A Deep Dive Into Penn State's Defense

By Matthew Filipovits on October 9, 2017 at 4:32 pm
Sep 30, 2017; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Jason Cabinda (40) reacts to his sack against the Indiana Hoosiers during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports


To say Penn State's defense has been good is an understatement. Despite losing a handful of starters and over 30-percent of their defensive production, the unit has improved, like, by a lot. We took a deep dive into just how good Brent Pry's defense is and where exactly the production is coming from.

Everybody Eats

  • Defensive Line

The clear strength of the defense is the defensive line. Shareef Miller is absolutely eating this season, easing any worries about a drop in production with the loss of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwann. The injury to Torrence Brown has hurt, but his replacement, Ryan Buchholz, has been the best defensive player on the field at times. His ability to play both tackle and end has caused headaches. Shaka Toney has lived up to the hype as a pass rusher as well.

Koa Farmer
Koa Farmer has enjoyed a breakout year in his first full season at linebacker. (Photo- Adriana Lacy- Roar Lions Roar)

The Cothran/ens have performed up to their expectations. They fill their gaps and can get through to the quarterback when they get their chance. Tyrell Chavis has played great in a limited role. Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor have also logged solid minutes as they continue to grow.

  • Linebackers

It starts with Jason Cabinda. The senior is playing like a man on a mission this season. He's looking to lead Penn State in tackles for the second time in three seasons. Manny Bowen and Koa Farmer have also done a great job in their respective roles. Brandon Smith, one of 2016's most pleasant surprises, continues to show he deserves to be on the field as often as possible.

  • Secondary

With the losses of Malik Golden to graduation, and John Reid to injury, it's fair to say the secondary was the unit with the biggest questions entering 2017. Through six games, they've quieted all doubts. Grant Haley is a stud and I love him. Christian Campbell has been more than able to hold his own, and Amani Oruwariye is no slouch either. 

Marcus Allen continues to fly to the ball and do all the things that made him great in 2016. On top of that, he's been much better in the passing game, including getting that elusive first career interception. Troy Apke and Nick Scott have both been able to deliver as they continue in their expanded roles. 

The Breakdown

Being one of the youngest teams in college football over the past few years has finally started to pay dividends for Penn State. In five of Penn State's first six games, the leading tackler has been an upperclassman, with it being senior four times. 

While it's good to get younger players experience, it's good to see Penn State's more experienced dominate the box score. 

Production by Class
  Freshmen Sophomore Junior Senior
Total Tackles 56 (13%) 92  (21%) 98 (22%) 194 (44%)
TFL 11.5 (23%) 14.5 (28%) 8 (16%) 17 (33%)
Sacks 4.5 (26%) 6 (35%) 1.5 (10%) 5 (29%)
INT 1 (11%) 0 (0%) 3 (33%) 5 (56%)
PD 4 (9%) 5 (12%) 8 (20%) 24 (59%)
FF 3 (33.3%) 3 (33.3%) 0 (0%) 3 (33.3%)
FR 1 (12.5%) 3 (37.5%) 1 (12.5%) 3 (37.5%)

With nearly half of the defensive production coming from seniors, Penn State's defense is starting to look like a normal FBS college football team again. During Clemson's National Championship run in 2016, 43% of their defensive production came from juniors and seniors. With 66% of Penn State's defensive production coming from upperclassmen, the Nittany Lions defense is actually relying more on its veterans than some of college football's other elite programs.

How They Stack Up

                       Penn State VS. Everybody
                         Penn State's Defense Big Ten Rank National Rank
Scoring Defense: 9.0 PPG 1st 1st
Total Defense: 285.2 YPG 4th 12th
Rush Defense: 117.3 YPG 5th 27th
Pass Defense: 167.8 YPG 3rd 16th
Redzone Defense: 60% offensive success rate 1st T-3rd
Turnovers Forced: 17 (8 fumble, 9 interceptions) 1st T-1st
Total Tackles For Loss: 51 1st 3rd

It's important to establish that Penn State has played teams that are mostly offensively challenged. In fact, the best offense they've faced has been Indiana, which currently sits No. 69 (nice) nationally in total offense. Regardless, Penn State's defense is still very good.

The Nittany Lions are the only team in the country allowing fewer than ten points per game. If you take away the late garbage time touchdown from Northwestern, Penn State would be allowing only 7.8 points per game. That's insane. Just over a touchdown per game halfway through the season. 

It's not like the numbers are so low due to allowing field goals instead of touchdowns either. The unit has allowed just two field goals all season. Penn State is just flat out keeping opponents on their side of the field, which in turn has set the offense up with outstanding field position. 

Speaking of field position, Blake Gillikin rules. His golden leg has constantly put opponents inside their own 20, allowing for the defense to be more aggressive and make the big plays.

Anybody can see the biggest reason for defensive success has been the units ability to force turnovers. It seems any time an offense gets rolling, the defense always finds a way to create a turnover and eliminate the threat.

This Penn State defense is good, folks. Maybe even better than the offense. If the Nittany Lions go a perfect three for three against Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State in the coming weeks, it will be because the defense showed up and made their case to be the best unit in the country.

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