For this year's Rocky Top Tennessee magazine (order here) I went back and looked at each of Bob Shoop's five seasons as defensive coordinator for Vanderbilt and Penn State. You'll find plenty of statistics there to support our favorite narrative: Shoop's defenses excelled despite inherited talent disadvantages in Nashville and scholarship restrictions in Happy Valley, neither of which he will have to deal with in Knoxville.
But beyond the consistency in the numbers his defenses put up, there are several individual games that stand out over the last five years. When you're looking for reason to believe Shoop can help the Tennessee defense be a difference maker in a championship season, these kind of performances by past Shoop defenses are at the top of the list. And Exhibit A is the 2014 meeting between Penn State and eventual national champion Ohio State.
The Buckeyes were only ranked 13th coming into Happy Valley, still recovering from their week two loss to Virginia Tech. Penn State started 4-0 in James Franklin's first year before their offense disappeared in consecutive losses to Northwestern (29-6) and Michigan (18-13). The offense wouldn't be much better against the Buckeyes. But Shoop's defense turned in an incredible performance against a squad that would finish the season second among power conference teams in yards per play.
It didn't look like much of a game to begin with: Ohio State opened a 17-0 lead in a quarter-and-a-half. But look closer and you'll see a pair of Buckeye touchdown drives that started inside the Penn State 40, and their field goal came at the end of a 59-yard drive that took 14 plays.
Penn State fans will be quick to point out a pair of missed calls in the first half: a Vonn Bell interception that set up Ohio State's first touchdown that should have been overturned as an incomplete pass, and the Buckeye field goal that was snapped a couple seconds after the play clock had expired.
Ohio State's other three first half drives went three-and-out or four-and-out. Still, you're up 17-0 at halftime and the opposition hasn't shown signs of life on offense in a month, you're not too worried. But on the third play of the third quarter, Penn State's Anthony Zettel pick-sixed J.T. Barrett.
The next four Ohio State drives ended in a punt, a missed field goal (taking 12 plays to go 47 yards), a three-and-out, and an interception. Penn State countered with a three-and-out, interception, and three-and-out before finally making good early in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 17-14. With the game on the line for the Penn State defense, the Buckeyes got one first down on their next two drives; Penn State went 77 yards in 19 plays to kick the tying field goal.
It didn't go well for Penn State in overtime thanks to Barrett's legs. After the Nittany Lions took a 24-17 lead in their first OT possession, Barrett ran for 17 yards on the second play of OSU's possession, then another five for the score on the next play. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Penn State gave Ohio State the ball at the 12.5 yard line to open the second overtime, which featured two more Barrett runs for another touchdown. Penn State couldn't manage a first down, and the Buckeyes prevailed 31-24 in double overtime.
It's easy to see 31 points and take no notice. But Ohio State's four touchdowns came on drives of 39, 39, 25, and 12.5 yards. In regulation, Ohio State gained only 256 yards.
Here's what the Buckeyes did in every other game in yards per play in 2014:
|at Penn State||3.86|
|at Michigan State||8.48|
Against Shoop's defense the Buckeyes picked up just 3.9 yards per attempt through the air; their next lowest number on the year was 7.3 against Illinois. And they averaged just 3.84 yards per carry, their second-worst performance of the season only behind Virginia Tech's sackfest. Penn State had three sacks, seven tackles for loss, and a pair of interceptions against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State's offense has hung half a hundred on the last four opponents they've played. Against a Penn State defense with walk-ons and true freshman all over the two-deep, they could barely muster a first down in the second half. Take away the referee-aided scores, and the Buckeyes gave up as many points as they managed, in regulation. What Bob Shoop has done with that group is nothing short of miraculous
Tennessee, of course, won't need the miraculous this fall. But if the Vols get the same kind of gameplan against elite competition from Shoop and the same level of execution from his players as we saw on this night between Penn State and Ohio State? The Vol defense can be the same kind of special, with an offense capable of pulling its own weight beside it.