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Era vs Era: 2015-2019 Defense

It’s the climb

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 12 Buffalo at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re deep into the off-season, so I thought a series of posts to determine which era of the last 20 years was the mightiest might be fun. Here’s the premise:

  • We’ll compare four eras: 2005-09, 2010-14, 2015-19, 2020-23
  • In each era, we’ll compare two sides of the ball: offense and defense
  • We’ll compare things like stats, star players, and how the teams did each year
  • You, the reader will then decide what the best offense and defense was from each era
  • Once we have our “best of” teams for each era, we’ll do a 4-team playoff and you will again vote on the winner
  • Finally, the two winners of the semifinals will play again in the finals to determine the best era for Penn State football in the last 20 years

Get it? Got it? Good.

We’ve already taken a look at the Late Paterno Era and Transition Era defenses, and we’ll stay on the defensive side for the Early Franklin Era. This era is highlighted by the extraction of the team from the depths of the sanctions, and of Franklin putting his recruiting savvy to work in rebuilding the program.

For now, take a stroll down memory lane, and see how the five defenses Penn State trotted out from 2015 to 2019 compare in some key stats, star personnel, and afterward be sure to vote in the poll. The results of that poll will determine the final results of this era’s defense!


  • Yards per Game (YPG) - 324.3 (14th nationally)
  • Points per Game (PPG) - 21.7 (30th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 1
  • All-Big Tens - 3
  • Players of the Year - 1

Defensively, Carl Nassib led the way for Penn State in 2015. Nassib’s story will always be a fond one for Penn State fans, as he joined the Lions in 2011 as a walk-on, slowly earning more and more playing time until his final season in 2015, where he exploded for 46 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, 1 interception, and 6 forced fumbles. He won basically all of the awards, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the Hendricks Award, the Lott IMPACT Trophy, and the Lombardi Award. The defense in general played well, especially given how poorly the offense performed. Penn State fought its way to 7-6 record, ending the year with a 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.


  • YPG - 352.0 (22nd nationally)
  • PPG - 23.4 (35th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 0
  • All-Big Tens - 7
  • Players of the Year - 0

2016 saw the offense undergo a renaissance, but the defense was largely the same. A very good unit, to be sure, but not quite matching what was happening on the other side of the ball. The linebacking duo of Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell led the heart of the defense, with players like Marcus Allen and Grant Haley chipping in as well. Thanks to the offense finally helping out, Penn State surged to an 11-3 record, Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl appearance, and #5 ranking nationally.


  • YPG - 329.3 (20th nationally)
  • PPG - 15.5 (7th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 0
  • All-Big Tens - 4
  • Players of the Year - 0

2017 will likely go down as one of the bigger “what ifs” for Penn State fans, as the team lined up a top 10 scoring defense with a top 10 scoring offense. Again, individual stars were somewhat tough to come by on defense, though Marcus Allen tackling the Pitt running back for a safety and hitting him with the grille will always be a fun memory. The biggest letdown likely came against Ohio State, where the defense couldn’t hold onto a 38-27 lead with 5:42 to go in the game, which then spiraled into a loss against Michigan State the next week. Still, the Lions went 11-2, securing a 35-28 win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl, and ending the year #8 in the country.


  • YPG - 354.9 (37th nationally)
  • PPG - 20.0 (20th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 0
  • All-Big Tens - 8
  • Players of the Year - 0

Much like the offense, the defense was still solid in 2018, but had just lost some of its swagger from the year before. Amani Oruwariye and Yetur Gross-Matos helped lead the defense on a team that overall played well, but not quite as good as the year prior. The team ended 9-4, including a 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, to go along with a #17 ranking.


  • YPG - 330.2 (24th nationally)
  • PPG - 14.1 (7th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 1
  • All-Big Tens - 5
  • Players of the Year - 0

2019 will also be a “what if” scenario, at least in my mind. While I don’t think the team had the firepower to hang with Ohio State, they definitely had the defensive chops to hold pretty much every other team at bay. Sophomore Micah Parsons was named an All-American, and had the team not stumbled against Minnesota, they finish the year 11-1 with a strong shot at making the playoffs. Regardless, the team still played very well, returning to the New Year’s Six, getting a 53-39 win over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, and cementing a #10 ranking.

The stats have been laid bare, you’ve fondly recalled some names and details of these teams, but now you have to vote! Pick which of the defenses from this era you think is the best. The winner will pair up with the best offense from the same era and take on the other eras in a winner-take-all playoff!


Which year had the best defense of the Early Franklin Era?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    (19 votes)
  • 7%
    (23 votes)
  • 36%
    (115 votes)
  • 0%
    (2 votes)
  • 49%
    (156 votes)
315 votes total Vote Now