashes of future stardom. Farmer settled in and became an effective option, basically giving the defense a hybrid linebacker/safety to play particularly in passing situations.
Because of injuries to Jake Cooper and Bell, along with Bowen’s one-game suspension, there were plays in the second half of the Rose Bowl when Cabinda needed a breather and Penn State had Brown, Smith and Farmer in the game together. It looked a little like the Michigan game.
Penn State will need to prove it can play well without Bell next season, but everyone else will be back.
If there was a constant for the defense in 2016, it was the play of the secondary. Until Sam Darnold started throwing passes into tiny windows like Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers at the Rose Bowl, Penn State’s pass defense was formidable against everyone.
Marcus Allen led the team in tackles, and combined with Grant Haley to make two of the biggest plays of the season — the blocked field goal against Ohio State and the fourth-down stop to secure the Big Ten title against Wisconsin. John Reid was stout in coverage and solid against the run, a complete cornerback who could be an interesting NFL prospect after next season.
Malik Golden, like Schwan, was another fifth-year senior who helped keep the team focused despite an explosion of expectations and improved at strong safety as the year progressed. Troy Apke, Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye were all depth contributors. Someone has to replace Golden, and the Nittany Lions could use a little better play on obvious passing downs from the guys not named Reid, Allen and Haley.
While some of the final totals look more average than excellent, that shootout against Southern Cal played a big part in that. Take away the Rose Bowl and Penn State allowed 21.6 points per game, which would be 20th in the nation.
Even in a conference with three of the best defenses in America (Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin), Penn State’s defense stood out at key points and did enough to support an explosive offense in others.