Big Ten boasts some of nation’s top defenses in ’22

Published 5:22 am Wednesday, October 26, 2022

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Just four Big Ten teams are ranked in the AP Top 25, but six of the top 12 defenses in college football reside in the conference.

The Big Ten’s surprise team this year, Illinois — 17th in the AP poll — has the top-ranked defensive unit in the nation, followed by No. 2 Ohio State, which appears more and more each week to be a complete package.

Michigan (AP No. 4) is ranked fifth in defense. Iowa, unranked in the poll because of a moribund offense, was propped up by its tough defense before running into the speeding Buckeyes last week. The Hawkeyes are still sixth best in the nation in terms of yards allowed per game.

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Rutgers and Minnesota have needed the help of their defenses, ranked seventh and 12th, respectively, to stay above .500.

All six of the teams are allowing fewer than 300 yards per game. Five of them, with Rutgers being the outlier, are giving up under 20 points per game. Penn State is also giving up less than 20 points per game.

By contrast, only Iowa State in the Big 12 is allowing 300 yards or fewer per game, with Iowa State and Kansas State allowing under 20 points.

In the ACC, only Syracuse is allowing fewer than 300 yards per game, with Syracuse, North Carolina State and Clemson allowing under 20 points.

In the SEC, Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama are allowing fewer than 300 yards and 20 points. Zero teams in the Pac 12 can claim either.

Illinois (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) is the conference’s biggest surprise this season, with a defense allowing 221.1 yards and fewer than nine points per game. The only loss for the Illini came in a 23-20 setback at Indiana in Week 2 — the most points they’ve allowed all season.

“Really, from the pilots we hop on the plane with to the schools that we talk to, just everybody is a lot more aware of Illinois football,” second-year coach Brett Bielema said.

He noted this week that Illini cornerback Devon Witherspoon was named a finalist for the Thorpe Award given to the best defensive back in college football. Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. and Ohio State’s Lathan Ransom also are finalists.

It’s not a surprise when Ohio State shows off an explosive offense, but the Buckeyes now have the second-ranked defense to go along with it.

Ohio State is holding teams to 239.9 yards per game and a little over two touchdowns.

“I thought the guys were fresh, they were fast and opportunistic,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said after the Buckeyes thumped Iowa 54-10 last week.

Coach Ryan Day lured Knowles from Oklahoma State before the season to overhaul the Ohio State unit, which finished last season ranked 38th in the country.

“We expect these good things to happen by the way we’ve trained and we’ve played,” Knowles said. “And I know it has a great effect on the whole team. Everybody feels confident.”

Safety Tanner McCalister, a graduate transfer who accompanied Knowles from Oklahoma State, had two interceptions as the defense forced six turnovers against the Hawkeyes last week.

“Like coach Knowles says, we can win games on defense,” McCalister said. “We don’t always have to rely on our No. 1 offense. We have a pretty good defense, and we can win games if need be.”