As Penn State prepares to face Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State in consecutive games, James Shaw asks whether the Nittany Lions can emerge unscathed through the toughest gauntlet we’ll see in college football this year.
Since the electrifying conclusion to Penn State’s 2016 season, the Nittany Lions’ days of flying under-the-radar are over. Expectations have been high this year, and James Franklin’s team has thus far delivered. Through six games, Penn State’s defense looks improved, and, while not quite as potent as last year, the offense is still dominant. All told, the 6-0 Nittany Lions have barely missed a beat this year. The victory at Iowa might have been closer than some would have liked, but a trip to Kinnick Stadium was unlikely to be straightforward.
But despite racking up six wins from six, Penn State will emerge from the bye week 0-0. The coming stretch of games will make or break the season. In their next three, the Nittany Lions will face a test far surpassing anything we have seen — or will see – in college football this season. If you’re not convinced, just look around the rest of the AP Top 10. No other contending team will endure a three-game stretch quite like the one that awaits Penn State. In Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions will find familiar foes with points to prove. Each will likely be ranked in the Top 25 come game day, playing with the type of desperation we so often see from a 1-loss conference contender. As the team-to-beat in the Big Ten through six weeks, there’s a high price on Penn State’s head, and its next three opponents will be looking to stymie the momentum Franklin has been building for the best part of a year. Should they emerge unscathed, it would be near impossible to deny Penn State place in this year’s playoff.
Game One: Michigan
The Nittany Lion’s fist match-up of the gauntlet now looks a little easier than it did at the beginning of the season. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines have disappointed this year, and their hopes of making the playoffs look to have evaporated following the 14-10 loss to the Spartans last week. It’s now increasingly clear that this isn’t a team capable of running the table — particularly with Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin still on-deck. But while Michigan might have fallen short of expectations this year, the Wolverines are still a capable ball club and will be looking for a statement bounce-back win. And who better to land it on than Penn State?
The Nittany Lions will have a couple of crucial factors going their way in the game against Michigan. First off, although the Wolverines’ defense travels well, this will be no ordinary road game. The prime-time match-up will be played under Beaver Stadium’s lights, and we know what that means: White Out. This will be a difficult environment for a team apt to make costly mistakes. Additionally, one of the keys to victory for Michigan will be the offensive line’s ability to get at Penn State’s front seven which showed some vulnerability in the win at Iowa. The hostile crowd should, however, work against an underwhelming Michigan offense led by a backup QB. Secondly, Penn State will be coming off a bye, in contrast to Michigan which be playing back-to-back road games following what could be a tricky encounter at Indiana. The timing and home-field advantage should be enough to get Penn State through the first game of what I’m calling “The Gauntlet”.
Verdict: Penn State 21 – 17 Michigan
Game Two: at Ohio State
If the game against Michigan will be a test, the trip to Ohio State will stand as a comprehensive examination of Franklin’s club. Since falling to Oklahoma in Week Two, the under-the-radar Buckeyes have been a team possessed, averaging 52.5 points per game (while allowing an average of only 10.5). Although now largely removed from the National Championship conversation, Ohio State is playing like a top four team, and a win against Penn State would do wonders for the Buckeyes’ stock in the eyes of the committee.
Urban Meyer’s offense will provide a real test for the Nittany Lions secondary. The much-maligned JT Barrett has regained some confidence in his last four outings, taking his team all the way up to No.4 in total offense. Explosive play from the quarterback position is allowing Ohio State to rack up an average of 322 passing yards per game (with an exceptional degree of efficiency, I might add). Any talk, however, of Ohio State’s resurgence should come with a caveat. The Buckeyes last four opponents have been Army, UNLV, Rutgers, and Maryland. Penn State, of course, is an entirely different prospect. The Nittany Lions rank No.3 in Red Zone defense and allow only 167.8 yards per game. If there’s a weakness, it’s been in the rushing defense – but, crucially, the Buckeyes’ offense is really built around the passing game.
This will be Penn State’s toughest game of the year, but if the Lions are able to come into it with a win against Michigan, they should be confident. Oklahoma has demonstrated that Ohio State can be beat in the Horseshoe, and the Lions have the weapons to be beat a team that won’t have been tested since the second week of the season. This game will be tight, but Penn State’s ability to stay ahead in the turnover margin could be enough to get the Lions over the line at the Horseshoe.
Verdict: Ohio State 35 – 38 Penn State
Game Three: at Michigan State
Of the three games in The Gauntlet, the most straightforward will likely be the last. ESPN’s Football Power Index currently gives Penn State an 87% chance of winning in East Lansing, and the Lions’ improved defence should be able to contain a Michigan State offense that has so far lacked intensity. That said, the Spartans will in all likelihood stand undefeated in-conference we they host Penn State in November. The question then is how far Michigan State’s elite defense will be able to constrain Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley & Co. Michigan State Linebacker, Joe Bachie, is spearheading a formidable Spartans defense that has managed to restrict everyone outside of Notre Dame to less than 20 points this year. And in their win over Michigan in the Big House last week, State’s pass defense came alive, drawing five turnovers including three interceptions. It’s a defensive unit that will be willing and able to take advantage of a Penn State offense that could well be banged up after its visit to Columbus.
But while Penn State’s offensive line might not quite be as formidable as expected, Michigan State’s pass defense isn’t an order or magnitude better than Penn State’s. If the Nittany Lions can effectively contain Brian Lewerke, McSorley and the offense ought to be able to put up enough points to see them through. And, let’s not forget, they will also be assisted by the nation’s number one scoring defense.
Verdict: Michigan State 10 – 27 Penn State
Penn State, 3-0?
All things considered, Penn State has genuine chance to emerge through three rounds of hell unscathed, and with a place in the playoff all-but guaranteed. Even if they drop one, the hunt for a playoff place won’t be over. This is, after all, a nightmarish schedule – but Penn State is one of the few teams in the country capable of weathering it.