I promised last weekend after the Iowa game that I’d try to research exactly how historic is Penn State’s past three games of snaps defended. The Nittany Lions’ defense has lined up against opponents from scrimmage 277 times in consecutive weeks against Michigan State, Indiana and Iowa.
That’s a 92.3 average and that’s crazy-busy. Considering the leisurely pace at which Penn State played during the 46-year Paterno era, I can almost guarantee you nothing like it has happened in PSU history, though there’s no practical way of confirming it.
But the Stat Mine went to work in another way and, with the help of the always-handy TeamRankings.com analytics site, I can now tell you this:
No team in the 130-school Football Bowl Subdivision has defended more total plays this season (including plays nullified by accepted penalties) in a 3-game stretch without a bye than Penn State (289) has in its past three. What makes it all the more stunning was when and where this mark happened – in the Big Ten in late October. I doubt it’s ever happened before in the B1G, though, if it has, my first guesses would be Purdue in the Joe Tiller era of the early ’00s or Illinois in the Mike White era of the early ’80s.
As far as 2018, the only team that has equaled that mark is the high-rev Houston Cougars who also defended 289 in a 3-week stretch without a bye (@Rice, Arizona, @Texas Tech) back in September.
In fact, the Cougars actually have defended more in a 3-game stretch (294 – @Texas Tech, Texas Southern, Tulsa) but that included a bye week and Thursday night contest so the defensive fatigue factor is not the same.
And that’s the reason the stat is significant. Especially when we get into the football dog days of November, everyone is dinged up, players get worn down and the legs get rubbery. Brent Pry rotated a lot of guys among his front seven last year and early in this season, when he had that option. He really doesn’t now.
How does Penn State stack up in this metric over the entire season? Nobody in the country has defended more plays per game than the Lions except Houston. Penn State ranks #2 in the nation (84.9) to only the Cougars (92.4). For PSU, that’s a whopping 17.3 percent increase over last season (72.4) and about 13 plays more than this season’s FBS median (72.0).
Even more interesting: Who leads the Big Ten in fewest plays per game defended this season? That would be Michigan (62.4). The Wolverines rank #125 nationally in plays defended (clock-chewing triple-option based Army is #130 at 54.2), ahead of only Texas A&M (58.1) among the 65 Power Five conference schools.
Add in Michigan being rested coming off a bye week and you have an ominous situation for PSU fans. Against my better judgment, I picked a relatively close game with Penn State (+10 1/2) actually covering (27-19), though not winning, because I don’t trust Michigan’s offense to air it out the way it could and should.
But keep an eye out for signs that the Nits’ defense is wilting, especially in the second and fourth quarters if RB Karan Higdon gets rolling for chunks. If Michigan can bully you, it will. And if the Wolverines smell blood in the water, it can get ugly.