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Era vs Era: 2020-2023 Defense

Top tier recruiting pays dividends, who knew!

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/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, Transition Era, and Early Franklin Era defenses, and we’ll stay on the defensive side one last time for the Current Era. This era is highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing rebound, and a little peek at what’s to come.

For now, see how the four defenses Penn State trotted out (or will trot out) from 2020 to 2023 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) - 328.8 (19th nationally)
  • Points per Game (PPG) - 27.7 (57th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 0
  • All-Big Tens - 5
  • Players of the Year - 0

2020 was, well, not great for Penn State football. With the COVID-19 pandemic running things, future All-Everything Micah Parsons opted out, and the defense in general was simply “okay.” That’s not a bad thing, but when you compare how well they did in allowing yardage, but then compare that to giving up points, it’s simply just “okay.” The team did commendably to finish the season on a 4-game win streak, but that came after a historic 0-5 streak to start the year. They skipped a potential bowl to have their first losing season in decades.


  • YPG - 344.0 (35th nationally)
  • PPG - 16.8 (7th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 1
  • All-Big Tens - 8
  • Players of the Year - 0

Jaquan Brisker led the way for the defense in 2021, with some help from newcomer Arnold Ebiketie. 2021 is yet another “what if” type year, where the team was playing well until an injury on the other side of the ball derailed things over there. Despite the defense continuing to play well, the team just couldn’t overcome their offensive shortcomings. After the horror of 2020, the Lions managed a winning 7-6 record, though the year did end with a loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.


  • YPG - 317.9 (16th nationally)
  • PPG - 18.0 (9th nationally)
  • All-Americans - 1
  • All-Big Tens - 6
  • Players of the Year - 0

2022 saw an uptick on both sides of the ball, though the defense really shone with the arrival of Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator. With Joey Porter, Jr. helping lock down the back end of the field, and Chop Robinson getting after it up front, a somewhat green linebacking corps was able to find its feet, especially once newcomer Abdul Carter started to acclimatize to college. For the first time since 2019, the team played complementary football, and returned to glory with an 11-2 record on the year, a 35-21 Rose Bowl win over Utah, and a #7 ranking to end the season.


  • Returning Defensive Line Starters: 3
  • Returning Linebacker Starters: 3
  • Returning DB Starters: 3

This is the only team that we’re going to look at a bit differently. We obviously don’t have stats on how well the 2023 defense will play, but we can perhaps glean some information on how well the 2022 defense did, and start to look at personnel changes. First, eight starters return (nine depending on how you count it): on the DL, Dvon Ellies looks to take over for PJ Mustipher; all three starting LBs are back; and Johnny Dixon and Jaylen Reed are your newcomers in the secondary (if you count nickelback as a totally separate starting position, then Daequan Hardy returns as well). That’s . . . a lot of returning production, especially if you consider that Dixon was basically CB3 last year. The talent appears to be at least the same, if not better than 2022. And this will also be Year 2 of the Diaz Defense, meaning more players should be comfortable with his aggressive playcalling. We can’t say for sure how well the defense will play in 2023, but signs point to it being a strong contender in the Current Era.

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 (or will have) the best defense in the Current Era?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    (0 votes)
  • 2%
    (9 votes)
  • 36%
    (117 votes)
  • 60%
    (192 votes)
318 votes total Vote Now