Hey, we have a bowl game coming up! Did you know that? Do the players know that? Let's hope so! Penn State's opponent, the Houston Cougars, are unlike any team they played this year. A lot of the focus has been on Houston's offense, and rightly so. However, the Cougar defense will be just as important, so let's take a look at them, shall we?
Whenever discussing a particular team's offense or defense, I like to first take a look at the numbers. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Houston Cougar defense, in all its macabre glory.
Raw Numbers (National Rank)
Total Defense: 386.0 yds/game (63)
Rush Defense: 171.77 yds/game (78)
Pass Defense: 214.2 yds/game (46)
Scoring Defense: 23.1 pts/game (40)
Defensive S&P+: 88.7 (99)
Rushing S&P+: 86.2 (101)
Passing: S&P+: 89.2 (88)
Standard Downs S&P+: 92.1 (86)
Passing Downs S&P+: 74.3 (117)
For an explanation of what these numbers mean, here is the breakdown from Football Outsiders:
The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from the play-by-play data of all 800+ of a season's FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). There are three key components to the S&P+:
Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
EqPts Per Play (PPP): An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.
Opponent adjustments: Success Rate and PPP combine to form S&P, an OPS-like measure for football. Then each team's S&P output for a given category (Rushing/Passing on either Standard Downs or Passing Downs) is compared to the expected output based upon their opponents and their opponents' opponents. This is a schedule-based adjustment designed to reward tougher schedules and punish weaker ones.
Point of clarification regarding passing and standard downs. A "passing down" is:
2nd down and 8+ yards to go
3rd/4th down and 5+ yards to go
A "standard down" is anything that does not fit into the passing down criteria.
So what does it all mean?
Well, as you can see, Houston's raw numbers, which aren't even all that good, make their defense look better than it actually is. Houston has the great fortune of having a killing machine of an offense - an offense well versed at piling up video game numbers against Conference-USA defenses. By jumping out to huge leads, the offense has allowed the defense to almost exclusively play the pass. Their pass rush is good but not great, piling up 29 sacks on the season, the same number Penn State had.
Players to watch for.
Houston's best two players on defense are, surprisingly enough, a pair of senior linebackers. Sammy Brown finished third in the nation with 12.5 sacks this year, and Marcus McGraw ended the year with 131 tackles. These two are players of undeniable quality. Besides them, there isn't a lot to be scared of.
So what's the best way to attack them?
Well, any way seems to be fine. Considering the unholy mess that Penn State currently has at quarterback right now, I'd expect the game plan to lean heavily on Silas Redd and the rest of the running backs. However, they can't just run every play. Whoever's playing quarterback will need to be serviceable enough to keep Houston's defense honest. In Houston's only loss this year, Southern Miss had over 200 yards rushing, but also threw for almost 300 yards. Balance sure is nice, but it may not be a luxury that the Penn State offense has at the moment.