Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop runs down the list of national defensive rankings with his unit every Sunday.
Shoop tells his players where they stand and what they need to improve moving forward. Shoop’s a fan of looking at the numbers — which reinforce how dominant the Nittany Lions have been this season.
They’re No. 1 in the country in both rushing defense (83.1 yards per game) and passing efficiency defense (96.89). They rank third in total defense, limiting their opponents to 265.6 yards per game. They’re fourth in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 16.2 points per game. And they rank sixth in third-down defense, as opponents have converted just 29.2 percent of their chances.
Shoop’s players have taken an interest in the numbers, too.
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“You can always hear the guys talking in the locker room,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “I think that gets people excited to want to stay at the top of those categories or even improve if we’re not No. 1, because that’s why a lot of guys came here — to be the best defense in the country and the Big Ten.”
Penn State (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten) will take on Illinois (4-6, 1-5) in Champaign on Saturday at noon.
The Fighting Illini are ranked second in the Big Ten in pass offense (255.6) and second-to-last in rushing offense (104.6).
Quarterback Wes Lunt leads the Illinois offense. Lunt has thrown for 14 touchdowns and three interceptions and is averaging 278.5 yards through the air in six games. He has also completed 65.3 percent of his passes.
Lunt suffered a broken left leg against Purdue on Oct. 4 and missed three games before returning against Iowa last week. He was 14 for 25 for 102 yards and a touchdown in the Fighting Illini’s 30-14 loss to the Hawkeyes.
“I like him a lot,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Lunt. “We recruited the heck out of him. He came to camp with us, 7-on-7 camp at the last school we were at. I have a lot of respect for him. (He) was a big time winner in high school and was having a lot of success early in the year before he got injured.”
Aaron Bailey and Reilly O’Toole both saw action at quarterback with Lunt out. Bailey and O’Toole proved to be threats running the ball, but they struggled passing — they have combined to throw for six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Lunt’s longest rush of the year went for five yards.
“He’s not a mobile guy, I would say,” Franklin said. “But with the injury, I think he’s probably a little less mobile than he’s been. We expect to see the other quarterbacks a lot. We expect to see a lot. Fake punts, onside kicks, we expect to see those types of things in this game.”
The Penn State defense enters Saturday playing with confidence built from consistent performances all season.
Hull credited Shoop for the unit’s success.
“He demands perfection every single day,” Hull said. “If you don’t get it right, he’s going to make you do it over again. It starts with him.
“And during the walk-throughs, communication has to be perfect or you’re going to have to do it again. They’re very meticulous and detailed in what they do and they’re very set on us getting things right every single time.”
The star linebacker, who leads the Big Ten with 111 tackles, and his teammates were introduced to Shoop’s demand for perfection during spring practice.
They quickly realized they needed to be ready to perform every day.
They’ve been sharp on Saturdays, keeping Penn State in games and starring in victories to help the Nittany Lions secure bowl eligibility.
It’s also led to the impressive statistics nationally.
“It’s kind of just a little bit more motivation for us,” safety Jesse Della Valle said. “We want to be up there with the best defenses in the country and that kind of puts it into perspective and lets us know where we’re at in terms of statistics.”
Penn State is aiming to remain at the top of categories while climbing high in others.
The pride in the locker room could last beyond this year as the unit tries to leave its mark in the program’s history.
Said Hull: “It would just be great to go out on a high note as one of the better defenses to come through Penn State.”