Nearly 20 minutes had passed and the incessant clicking, hissing and buzzing — typical obstacles on an open conference call line — hadn’t deterred Bob Shoop.
A minute later, Penn State’s defensive coordinator was about to be whisked away from his call with reporters. A Penn State athletic department official, tasked with moderating the call, said Shoop had to get going. He was the last remaining Penn State coach in town, the rest were already on the road recruiting during Penn State’s second bye weekend. Shoop had recruits to see.
There would be time for two more questions.
“I’ve got all day man, c’mon!” Shoop hollered. “I can take them! C’mon man!”
Shoop continued for about nine more minutes, evaluating Penn State’s steady defensive play through the first half of the season where after six games, Shoop’s defense is ranked in the Top 10 nationally in every major statistical category. Penn State is sixth in total defense and scoring defense and is giving up just under 61 rushing yards per game to field the best rushing defense in the nation.
It’s a stark turnaround for a group of players largely intact from last season’s defense. That unit, run by John Butler, was allowing 335 yards per game at the midway point and had been gashed for 132 points in six games. And unlike 2013, Shoop’s defense hasn’t had much offensive support this season. Penn State (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) has scored just two touchdowns in three conference games.
But Shoop’s defense has continued to keep Penn State in games.
“Very much so,” head coach James Franklin said.
And Shoop’s bring-it-on demeanor and in-game scheming have spearheaded Penn State’s defensive evolution. Suddenly, a unit that often looked lost, over matched, ill-prepared and mentally defeated last season has emerged as a physical, efficient, confident machine now.
But the turnaround didn’t happen overnight. Rather, Shoop’s used the better part of nine months to mold what he inherited into something more fitting of Penn State’s strong defensive heritage.
“Rather than recruit players to fit a scheme, we’ve tried to tailor our schemes to fit the players,” Shoop said.
That process started with Shoop identifying his defensive captain on film. When he saw Mike Hull play outside linebacker last season, he immediately decided to move Hull to the middle. After all, Shoop is a proponent of building a defense from the inside out — strong defensive tackles, sturdy linebackers and active, reliable safeties.
Shoop used the spring to pin down his squad’s depth and find players who could be used in reserve roles. The plan all along was to get as many players who showed readiness into games. So far, Shoop has rotated 25 players — nine defensive linemen, six linebackers and nine defensive backs — into games.
Now he’s using the fall to challenge even more players to step up. He recently pulled true freshmen Marcus Allen, Jason Cabinda and Grant Haley aside and offered some motivation.
“You’re not rookies anymore, man,” Shoop said. “You’re not just being stop-gap measures in there, we need you guys to step up and make plays. Our focus is on being the best football team we can against Ohio State and down the line in 2014. Certainly you want to build that for the future but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to Mike Hull. It doesn’t mean a whole lot to these seniors who have seen the good and bad of this thing. They want to have a great 2014 season.”
So far, they’ve been successful on their end.
Penn State has been nearly unbeatable on first- and second-down plays. Opposing offenses are running the ball on first down for just 2.9 yards per carry and 2.8 yards per carry on second downs. It’s the primary focus playing for Shoop — stop the run. Occasionally, teams have gotten a big gain here or there on first down and that average is inflated based on four “explosive” plays for 15 more more yards. Eliminate them and teams have run the ball for an average of just 2.02 yards on first down.
Second down hasn’t been easier where teams have run the ball for an average of just 2.8 yards.
“I think stats tell a story and as long as you use the numbers correctly, you can solve problems and we’ve been really good on first and second downs,” Shoop said. “Even in the Northwestern game where we didn’t play real well at times and in the Michigan game, we’ve been really good on first and second down consistently. That’s because the guys up front, because of the pressures, outnumbering teams in the box, being committed to stopping the run, forcing quarterbacks into bad decisions.”
On first-down passing plays, opposing quarterbacks aren’t doing much. They’ve completed just 52 percent of their passes for 536 yards, have been intercepted four times and sacked six times. Meanwhile, quarterbacks are posting a paltry passer rating of 105.7. By comparison, the lowest passer rating of FBS quarterbacks who qualify is 115.96.
And if you eliminate “explosive” passing plays of 20 yards or more — opponents have converted eight of them for 251 yards on first downs — that passer rating falls to a putrid 62.58.
It’s not a secret that heavy pressure, a characteristic Shoop guaranteed he’d implement after Penn State mostly sat in its base 4-3 defense last season, has led to much of Penn State’s success. But that pressure hasn’t come solely via linebacker, cornerback or safety blitzes.
It’s been much more natural.
Penn State’s front four, ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, have penetrated opposing backfields with regularity. When they haven’t, they’ve freed Hull and outside linebackers Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell up to attack downhill.
This was Shoop’s pitch when he first met Hull over the winter and expressed his desire to move the longtime outside linebacker who some consider to be undersized at 6-feet, 232 pounds into the middle.
Hull loved it.
“He said we would be getting downhill, attacking people with multiple defenses and blitzing schemes which got me excited,” Hull said.
Cornerback Jordan Lucas said he bought into Shoop’s plan immediately when he talked about how he wanted to utilize more corner blitzes. The rest of his teammates have followed suit. Bell and Hull have combined for three sacks while Lucas has one. All have come on blitzes.
Shoop’s dry sense of humor helped further endear him to his players and his football IQ — Franklin once said he’s heard Shoop through his headset predict nearly 75 percent of opposing plays before they were run — has won them over. Primarily because he’s putting them in positions to be successful.
“This is a guy that knows what he’s talking about, and with that confidence, it’s instilled in us and we’re just ready to play behind him,” sophomore linebacker Brandon Bell said.
And Penn State’s defense is ready to play for its offense and lift the much maligned unit up. Hull admitted to being frustrated at times when the defense forced stop after stop only to watch the offense sputter and stall. But part of him likes being on the dominant side of the ball again.
“Anybody would,” Hull said. “But at the same time, I personally like the challenge and I think the other guys on the defense like the challenge as well and it makes us step up our games and play at a higher level. So that’s one of the driving forces behind our defense I think.”
Another pro staff’s ability to adjust at halftime.
Along with defensive staff members Brent Pry, Terry Smith and Sean Spencer, Shoop has made halftime tweaks and Penn State has given up more yards in the second half just twice. More importantly, Penn State’s first-team defense has allowed only one second-half touchdown since the season opener in Ireland.
“I think it’s returned to where Penn State’s defense should be and my perception of what a Penn State defense is,” Hull said. “I think this year we’ve been playing solid but we have a long way to go so we have to keep playing at a high level and it starts with this week against Ohio State.”