Penn State's Nassib, NIU's Lurry are top defenders

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Carl Nassib's rise from walk-on to the nation's leader in sacks has been one of the best feel-good stories in college football this season.

The Penn State senior will have a final chance to add to his already secure legacy when the Nittany Lions face Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2.

And while it's OK to admit we all like high-scoring bowl games, take a moment to appreciate the efforts of those on the other side of the ball — like Nassib.

The 6-foot-7, 272-pound senior entered this season with a grand total of 11/2 sacks for his career. Rather than bemoan his limited playing time, Nassib kept perfecting his craft and opened the year with 10 tackles and a sack in a loss at Temple.

Nassib followed that with three more sacks in a win over Buffalo and tallying at least one in the season's first 10 games — totaling a school-record 15 1/2 before missing most of Penn State's final two games with an injury.

Finally healthy once again, and with the postseason's award circuit completed, the afterthought-turned-All-American hopes to end his career in much the same fashion against the Bulldogs.

Some other top defensive players to watch in the remaining bowl games:

LURRY'S PICKS: Northern Illinois cornerback Shawun Lurry earned the spotlight by grabbing two interceptions in a 20-13 loss at Ohio State in September. It was just the beginning of a remarkable season for the 5-foot-8, 178-pound sophomore, who leads the country with nine interceptions entering Wednesday's Poinsettia Bowl against Boise State.

Lurry's ball-hawking ways have slowed somewhat after snagging seven interceptions through the Huskies' first seven games, but he did have a 64-yard pick and return for a touchdown in the final regular-season game — a 34-14 loss to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference title game.

SHAQ ATTACK: Yes, Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson has already announced his intention to enter the NFL draft following his junior season — whether his career has one or two more games remaining. Before the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year takes for the field for your favorite pro team next season, watch the 6-foot-3, 275-pound standout at his dominant best when the Tigers face Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve. Lawson leads the country with 22 1/2 tackles for loss this season, and he's expected to be a first-round pick in the 2016 draft.

CATTY COUGAR: Houston had hopes of crashing the playoff party out of the American Athletic Conference, but that ended with a surprising 20-17 loss at Connecticut on Nov. 21. While the Cougars put up plenty of offensive numbers, their defense — led by senior cornerback William Jackson III — also played a large role. Jackson, who leads the country with 24 passes defended this season, will have a final chance to display his talent when Houston faces Florida State in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31.

DEFENSIVE BADGERS: Wisconsin leads the country in scoring defense this season, allowing an average of only 13.1 points per game, thanks in no small part to the pressure brought by linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. The two have combined for 17 1/2 sacks and 32 1/2 tackles for losses for the Badgers, and they hope to add to those statistics when they face USC in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30.

CARDINAL TOUGH: Stanford's all-everything Christian McCaffrey earned the spotlight for his efforts on offense, but the Cardinal were equally led by linebacker Blake Martinez. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior is tied for 13th in the country with an average of 10.2 tackles per game, including 14 in two games this season, and will take the field for the last time for Stanford against Iowa in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.


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