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Penn State's defense outperformed the offense in 2016. Can they do it again?

Behind the leadership of Marcus Allen and Jason Cabinda, the Nittany Lions have a deep—if vulnerable—defense which looks to show 2016 wasn’t just luck. A Penn State defense preview for 2017, Potluck-style.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California
This is the only picture of Cabinda and Allen in our Getty archive; what do you mean?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s Day Three of the Penn State Potluck series and I’m already exhausted. So fuck it—we’re talking scrapple.

Just kidding, I’d rather kill myself.

Instead, let’s turn to a different regional meat that’s not all that unique but has gained a silly mystique, for some reason! [Boy, don’t the transitions just write themselves?]

Apparently it’s a tradition (probably started by the goddamn PA Dutch; I swear I tried to find something new) in central Pennsylvania to enjoy pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s for good luck!

We could’ve talked about hog maw or Lebanon bologna instead. Is that really what you wanted?
15 Weirdest Foods in Central PA:

Huh. Penn State, good luck. Sometimes it’s just inspiration; I don’t know what to tell ya. But pork and sauerkraut is fucking delicious; if you disagree, you don’t belong in the Big Ten. [rutger/Maryland fans who do agree, just remember that broken clocks are right twice a day.]

As we run headlong into the jaws of the Penn State defense, though, it’s worth remembering that while the Nittany Lions started slowly under first-year DC Brent Pry, with iffy defensive performances against Pitt, Michigan, and even cement-shoed Minnesota, they recovered to cobble together a strong 17th place in Defensive S&P+.

However, we can ask questions of how well the defense actually performed relative to the competition. Take their percentile performance in the Big Ten against the opponent’s Offense S&P+ rating: @Mich (32%—40th), vsMinn (57%—84th), vsMD (68%—86th), vsOSU (74%—23rd), @PU (57%—94th), vsIA (63%—78th), @IU (50%—67th), vsrut (86%—125th), vsMSU (85%—66th), wisc (38%—49th), USC (31%—11th).

Add to that Connelly’s Defense Radar for the Nittany Lions, which shows there’s some bend, even if there’s not break, in the secondary:

I see Antarctica and a bendy secondary; what do y’all see?
Bill Connelly, SBNation

Besides the apparent woeful mediocrity of Big Ten offenses, Connelly notes that Penn State’s returning defense—while deep—is not necessarily loaded with playmakers. BSD’s analysis of Penn State’s best playmakers paid lip service to the D-line, which is doing its best impression of a Spanish interrogative. Their reasons for optimism on the defensive side list (1) the line, (2) speedy linebackers—obviously led by Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen—and (3) leadership, especially from safety Marcus Allen.

You’re doing it again...

But that leads to the question, friends: How will Penn State’s defense fare in 2017, particularly against the pass? Will we see a Nittany Lion defense that regresses without an established pass rush, or will the athleticism and leadership of Linebacker U’s latest products hold up against more potent passing attacks? And tell us about one regional food tradition that is supposedly good luck or fulfills some other wives’ tale.

Candystripes: While Penn State’s defense was good enough to capture a Big Ten championship last year, it is extremely concerning that they held exactly one team under 10 points last year (take a wild guess who that was cough Rutgers cough). Of course, it is very easy to pile up yards without actually converting those to points, but since most people judge defenses by the points they allow (or, more accurately, don’t allow), there’s certainly room for improvement here.

The schedule does line up fairly nicely for the Lions (save for that three week stretch in late October/early November that probably decides their season), so having a decent defense will probably be enough to have a solid 9 win season, but if they want to repeat as conference champions, a step up is probably mandatory, barring some incredible circumstances outside their control.

GF3: It’ll be fine, and any failures will be excused by injuries and whatnot. They’ll still have a game where they get blown up for 40 points.

DJ: They will be fine because the Big Ten doesn't have the talent all over the place to pass on them. Opponents will instead try to run the damn ball, which sounds great until you realize that is their strength. A good passing team though with a line to give the QB time to throw? They will get lit up.

LPW: I can’t wait to see Pat Fitzgerald extend his winning streak against James Franklin by having Clayton Thorson go to town on PSU’s secondary. It’s a dream, but wouldn’t it be fun if it happened? I think teams that can throw on them will torch them.

Stew: This is the B1G, how good do they have to be against the pass? The West division gets a bunch of shit for being bad at offense, and passing specifically, but the East isn't exactly the Big 12. Maryland can't pass. rutger is rutger. Who knows what's going on at MSU? Indiana under Wilson, sure, but he's gone, replaced by a defensive guy and a known bad OC. Barrett is the most explosive player in the conference, but still, OSU it's a running offense. Speight is fine, but he lost nearly all his skill position players, and if he's the best passer they'll have to face, then there isn't too much to worry about.

Thumpasaurus: No Big Ten team really has the firepower in the passing game to light them up in the manner described. Michigan might, but since that’s not what Bo Schembechler would do, Harbaugh will choose not to do it. Defending the deep ball isn’t going to be a high priority task in this year’s Big Ten.

Sidenote, scrapple is among the most foul things imaginable. I’ll try anything once. I’ll usually try anything several times just to make sure I didn’t just have a bad experience. Scrapple earned no such leniency with me. The flavor profile is essentially “the worst halitosis you can imagine.” The texture vaguely suggests that the flesh of an animal is involved, but my goodness the taste combines stagnated well water, an overflowing outhouse in a swamp and a piece of steak that you don’t realize has been stuck between your teeth for over a month. How anyone could actually eat it on a regular basis can only be explained by having more regional pride than taste.

MNW: Well, Thump stole about everything I wanted to say, because outside of Ohio State and maybe Michigan, I don’t see a team equipped to take on the Nittany Lions defense on the edges where they’re most vulnerable and be able to hang with them for four quarters. Running into the jaws of the Nittany Lion defense seems like a good way for the announcers to call the names of Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren, who I would really like to open a very confusing law firm in which everyone thinks they’re brothers but really they’re just a couple of dudes chasin’ ambulances and bangin’ chicks.

I got off track. Point is, you outflank Penn State and keep their offense off the field, to my mind, if you want a chance to win. With John Reid lost (I don’t know for how long) to injury and Grant Haley good at running back blocked field goals but less good at stopping passing attacks, there’s an opening to pick on the State corners. Hell, they made Bart Houston look for three quarters like he could win a Big Ten Championship. A guy who couldn’t beat out Joel Stave. So yeah, there’s room for an Indiana or a Northwestern to beat Penn State on the edges (God, will Saquon Barkley vs. Justin Jackson be fun to see again), but they’ll have to play pretty flawless football to hold off the Lions for four quarters.

Then again, if Shareef Miller or Torrence Brown get revved up and form a disruptive pass rush, this discussion will be like a cow’s opinion.

My Polish great-grandma would always tell us that burnt toast put hair on our chest, but that’s not really regional... Closest I’d say we come in Minnesota (and probably wherever Norwegian Lootrans are found) is pickled herring and lutefisk around New Year’s time. Mmmm. (Spoiler: the benefit of being Irish-Polish-Czech-German Catholic and marrying a Norske Lootran is that you get to eat all that tasty pickled food and then not feel residual guilt slamming 15 Hamm’s or Grain Belts before, during, and after.)

We’ve almost made it, folks; just bear with us a day or two longer. In the meantime, vote in the poll and hit up the comments to let us know your thoughts on the Penn State defense in 2017!


Will Penn State improve on its 2016 defensive performance?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Yep—top 15 in S&P+ or bust!
    (63 votes)
  • 48%
    No, but not a marked regression. Top 25 or so.
    (82 votes)
  • 9%
    No, and it’ll be a tumble to a top-half defense, but no worse.
    (16 votes)
  • 4%
    We’re talking Indiana-level bad.
    (7 votes)
168 votes total Vote Now

Potluck Schedule:

Monday: Penn State, National Titles, and Big Ten Expansion
Tuesday: Tempo, YOLO, and Moorhead for all!
Wednesday: Is there any escaping Linebacker U?
Thursday: In-State Rivals, Non-Conference Schedules, and Predictions