The stat line almost looks like a typo.
Eleven tackles. Six behind the line of scrimmage. Two forced fumbles. Oh, and a sack too. All by one player in one game.
It didn’t happen at South Carolina. Or Alabama. Or LSU. Or Ohio State. Or Stanford.
It happened in a league no one talks about for a program no one talks about, a place where good defense hasn’t become a marginalized part of the game.
Yet Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald figures he was simply doing his job against Georgia Tech two weeks ago, when he singlehandedly kept the Panthers in the game, even if it couldn’t prevent a 21-10 loss.
“I just try to go out there and make plays for my team,” Donald said.
It’s an ethos repeated throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference, where defenses are having just as much a say in the conference race as the eye-popping numbers put up by those breakneck offenses that seem to be proliferating elsewhere in the country.
ACC teams are averaging 23.8 points per game in league play, the lowest among the five power conferences. The Big Ten is at 24.9, though that number jumps to 26.6 if anemic Purdue is thrown out. The scoring only soars from there, with the Pac-12 leading the way at 31.2 points per game.
And it’s not just Oregon. Seven of the dozen schools in the Pac-12 are averaging more than 30 points in conference play. Compare that to only four of 14 programs in the ACC.
While the coaches and players allow the numbers can be skewed a bit because of the more pedestrian offensive pace of the league in general, they add it wouldn’t be fair to say tempo is the only reason the marching bands don’t cue up the fight song as much after touchdowns as their brethren in other places.
“It’s a very athletic league,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “If you look at pro ball. A lot of the linebackers, D-linemen, corners, there’s a ton of players from this league.”
The ACC has had 21 defensive ends or outside linebackers taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft since 2006, by far the most among the Bowl Championship Series conferences, including Florida State’s Bjoern Werner and Cornelius Carradine last spring.
Not bad for a league that has spent most of the last decade watching its star slowly fade. No. 2 Florida State’s resurgence along with the steady climb of No. 8 Clemson and the revival at No. 24 Miami have helped. So has the steady defensive brilliance at Virginia Tech. Yet the league’s ability to put playmakers on defense reaches far beyond the upper crust.
Duke, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Syracuse have also picked things up as the season has worn on. The Blue Devils (7-2) are in the midst of their best season since 1994 thanks largely to a defense that hardly resembles the unit that dropped a 58-55 shootout to the Panthers back in September. Duke has allowed just 52 points combined in its last three ACC games, all victories.
After “that Pitt game, we just made a collective decision to just make a change,” Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “Just make an overall defensive change — overhaul, basically. We’ve proven when the defense plays well, we win those games.”
Sometimes in spectacular fashion. Redshirt freshman safety DeVon Edwards — all of 5-feet-9 — returned consecutive passes for touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a 38-20 last week against North Carolina State in just his second career start.
It was the same in Florida State’s 59-3 decimation of Wake Forest, as the Seminoles returned a pair of interceptions for scores to take steal some of the spotlight away from freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston.
Pitt picked up arguably the biggest victory of coach Paul Chryst’s two-year tenure by rallying past then No. 24 Notre Dame 28-21 last Saturday. The game’s three biggest plays were turned in by defensive back Ray Vinopal.
Vinopal stripped Notre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones inside the Pitt 5 to stop one score. He picked off Fighting Irish quarterback Tommy Rees in the end zone early in the fourth quarter to thwart another drive and followed it up by intercepting Rees’ next pass and returning it 40 yards to set up the winning touchdown.
His performance was a testament to the resiliency of defenses across a league that is getting stingier as the weeks pass.
“I think you’re seeing teams that, as they get used to what offenses are doing, they get better,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I think that’s what’s happening in the league. I don’t think the offenses are any worse. I think the defensive play is just improved.”