Penn State may have No. 1 defense in America, but 2 huge questions remain

Takeaways, yes. Red-zone havoc, abso-freaking-lutely. But Pro Football Focus is offering up at least one other answer for why Penn State’s defense has jumped from inconsistency last fall to dominance this year:

Tackling.

“The defense is averaging 6.5 missed tackles per game. Last season the average was 11.1,” PFF Big Ten analyst Josh Liskiewitz told Land of 10 when asked about the third-ranked Nittany Lions (6-0, 3-0 conference). “So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.”

The Lions’ tackling efficiency, as tracked by PFF, currently ranks fourth in the Big Ten. Point of comparison: Penn State finished 13th out of 14 league teams in that same category at the end of the 2016 regular season.

Michigan leads the league — and the Football Bowl Subdivision — with just 4.2 missed tackles per game; Iowa is last in the league with 9.8 whiffs per contest, in part because Lions star Saquon Barkley was responsible for 15 of them all by himself when he ran circles around the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 23.

“There’s no question they’re better than last year,” Liskiewitz noted. “That doesn’t mean they’re good.”

While Liskiewitz thinks it’s a little too early to hail defensive coordinator Brent Pry the way we hailed offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead a year ago, the stats absolutely love the Lions right now. PFF ranks Penn State’s run defense as No. 2 nationally in raw cumulative grades — Ohio State is No. 1, Michigan checks in at No. 4 — as a testament to tackling form. And to consistently putting up a tough rushing front, week after week.

The Lions are spending their bye week ranked fifth in the Big Ten in rushing defense (117.3 yards allowed per contest) and tied for third in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (4).

‘The secondary is playing — and grading — very well, and the defensive line may have found something in [defensive end] Shaka Toney.’

— Pro Football Focus analyst Josh Liskiewitz

And for all the firepower that Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley and Co. bring to the offense, it’s actually on defense where Penn State is making the biggest dent in the national charts.

TeamRankings.com has the Lions topping the FBS in opponent points per play (0.122; PSU ranked 34th last fall at 0.335), while CFBanalytics.com rates Pry’s defense as No. 1 in opponent points per possession (0.63), one of the most telling of the new football metrics.

The more the Lions have been walking the walk, the more PFF has been talking the talk:

Liskiewitz is a fan, in particular, of the damage done by senior safety Marcus Allen and senior cornerback Grant Haley. PFF has charted Allen with giving up only 9 catches on 16 targets so far, with an opponent QB rating of 35.4. He went into last weekend with an 85.5 grade, tops among Lions defenders who’ve played at least 230 snaps.

Haley has given up only 8 catches on 21 throws his way, picking off a pair of them. The Georgia native came out of Week 5 leading the Big Ten in lowest opponent QB rating when targeted:

Classmate and fellow corner Christian Campbell got in on the love, too, allowing just 3 catches on 7 targets thrown his way at Northwestern:

“The secondary is playing — and grading — very well, and the defensive line may have found something in [defensive end] Shaka Toney, who has 14 total pressures in just 65 pass rushes,” Liskiewitz noted. “My biggest worry for them is they’re likely to be a one-loss team in a major bowl game playing against a team far above anything they’ve seen so far, especially offensively.

“You can’t convince me that they’re going to stop Washington State in [a playoff game], I’m not convinced of that. Or stop USC, for that matter. I’m not saying they can’t, but because they haven’t seen talent like that — like when Michigan played Florida State [in the Orange Bowl], it was just a different caliber of athlete than they saw in the regular season.”

Just like the Lions’ College Football Playoff bona fides, Pry’s unit can answer any nagging athleticism questions during the season’s two biggest tests: a tilt with No. 17 Michigan on Oct. 21 and a visit to No. 9 Ohio State on Oct. 28. By the end of the month, we’ll know if the Lions’ defensive numbers were just a trick, or if 2017 is gearing up to be one hell of a treat.

The post Penn State may have No. 1 defense in America, but 2 huge questions remain appeared first on Land of 10.

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