Penn State’s season-defining stretch starts now


Here’s how the Nittany Lions shape up for their White Out game against Michigan (7:30 pm ET, ABC).

You’ve got to give Penn State credit for one thing: the Nittany Lions won their bye week. While much of the top 10 was stepping on land mines, James Franklin’s squad was regrouping for a three-week stretch that will define their season. And thanks to Syracuse’s defeat of No. 2 Clemson, they strolled up to the No. 2 spot in the AP poll, their highest ranking in this century.

In the first six games of the year, Penn State did exactly what it needed to do. The Nittany Lions built early leads, dominated in the field position battle, and headed off all but one upset bid before they could even begin.

  • They were up on Pitt, 14-0, after 10 minutes and cruised, 33-14.
  • They led Akron and Georgia State by a combined 70-0 at halftime and won by a combined 108-0.
  • Thanks in part to two return scores, they led Indiana 28-0 after one quarter and glided to a 45-14 win.
  • They took a bit more time with Northwestern, leading the Wildcats 10-0 at halftime in Evanston before putting the 31-0 win away with two third-quarter touchdowns.

1. As you shift from being the hunter to being the hunted, fast starts are incredibly important.

The defending Big Ten champion prepared all offseason to take everyone’s best shot in the league. So far, the Nittany Lions have been mostly ready.

The lone exception: their trip to Iowa City. They trailed Iowa 7-5 at halftime, took the lead in the third quarter, and gave it back on a 35-yard Akrum Wadley touchdown run with 1:42 left. But quarterback Trace McSorley drove PSU the length of the field and hit Juwan Johnson with a seven-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play to sew up a 21-19 lead.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Juwan Johnson catches the game-winner in Iowa City

Even that game proved something. The Nittany Lions controlled the game from a stat perspective; they won the field position battle, they created three more scoring opportunities, they dominated in terms of success rate, and they even did better than the stats would have expected from a turnovers perspective.

Only two missed PSU field goals and two long Wadley touchdowns made this a game. Still, they rallied and avoided the land mine.

2. This is all well and good, but Penn State’s season officially begins on Saturday evening.

Over the next three weeks, Franklin’s team will host Michigan (16th in S&P+) then visit Ohio State (No. 1) and Michigan State (No. 20). And despite the Nittany Lions currently ranking No. 3 in S&P+, S&P+ win probabilities give them just a 14 percent chance of going 3-0 in this stretch and a 38 percent chance of losing at least two of three.

3. Between now and November 4, we’ll find out whether Penn State is a national title contender, a Big Ten contender, or a “10 wins and a spot in the Capital One Bowl” contender.

First things first: beating Michigan.

Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines are as frustrating to play as they are to watch right now. On one hand, you think they’re vulnerable, and they are. On the other hand, they still have one of the nation’s best defenses. That will almost always keep you in a game no matter what your offense is doing.

Michigan can’t pass even a little bit. With starting quarterback Wilton Speight out, John O’Korn has completed 26 of 55 passes for 256 yards, no touchdowns, and three picks over the last two weeks, and only half of those passes were thrown in a monsoon. In perfectly fine weather against Indiana last week, he was 10-for-20 for 58.

Michigan is reliant on an all-or-nothing run game that has produced a decent number of big plays but ranks only 99th in rushing success rate.

4. Of course, if you’re going to move the ball on Penn State, it’s probably going to be on the ground, so this works.

Michigan is coming off of by far its best rushing day of the year. The Wolverines produced 271 rushing yards in the OT win; Karan Higdon produced 200 of them in 25 carries. Still, the yardage came mostly in bursts, and after scoring 13 points on their first three possessions of the game, the Wolverines punted on nine of their final 10 possessions in regulation, with seven three-and-outs.

The Nittany Lion defense ranks 44th in Rushing S&P+ and fifth in Passing S&P+. PSU has an incredibly active secondary — 45 percent opponents’ incompletions have been due to either interceptions or breakups, second-most in the country — and it’s unlikely that O’Korn and a young receiving corps will figure out how to do much damage, so Higdon and the ground game will have to carry the day.

5. Turnovers and big plays — whatever produces easy scores — will likely carry the day.

Penn State has a more efficient, less ridiculously exciting offense in 2017. The Nittany Lions’ success rate is up from 80th in 2016 to 25th in 2017, and while some of that has to do with non-conference success, they posted a 53 percent success rate against Iowa, 42 percent against Indiana, and 41 percent against Northwestern. Their 2016 success rate was 41 percent, so they’re clearly raising the bar in efficiency.

They also aren’t producing as many big plays. They have fallen from second to 25th in my primary explosiveness measure (IsoPPP), and after posting 48 gains of 30-plus yards in 2016 (third in FBS), they have only 17 (32nd) through six games.

This is a trade you are okay with making. Big plays are the 3-pointers of football — they’re super fun and useful, but they’re also random. Consistent offense is almost always built around efficiency, and PSU has that this year.

The last couple of games have been at least a little bit disconcerting, however.

Despite the ease of victory, PSU struggled to get September Heisman winner Saquon Barkley rolling. He rushed 20 times for 56 yards against Indiana and needed a late burst to get to even 75 yards in 16 carries against Northwestern. Only 33 percent of his carries gained five yards (the national average is closer to 40 percent), which meant a lot of work for McSorley on passing downs.

McSorley was brilliant against Northwestern (9-for-10 on passing downs for 112 yards, albeit with two sacks), but against an attacking IU defense, he was just 5-for-9 for 61 yards and four sacks on passing downs.

Michigan’s defense is more like Indiana’s than Northwestern’s. The Wolverine defense ranks first in Passing S&P+ — an incredible feat considering the talent they lost in the offseason — and, perhaps as importantly, ninth in Adjusted Sack Rate. Against both run and pass, they wreck your line of scrimmage with tackles Maurice Hurst (who has taken part in 14 run stuffs) and Rashan Gary (eight) and underrated end Chase Winovich. Penn State’s offensive line has been, at times, wreckable.

Still, if PSU can simply avoid disaster, the Nittany Lions’ offensive upside should win the day because their defense has a larger advantage over Michigan’s offense. But the turnover battle will loom large, and with so few defensive breakdowns likely, every big play will almost count double.

6. An X-factor: tight end play

NCAA Football: Indiana at Penn State
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Gesicki and Franklin
NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Sean McKeon

The tight ends could play a huge role in both efficiency and big plays. O’Korn’s best game by far this year came against Purdue, when he completed five of five passes to sophomore TE Sean McKeon for 82 yards. Junior Zach Gentry has eight catches for 134 yards this year, and sophomore Nick Eubanks, who caught two balls for 61 yards in the season opener against Florida, might be ready to return after suffering a head injury against Purdue.

It feels like Penn State has been holding Mike Gesicki in reserve, waiting to break glass in case of emergency. The senior from Manahawkin, N.J., caught 48 balls for 679 yards and five touchdowns last year, second on the team in all three categories. But while he’s been a nice red zone threat (four touchdowns already), he’s caught only 22 balls for 176 yards.

Gesicki injured his lower back against Indiana and didn’t do much against Northwestern, but he’s healthy and rested, and he might be more capable of beating a Michigan linebacker one-on-one than any of PSU’s receivers are of beating Michigan DBs.

7. S&P+ projects a 29-18 Penn State win.

Big plays, turnovers, and tight ends could shrink or expand the margin from there.

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