Tastes Like Victory: The 2011 Penn State Defense

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 29: Devon Still #71 of the Penn State Nittany Lions sacks Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini during the game on October 29, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Think about this: What if Penn State had an offense that didn't wait until a minute left to score its only touchdown of the game? Would games like the 10-7 win yesterday over Illinois be more like 24-7, or 28-7? Or even 28-13? It's possible; probable, maybe.

But Penn State doesn't have an offense like that (you know, like a functional one), so it will have to just assume for the next four weeks that it will be playing with only three components: one great tailback; good special teams; and an all-timer of a defense. Most of the time, that recipe is good enough to get teams past opponents with relative ease, even if they're not blowing out the opposition. Not Penn State.

Nope, Penn State must like its defensive play so much, that it's purposely playing historically-awful at quarterback, just to keep things nauseatingly close and mind-blowingly frustrating to beat every opponent with warm blood running through its vessels.

It's not difficult to understand that position, even if it's a joke and I'm being completely hyperbolic.

Against Illinois, Penn State's defense played its best game of the season to date. It was an even better defensive effort by Penn State when you take into account how many times the offense tried to lose the game; the defense wouldn't allow it.

Penn State surrendered 286 yards, including 192 rushing, while handing the ball to the Illini three times. Well, four times, if you include the failed QB-sneak on 4th down. 

But Illinois couldn't score. Penn State turned it over four times? The defense got it back five times. Illinois missed two field goals? Penn State made one of them. Illinois got the ball in decent field position? Penn State's defense gave its offense the ball in great field position.

It wasn't difficult to see how Penn State's defenders, outside of scoring points on their own, did 99 percent of the work to earn Joe Paterno his 409th career victory. And as the case has been all season long, the offense, alcoholism-inducing as it is, got its act together just in time for the 1 percent more the team needed to win.

The Men Not-So-Behind The Scenes

Penn State lost Pete Massaro--considered its best pass rusher preseason--for the year to an ACL tear. Then against Eastern Michigan, Michael Mauti--considered Penn State's best linebacker--also went down with the same injury. That kind of damage is not easily overcome by any team, even one that traditionally plays outstanding defense like Penn State.

But this year's defense might have inched beyond outstanding. There are stars on this unit, sure. Gerald Hodges, Devon Still and others have been rocks against which opposing offenses typically break up upon meeting. It's been the Penn State defensive effort as a whole, however, that has been the key factor in producing what might finish the season as one of the all-time greats to come through Happy Valley.

Take Hodges, for example. He's likely going to earn his second Big Ten honor (at least, he should) in as many weeks. Against Illinois and Northwestern, the junior has totaled 33 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception, and some huge passes broken up. Those aren't normal stats... for a mere mortal, at least.

Up front, Still is working like he's bucking for a top-10 draft selection... because that's exactly what he's bucking for. Still has been one of the constant forces on this defensive unit all season, but has become the guy at the heart of the defense the past two weeks. Blocking him has become futile. In both yesterday's win and the Northwestern win, Still has racked up 13 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks, all in the face of two and three offensive blockers.

However... while guys like Hodges and Still have provided the flash, the defense as a whole has provided the thundering bang, leveling teams with the power and efficiency of an atomic bomb.

Look at Nate Stupar. He was the hero of the Purdue game with two interceptions.

Look at Drew Astorino. He has been playing the literal Hero role better than we've seen in years, including some devastating tackles against Illinois.

Look at Sean Stanley. He's been a force on the edge since emerging in the Temple win, now leading the team in forced fumbles.

Look at Jordan Hill, Nick Sukay, Chaz Powell... I could go on to name all 11 starters (plus probably a few second-teamers) as the players who make this year's defense special. That's how good this unit has been so far.

But...

You knew this was coming. There's always a "but" in these situations.

Penn State still faces the three most difficult games of the Big Ten schedule: home against Nebraska, and at both Ohio State and Wisconsin. In case you weren't paying attention, Nebraska just blew away Michigan State 24-3; Ohio State just upended Wisconsin 33-29; and Wisconsin is still a really good offensive football team.

The problem against the last three opponents on Penn State's schedule isn't their offenses simply running roughshod over the Nittany Lions defense. No. It's the fact that each of those teams has a defense every bit as good as, if not much better than, any defense outside of the Crimson Tide. To boil it down further, if Penn State can't keep its own offense on the field (at least avoid 3-and-out as much as possible) the defense will wear down over the course of the game. We saw how that happened against Alabama. The defense played a great game against the Tide, but you wouldn't know it from the box score.

It's tough to predict this defense putting up performances like the Illinois win week in and week out against the upcoming opponents. But it could come close, very close, if the offense can just lend a slight hand here and there.

Dear Texas A&M and Clemson,

Thank you, both of you, for proving my point made in last week's Three & Out.

First up, former No. 3 team Clemson, 31-17 losers to unranked Georgia Tech. What I said last week:

Of those teams in the chart, Oklahoma State and Clemson are in the best position for a BCS Championship Game appearance. But you know what? They have no shot in hell to get there. Why? Because you don't reach national championship games without great defenses. Sooner or later, the Pokes are going to have an off day on offense, throw a few picks, fumbles the ball, and not have the defense to compensate. Same with Clemson.

Next, former No. 16 team Texas A&M, 38-31 (OT) losers to unranked Mizzou. Again, what I wrote last week:

Offensive football teams score enough points to win the games, and no one complains. The perfect example is in the chart up at the top of this post. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M played, with OSU winning 30-29. It was lauded as a great game, the always-fun "shootout." But you know what could have prevented either team from coming so close to victory or defeat? A defense that wasn't an afterthought. What if Texas A&M had Penn State's defense? Would the Aggies have won? Probably, since the final margin was so close anyway. Then flip that idea. What if OSU had Penn State's defense? Whoa, suddenly we're looking at a likely blowout in the Pokes' favor. See the difference between having a good defense or not?

So is Oklahoma State next? Probably not for a while.The Pokes don't play a real defense until Dec. 3 when Oklahoma comes to Stillwater. The point of all this is that teams with great offenses and poor defenses are still always given more credibility than teams with great defenses and poor offenses.

Clemson will drop this week. How far? Not sure yet, but I would bet that the Tigers will be given a bit more slack. You know, because not only were they ranked highly to begin the week, but also because they have a flashy, fun offense. All of that, despite the standing fact that the Tigers just lost to an unranked team.

For the good guys, Penn State will rise this week. How far? Again, not sure yet, but I would bet the Nittany Lions will be given a spot lower than Clemson. You know, because not only is it more difficult to gain a higher poll spot if you're not already up there, but also because Penn State isn't "fun" to watch. A prime example was the Illinois win. It was terrible, horrible, to watch. And no one likes that; not the TV people, anyway.

Now what?

Now I get to watch Penn State either prove me right, or wrong. If Penn State can lean on its great defense, solid special teams, while fielding an offense with something of a heartbeat, the Nittany Lions are in very good shape for the final stretch. Much of that will depend on, as I articulated above, the offense not consistently putting the defense in terrible situations, tailor-made for failure.

But if this defense can't get a little more help, it'd be very difficult to hold up against teams with much more talent than the Northwesterns, Indianas, Iowas or Illinoises. The recipe for beating Penn State was set in the second week of the season, with Alabama cooking up a win in Happy Valley. But not a team on the schedule has yet been able to find those same ingredients and put them together for a victory over the Nittany Lions. Sooner or later, though, it could happen. And Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin are pretty good cooks.

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