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Indiana, Indiana, Indiana: 10 Ways Penn State Football Can Win This Week

by on October 18, 2020 6:00 PM

For Penn State football, this was supposed to be the week of Ohio State, Ohio State, Ohio State.

GameDay, Fowler and Herbie, a WhiteOut, a leg-up on a berth in the CFP.

But...

Instead, James Franklin is now officially kicking off his seventh season as head coach when his eighth-ranked Nittany Lions get ready to travel to Bloomington, Ind., to face the Indiana Hoosiers for the kickoff of a 2020 season that almost didn't happen.

(For Franklin, with fellow outspoken lobbyists Ryan Day, Scott Frost and Big Ten players' parents, that there is a 2020 Big Ten fall football season at all may be his biggest win of all.)

With only nine games — and the threat of cancelled contests a very real thing — going 1-0 each week for Penn State carries a much greater urgency than ever before. And that's just on the field.

 Off it, the challenges are legion.

So, as we ready for Penn State's first game of the 2020 season 49 days later than what had been scheduled pre-Covid, there are plenty of wins out there as Penn State preps for the 80th game of the Franklin Era and the 1,334th game in its 134-year football history.

A victory over Indiana, BTW, would be No. 899 for Penn State, meaning a win over Ohio State next week on Halloween would be 900. Pretty cool.

But...we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Here are 10 ways Penn State can win this week, on and the field:

1. Deliver A Message

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel announced in July that it will allow players to make social justice, commemorative and memorial statements, as well as other messages, on their jerseys in 2020.

For the season opener and throughout 2020, I wouldn't expect Penn State's players to each sport different messages, ala what the NBA did in its bubble. But I would look for the Nittany Lions to have some sort of unifying and not very controversial social justice message on its jersey — likely through a patch and/or a helmet sticker this season.

It could include a logo as well (possibly incorporating the university and/the Commonwealth), but the patch will be limited to 2.25 square inches and must be placed either on the sleeve or the front of the jersey similar to the "CFB 150" patches that were worn by players last season.

Franklin, who has been at the forefront of social justice messaging in a variety of venues over the past seven months, sees this as a teaching and learning opportunity.

“I think for there to be any growth, and I think for there to be any change, there’s an aspect of it that’s education and there’s an aspect of it that is about making people a little bit uncomfortable,” Franklin said a few weeks ago.

2. Overcome Adversity

Covid-19 testing is a regular occurrence for the Penn State players, coaches and staff. The Big Ten caps the number of football program members who can be tested daily at 170, but even that is a large number.

As we have seen in the NFL and college football, responding to positive tests and (false positives) is now part of regular preparation. No doubt that Franklin has a plan should a coach, staffer or player tests positive. But with the season about to get underway, the impact will be more immediate on the field and off it, should Franklin himself, an assistant or a star player be tested positive and be unavailable or the effects of the rare heart condition myocarditis come into play.

Franklin is a master planner and bench-marker. But, as we saw in the lightning storm-delayed game at Michigan State in 2017, where the Nittany Lions sat idle for three hours, some circumstances don't carry a ready-made playbook. This whole season is certainly one of them. And, of course, there are the very real and human health, safety and career implications that could come with a positive test and ill health. These are bigger than any game.

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3. Travel Safely

This Friday and on game day Saturday, Indiana will have the advantage of following its regular (although far from "normal") protocols. Meantime, Penn State will have a direct charter(s) from University Park Airport to the Central Indiana Regional Airport, a flight of about an hour and 36 minutes. No doubt the PSU traveling party will be smaller than usual, but leaving campus for the first time in at least 10 weeks does raise a number of challenges for Penn State — ranging from the team hotel, team meals and meetings, stadium and locker room protocols, testing in unusual settings, etc.

A safe and healthy trip can have big ramifications for Penn State's October 31 showdown with Ohio State in Beaver Stadium. In the days after the University of Florida's road game against Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, 21 Gator football players and head coach Dan Mullen tested positive. Florida was forced to postpone its game against LSU initially scheduled for this past Saturday, now tentatively rescheduled to December 12. Florida's October 24 game vs. the Missouri is postponed until October 31, among other schedule changes within the conference.

This would wreak havoc in the Big Ten. Because of the Big Ten's late start, there are no bye weeks for Penn State or any conference school in the 2020 truncated season.

4. Coach As #Oneteam

This is a team of assistant coaches and staffers that needs to jell quickly under the in-season pressures of extraordinary game prep and game day conditions — on the sidelines, in the locker room and in the scouting department.

Penn State added four new on-the-field assistants and three new analysts in the offseason. The coaches didn't have the advantage of a Blue-White Game, a season opener against Kent State (originally Sept. 5 before being cancelled) or a road trip to Virginia Tech (Sept. 12, also cancelled). And the analysts have zero tape of either the Nittany Lions or the Hoosiers from the 2020 season to break down and help Franklin & Co.

The assistant coaches: OC/QB coach Kirk Ciarrocca, OL coach Phil Trautwein, WR coach Taylor Stubblefield and DL coach John Scott Jr.

Not a good time for so many new coaches. That quartet ups the tally to 22 different on-the-field assistants in Franklin's seven seasons, a fairly high number. By comparison, Jim Harbaugh has had 24 in six seasons at Michigan and it's thought his staff turnover ratio is high.

The new analysts: Eric Raisbeck (ST), previously at Utah State; Ryan Roeder (OFF), a seven-year offensive assistant with the New York Giants who was a high school QB at Bethlehem Catholic; and John Roberts (DFF), who previously was at Arkansas.

There are a bunch of other new hires since Penn State's 53-39 win over Memphis State in the Cotton Bowl, but all have PSU ties, which is a big plus for smoother operations in challenging times. Former Nittany Lion players Deoin Barnes and Wendy Laurent are now grad assistants and fellow GA Jeff Carpenter moved over from an analyst's role. Former Penn State O-lineman Ty Howle is now an offensive analyst, where he is joined in the room by analytics guru Will "Moneyball" Reimann, who was at Penn State in the same role for a few years, then went to Mississippi State to work for Joe Moorhead.

5. Go On The Offensive

Saturday against Indiana will be the first time that Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford and his teammates will be running Ciarrocca's new offense against a live, hard-hitting defense that is not comprised of their teammates. That's a lot of adapting.

As Ciarrocca said a few weeks ago when asked about whether his offense will be ready for Ohio State, he said dryly and succinctly, "We need to be ready for Indiana."

With no Kent States, San Diego States or Northwesterns (all original early-season opponents) against whom it could work out the kinks, Penn State's offense still needs to be in mid-season form, whether it's a new scheme or not.

6. Unite The Campus...Safely

A game to watch and a team to cheer for is exactly what Penn State's student body needs.

Penn State is entering Week 9 of its academic calendar, and though the students have been exemplary on campus and while in class (or online) Monday through Friday, they all tell me weekends have a been a slog. Every time I ask a student, "How was your weekend?" the answer is "Boring." ("Things I never expected to hear at PSU for $400, Alex.")

Some...a minority...fight that boredom with group gatherings that go against health and safety protocols. With all of Penn State's game only accessible via television this season, watch parties will certainly be a thing. As could spreading the coronavirus.

Still, there can be a lot of wins here:

A Nittany Lion victory serve as a rallying point for #40k-plus students and be great for campus morale. And — if done safely and mindful of health and safety considerations — it also would be good practice for next weekend, when The Buckeyes in The Beav (sans fans) has the potential of turning hundreds of off-campus house parties into super-spreaders.

7. Show Me The Money

The pandemic has hit intercollegiate athletics hard, including Penn State. PSU ICA will lose more than $40 million in ticket revenue — even if some tickets are rolled over to 2021, it's a still a one-season loss — and all told there could be additional $30-$40 million deficit.

The Penn State-Indiana game will be nationally-televised by FS1. Penn State doesn't directly pocket the money from that game, but every time that one of the 63 Big Ten football games now scheduled for 2020 in the books is a step closer for each Big Ten school getting at least a share of the TV revenue that at one point had seemingly disappeared.

Each Big Ten school would have received almost $60 million from the conference if it had been a normal 2020-21 fiscal year, with the biggest chunks coming from football TV revenue, the College Football Playoff, the B10 football title game and the Big Ten Network. Each and every Big Ten football game that appears on any network in 2020 is essential money in Penn State's bank.

8. Life After Micah

For the past two years, the spotlight of Brent Pry's defense was on Micah Parsons. On and off the field.

Given all the frenzied fits and social media starts about Parsons leaving then coming back, then last week showing up at practice, it has to have been a distraction in some ways. Now, the trio of Brandon Smith, Elli Brooks and Jesse Luketa know for sure that are Pry's Starting Guys. This is their chance to truly show the next class of LBU is in session...sans Parsons. I'm betting on Professor Pry to make it all work.

9. Prep For Ohio State

Joe Paterno used to say a team makes its biggest improvement between Weeks 1 and 2 — and that may never truer than this year, when those weeks come in late October and would have been Nos. 8 and 9.

But...

No matter how well the Nittany Lions perform against Indiana, they will have to be better against Ohio State. Likely much better.

Originally, Ohio State was supposed to be Penn State's seventh game of the season, with all the trappings and advantages of a WhiteOut weekend. Not now. Instead of six games (including contests at Michigan and vs. Iowa) and a bye week to prepare for Justin Fields and Julian Fleming, Penn State now has six days.

So, against the Hoosiers, don't look for Franklin to clear his bench or for Ciarrocca to pull his offensive punches, even in a blowout. Every rep counts.

10. Beat the Hoosiers.

Not as easy as it sounds.

The Nittany Lions are a 7-point favorite against an Indiana team that won eight games in 2019, its most wins since 1993. Head coach Tom Allen is a meat-and-potatoes football guy who is low on charisma and high on L.E.O — "Love each other." It's an approach that should keep the Hoosiers on an even keel. Indiana loses little of its homefield advantage by having no fans in the stands, as Memorial Stadium always seems half-empty and 6 a.m.-quiet when Penn State visits anyway.

(Wondering, though, if John Mellencamp will be in attendance. He has his own little shack— not pink — on the roof of the stadium where he and his family watch every game in privacy and Hoosier style.)

Indiana is good, with 17 starters back. The Hoosiers can pass: Stud QB Michael Penix Jr. has a high upside (68.8% comp. rate last year) and WR Whop Philyor was a second-team All-Big Ten last year. And run: Steve Scott has 1,982 career rushing yards. Penn State is 22-1 vs. Indiana, its lone loss coming in 2013, when the Hoosiers outscored PSU 23-7 in the fourth quarter to win 44-24.

Penn State is better. Whether that translates into a win...or many of them...the pandemic is likely to have to a say — one way or another.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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