If defense still wins championships in today’s world of college football, then Penn State is entering its bye week in national championship form. While the importance of having a lock-down defense may not be quite as big as it used to be now that we are in an era where the game has evolved to benefit the offenses, it still can make a big difference when you have a defense you can rely on to win some games and make some big stops. And through five weeks of the season, Penn State’s is among the best.
Penn State is one of three FBS programs allowing fewer than 10 points per game this season. The other two just so happen to be in Penn State’s division, Michigan and Ohio State.
Penn State is also among the best in the nation at forcing turnovers. The Nittany Lions have gained 12 turnovers so far this season with an even distribution of six fumble recoveries and six interceptions turned on opposing offenses. The only teams with more so far are Western Kentucky (14) and California (13). A handful of other programs are tied with Penn State, including another division foe in Maryland.
When you combine this with the fact Penn State has lost just one turnover this season (on the opening kickoff vs. Northwestern last week), Penn State’s turnover margin of +11 is leading the nation. No other team in the country has a turnover margin of double digits. Maryland’s +9 is the second-best in the nation behind Penn State.
It is worth recognizing the level of competition Penn State has faced so far. Although West Virginia has built a respectable 4-1 record so far with four straight wins after losing the season opener in Beaver Stadium, Penn State’s schedule has consisted of wins over Delaware, Illinois, and Northwestern. Not exactly a murder’s row of quality competition this season.
Penn State’s toughest games on the schedule are unquestionably still to come, and odds are some of these defensive trends will hit a couple of snags in certain spots. Penn State’s turnover luck may be considered unsustainable, which is fair to assume. The hope is it doesn’t go in full reverse all in one game.
Penn State gets a home game against another weak opponent, UMass, after their bye week, but then it is on to the biggest game of the year so far. Penn State visits Ohio State on Saturday, Oct. 21. As long as Ohio State can manage to avoid slipping up this week against an increasingly interesting Maryland, the showdown in Columbus is shaping up to be a top 10 (top 5?) battle of Big Ten unbeaten with the highest stakes we have seen in this series since 2017.
The Ohio State game is a true litmus test for Penn State. The Buckeyes have dominated the series over the course of James Franklin’s career. But Penn State’s defense may be the best it has ever been under Franklin with defensive coordinator Manny Diaz calling all the right shots right now.
Franklin and Penn State do a good job on emphasizing the 1-0 mentality and not publicly looking ahead down the line on the schedule. But this is going to be a long two weeks for the rest of us as we look forward to seeing if Penn State’s defense will give the offense a chance to score a major win in The Horseshoe in a few weeks.