Penn State D Living Up to Shoop’s Vision

The Nittany Lions’ Nostradamus in Nikes coordinator has a knack for knowing what his charges will do in a given game.

Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, fast becoming a Nostradamus in Nikes, makes his expectations clear, his predictions clearer.

Predictions for success -- predictions that have proven to be uncannily accurate.

The Nittany Lions enter Saturday's game at Illinois first among the nation's 125 major-college teams in rushing defense (83.1 ypg) and pass-efficiency defense (96.9 rating). They are third in total defense (256.6), fourth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) and 16th in passing yards allowed (182.5).

“It would just be great to go out on a high note,” senior middle linebacker Mike Hull said Tuesday, “as one of the better defenses to come through Penn State.”

And with two games left (plus a bowl), that's what they have a chance to do.

Shoop, a guy who according to Hull “loves numbers,” runs down the national rankings when he meets each Sunday with the defense, an exercise that serves as “a little bit more motivation for us,” safety Jesse Della Valle said.

“A lot of the guys are really interested in those numbers,” Hull added. “You can always hear the guys talking in the locker room, and 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 in the Big Ten.”

It is nothing Shoop didn't map out when he followed head coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt to PSU last January, and nothing he doesn't foresee in the days leading up to each game.

“Every week,” Hull said, “he'll give us a prediction on how many turnovers he thinks we can get, based on the other team's style or personnel or what they've done in the season. … There have been two or three occasions where he's been pretty much spot-on.”

Hull recalled, for instance, that Shoop foresaw the Lions picking off five Rutgers passes in a 13-10 victory earlier this season, and forcing two turnovers in beating Indiana two weeks ago.

Last week Shoop predicted that his guys would have three takeaways against Temple, one of them an interception by freshman cornerback Christian Campbell, who was making his first start in place of an injured Trevor Williams. Campbell did in fact have a pick -- as did classmate and fellow corner Grant Haley, which he returned for a touchdown -- but the Lions actually exceeded expectations by forcing five turnovers.

“Just walking through plays during the week, he'll say, 'I could see this guy getting a pick on this play,' ” Della Valle said. “It's pretty crazy. I don't know how he does it, but it's working for us.”

And, Franklin said, “I think whenever you're able to talk about how the game is going to go and it goes that way, it gives you credibility with the guys and the guys start believing and get excited. Then it's amazing, because once that happens a few times and now you say it, sometimes it happens because you've said it and they believe.”

Clearly that is the case at this point.

“Everyone's really confident,” Hull said, “and you don't have to rely on just a few guys to make plays. I think everyone is playing as a unit, and that's why we've been so good the last couple weeks.”

Hull, who leads the Big Ten with 111 tackles, is the obvious ringleader, but others have had their moments. Safety Adrian Amos has a team-leading three interceptions, end Deion Barnes has six sacks and tackle Anthony Zettel has fashioned one of the most unique stat lines in the country -- six sacks and 11 tackles for loss, which place him among the conference leaders, but also two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against Ohio State.

“Just walking through plays during the week, he’ll say, ‘I could see this guy getting a pick on this play.’ It’s pretty crazy. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s working for us.”

Then there is Zettel's running mate at tackle, Austin Johnson.

“Austin's a beast, man,” Della Valle said. “I think if you turn on the film and watch Austin Johnson, you see a guy whose motor is always running. … He's the main reason, I think, why our defense is what it is.”

Nor have the Lions skipped a beat when freshmen like Campbell and safety Marcus Allen have joined the lineup, the latter after Ryan Keiser was sidelined four games ago with a broken rib. That's because they have the physical attributes to do the job -- they're “rangy,” Hull said -- and because Shoop has given them the necessary practice reps to be ready.

Shoop is PSU's fourth defensive coordinator in as many years, following Tom Bradley, Ted Roof and John Butler, and far and away the most successful. While the Lions were strafed by Houston in the Ticket City Bowl to end the tumultuous 2011 season, their overall numbers under Bradley that year were not bad. They were fifth in the nation in scoring defense (16.8), sixth in pass-efficiency defense (107.2), 17th in passing yards allowed (190.6), 20th in total defense (323.9) and 42nd in rush defense (133.3).

They weren't better than 23rd in any of the five major categories under Roof in '12, nor better than 36th under Butler last season. Then they lost tackle DaQuan Jones and linebacker Glenn Carson to the NFL.

Didn't matter. That's because Shoop “demands perfection, every single day,” according to Hull.

It wasn't that way at the very beginning, Hull added; there was, maybe, a one-week grace period during spring practice, while the defenders got up to speed with the new scheme. But after that, everybody had to be on point. The new coordinator made sure of that, as did his lieutenants.

“I've never been around a staff that's so thorough and does as many walk-throughs and preparation things,” Hull said. “I think that's why we've had so much success.”

It helps that Shoop has a bunch of grinders with whom to work -- guys, Hull said, who “play every single play like it's your last.” All they need is a little direction, a little inspiration.

“Bob,” Franklin said, “usually has an 'a-ha' moment during the week, where he's watching the film and studying it -- looking at tendencies and personnel groupings and all those things. … And his whole mood and demeanor changes once that happens.”

Soon enough, everyone else's changes, too.

Just as Shoop might have predicted.

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