With three weeks left in the season, one theme has emerged — defense is dominating this conference. Whether it be teams struggling because they can’t play a lick of it or teams sticking in games because of their defense.
While there are five or six Big Ten teams who have defenses that can win them games, two stand out more than the other 12 — Penn State and Wisconsin.
Those two defenses have kept teams in games, changed outcomes and have put up some of the most impressive games we’ve seen from any team in the conference. Yet there seems to be a genuine debate as to which defense is the Big Ten’s best.
It was a topic of much discussion via Twitter and it went a little something like this:
Having heard that discussion, its time to settle the debate once and for all. Which is the Big Ten’s best defense?
Tale of the Tape:
The Case for Penn State:
Two words, one player — Mike Hull. His 99 tackles lead the Big Ten and his 11 tackles per game is 8th in the country. He’s perhaps the biggest difference maker at linebacker in the conference and the heart and soul of the Nittany Lions defense.
Additionally, this team has gotten great play at all levels. In the back they’ve gotten great play from cornerback Jordan Lucas, while Nyeem Wartman joins Mike Hull to form a very potent 1-2 punch at linebacker and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel has been a monster on the inside for the Nittany Lions defense.
Zettel enters this week with 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, four pass break ups, a forced fumble and two interceptions — as a defensive tackle. That’s hardcore production, and a major help to allowing Hull and Wartman to do work as linebackers.
The Case against Penn State:
Look at the schedule it has played, and more importantly, the offenses it has played. Outside of the Ohio State and Indiana offenses, the Nittany Lions defense has played average to awful offenses all season long.
No offense this team has played outside of the Buckeyes ranks in the top 60 of scoring offense. The highest offense not named OSU happened to be Maryland, coming in at No. 63 according to CFBstats.com. So, while the raw numbers are impressive, one has to wonder about them being inflated thanks to who has been on the schedule.
The Case for Wisconsin:
The numbers speak volumes as to just how impressive the Badgers defense has been. It hasn’t given up more than 28 points to any opponent all season long, and as the table above proved this defense ranks in the top 5 nationally in all four major statistical categories. You can’t say that about the Nittany Lions’ defense, and it is UW’s ultimate trump card in this battle.
Wisconsin also has an uncanny ability to get a crazy performances from all over the field, and it usually comes from a different place every game. Case in point is this past week where we saw sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel become Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week thanks to his seven tackle, four tackles for loss and three sack performance against Purdue.
UW has also gotten big games from the likes of fellow linebackers Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert. That doesn’t even account for safety Michael Caputo, who leads the team with 64 total tackles and is second on the team with three passes broken up.
Oh, and the Badgers also own the only shutout of a Big Ten opponent in the conference and one of just two shutouts by a Big Ten team against anyone all season long.
The Case against Wisconsin:
What has hurt the Badgers defense all season long is the big play. Wisconsin gave up a ton of them in the second half in the loss to LSU, and they did the same in the loss at Northwestern. In that loss to Northwestern, the Badgers allowed freshman running back Justin Jackson to go off for his first-ever 200-yard performance at the collegiate level.
Those two things are the reason we aren’t talking about an undefeated Badgers team, and the only reason the Badgers aren’t a top 3 team in all defensive categories.
Frankly the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of the Badgers in the stats and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Wisconsin owns a shutout inside of conference play. It would be an interesting matchup to see the Badger run game take on Penn State’s defense, but it is equally scary to think of what the Badgers defense would do to Penn State’s struggling offense.
The good news for the Big Ten is that both of these defenses are amongst the best in the country, and few conferences own defenses as good as these two.