Coach Bill O’Brien. The offensive guru. The former coach of NFL legend Tom Brady. The resurrector of the Penn State offense. The mastermind.
The excitement on the offensive side of the ball couldn’t be higher for Penn State football. But what about the defense? Among a fan base who mutters, “The defense is always good,” like it’s the Pennsylvania state motto, there is rarely a concern for defensive performance.
But could this be the year where Penn State finds itself in a Twilight Zone of sorts? A year where the offense shines while the defense pines?
Besides O’Brien’s track record, the offense has plenty to crow about—the Big Ten’s leading receiver, two strong and able running backs, a stable of talented tight ends, and a promising offensive line. If the quarterback is merely serviceable, it’s not unrealistic to expect another banner year for the offense.
And when Penn State can field a good offense (think 2005 and 2008), the team usually does just fine. But what if the defense this season isn’t the defense of old?
Unfortunately, a strong case can be made that the PSU defense might not just be worse this year; it may be one of the worst we’ve seen in a long, long time.
It took only two years for Coach O’Brien to go through as many defensive coordinators as Paterno used to go through in two decades. John Butler steps into Ted Roof’s one-year role this season, and no one knows just what to expect. The bend-don’t-break that was forever the staple of Paterno’s philosophy may or may not remain. While it’s impossible to know what kind of coach or what kind of schemes he’ll implement, analysts can examine the depth chart for clues about next year’s defense.
The team loses six starters from 2012’s team, one high draft pick from the DL (Jordan Hill) and two from the LB corps (Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti). Plus, only four seniors are likely starters on the 2013 defense. Those are not good signs.
The last time Penn State lost a similar amount of players (and from frighteningly familiar positions) was 2009. Defensive lineman Jared Odrick and linebackers Navorro Bowman, Sean Lee, and Josh Hull all took their games to the professional level, and the defections showed on the field.
A Penn State defense that ranked 3rd nationally in scoring defense and 9th nationally in total defense in 2009 plummeted in 2010 to 35th in scoring defense and 49th in total defense. Points surrendered doubled for the Lions in 2010.
If this year’s Lions follow the same trend, the results could be frightening. The 2012 defense ranked 29th in total defense and 19th in scoring defense. It’s not implausible to predict the defense slipping out of the top 60 nationally in both categories.
When it comes to points surrendered, we might go from 19 points a game (the 2012 statistic) to nearly 40 (the approximate total of a team ranked 60th).
A Penn State defense that averages over 30 points allowed per game! It almost gets caught in the throat just saying it.
Granted, the offense’s performance certainly affects the defense’s. Long, time-chomping drives—like Penn State excelled with last season—definitely help field position and allow the defense time to rest. But if the offense continues to improve with adequate quarterback play, it’s likely that the offense will score more often and more quickly than ever before.
Which means the defense will be on the field more. A defense that is likely to be one of the least talented defenses PSU has fielded in at least a decade. Are Penn State fans ready to watch its beloved defense get plowed over?
A 66-38 blowout win over Kent State? A 49-45 squeaker over Michigan? A 59-47 heart-breaking loss to Ohio State in Columbus?
Could this be the future of Penn State football?
Ryan J. Murphy is author of Ring the Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, on sale on Amazon Kindle.