Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry doesn't spend much time studying this season's statistics. He might take a look next week during the bye, but for now other items have his attention.
“Each week is a new contest and a new challenge,” he said. “To be honest, I haven’t looked a the stats on the year. I don’t know where we are. I look at each week and look at what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well enough – not statistically, just from the video.”
If he were to peek at the numbers, however, this is what he would find:
His is the only defense in the Big Ten – and one of just three across the country – that is allowing fewer than 10 points per game. It also is holding opponents to 4.08 yards per snap, ranking it as one of the top 10 stingiest defenses nationally on a play-by-play basis
But here’s the kicker and what throws some of the numbers off: When it comes to total yards, PSU’s defense ranks middle of the road in the conference. The multiplier? It's simply how many plays for which the defense has been on the field. Seeing a total of 354 plays, only Iowa’s and Ohio State’s defense have played more – and on average they’re surrendering more yards.
Aside from statistics, Pry attributes his defense’s success to a multitude of variables. Seven senior starters and an abundance of experience is what first comes to mind. “We’ve got some old heads out there who can adjust,” he said.
With steadiness at defensive tackle and at middle linebacker, that provides the framework. “You grow your defense from the inside out and we have three stalwarts there,” he said.
The growth in overall athleticism, quickness and agility across the board is a factor as well. “We’re a staff that believes in team speed,” said Pry. “We try to recruit that and we try to develop that.”
But, he said, “the greatest testament is we’ve got some great competition at multiple positions.”
Therein lies an explanation and possibly shows the correlation of why, when Penn State’s defense is on the field more, it actually has played better from a statistical standpoint.
Nationally, the median number of plays that an offense runs is about 72 per game. Penn State has faced more than that on three occasions already this season against Pittsburgh (86 total plays), Georgia State (81) and Indiana (79). On all three occasions PSU held them below 4.5 yards per play. Pitt and GSU were held below 4.0.
A couple arguments can be made as to why PSU’s opponents have the ball longer than other teams, and they revolve around third downs and time of possession.
On offense, the Nittany Lions have converted just shy of 35 percent of its third-down attempts this season and typically possess the ball for shorter than half of the 60-minute game. If PSU’s offense doesn’t have the ball, then it’s up to the defense to get it back. And while Penn State's is arguably the best defense in the Big Ten so far, it ranks among the bottom half when it comes to third-down stops, thwarting only 35.7 percent of opponents' third-down attempts.
When an offense converts, the drive stays alive and keeps the defense on the field and presumably wears a unit down. The oddity, however, is that isn't happening, and the key lies within the depth chart.
Pry credits competition for playing time at almost every position as a driving force behind the defense’s improved play. With backups pushing starters – with backups showing they have starters’ ability – the coaching staff feels more comfortable now compared to their first three seasons when inserting second- and third-stringers into a game while the outcome is still undecided.
A steady rotation and a cast of contributors who have yet to work their way into the starting lineup are what helps keep the defense thriving when it is on the field for longer than what is considered normal.
“We believe in rolling guys and playing guys and we’ve had some games with maybe more snaps than we anticipate, but we’re playing a lot of guys and getting experience that way and it's also keeping us as fresh as we can be in the fourth quarter to close the game,” Pry said. “It’s been a (request) of Coach Franklin’s and we stick to that. Sometimes it’s hard to sub in tight games, in the second- or third quarter, but we’re going to do that to make sure our top guys are ready to go in the fourth. As a season wears on, those (backup) guys are gaining valuable snaps. Those guys who are subbing in – and we have a lot of them who we’re excited about – we want to see them get out there in the heat of the battle (so they can continue) pushing those starters. It’s been a good deal.
“Statistically, again, each week is a new challenge. Every offense is a little different and one of the keys to success is identifying what you really need to stop, where you need to be good to win the game on your side of the ball. Sometimes that means something different. We try not to look (at the stats during game weeks.) We’ll take a look at (them during) the open date and do some self-scouting and take a hard look at some things to make sure there’s not something glaring, but statistically we want to keep them to a low enough number to win the football game.”
Through five games – five wins – allowing just 9.4 points per game, the defense has done just that.