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Penn State Football: The Nittany Lions Aren't Perfect, But 4-2 Sounds About Right

by on October 08, 2016 5:20 PM

Two weeks ago Penn State sat at a hazy crossroads. The Nittany Lions were 2-2, the direction of the program bobbing precariously between unimpressive and a work in progress. Suddenly votes of confidence were relevant and fires were being stoked across Pennsylvania.  

In defeat Penn State lost to Pitt because it showed up late to the party. Given the benefit of a time machine it's not unreasonable to think the Nittany Lions could win that game if it was played again today. Pitt was the better team, but by the end of the afternoon the Panthers largely benefited from a hot start and a fortunate ending, not so much a complete performance.

So you could objectively look at that game and say Penn State went from getting blown out to nearly winning. In the greater context of the last four years of Penn State football, that small footnote is progress worth acknowledging. It's a step forward, even if accompanied by a few steps back. 

Two weeks later and it's Michigan, a team ranked in the Top 5 and with a surplus of all the things Penn State has very little of. The Wolverines are deep, experienced and talented across the entire roster. Penn State is none of those things save for a few skill players, chief among them Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions probably could have put forth a better effort, but it would have changed the margin of defeat, not the outcome.

Even with that in mind 2-2 is unfamiliar terrain for a program and fanbase accustom to at least a modicum of success. James Franklin's third year at the helm had the hallmarks of improvement early on but not the results to show for it. With two very winnable games ahead on the schedule Franklin and his staff faced the very rare chance to seize the narrative for themselves and control the perception. Losing to Pitt shouldn't have been a shock and the manner in which you lose to Michigan is hardly an indictment on the big picture.

But that's only true if you win. More importantly, it was only going to be true if Penn State beat Minnesota and Maryland.

And for the past two weeks Penn State has, knocking off the duo of undefeated teams, albeit that fact largely aided by easy schedules. One victory in the form of an emotional overtime win over Minnesota, the other a dominant handling of Maryland to the tune of 38-14 and nearly 45-14.

So at what amounts to the midway point of the season Penn State has reasonably done just about everything it should have. The Nittany Lions are effectively 4-1 against teams they are capable of beating. They're scoring points in bunches (finally) and a defense missing nearly half of its best players is somehow getting better, not worse, as the injuries pile up.

"I feel like to where we should be," senior defensive end Evan Schwan said after the game. "The Pitt loss was tough, and you the Michigan game. We just have to keep moving forward. A lot of people have more confidence in themselves and the coaches and in our units."

The question now of course is what happens next. Penn State heads to the bye week before facing Ohio State, the Buckeyes are likely to still be ranked in the Top 3 and are probably better than Michigan. A loss here is hardly a shock. But beyond that it's once again a slate of winnable games. At Purdue, at home against a vulnerable Iowa team, then at Indiana and Rutgers before finishing the season at home against a far less lethal Michigan State squad.

So suddenly Penn State has gone from the uncertainly of 2-2 to a suddenly reasonable shot at seven or more wins. The Nittany Lions will almost undoubtedly be healthier as the season goes along, but that's an unknown. All things considered the narrative has changed again. For a head coach that probably doesn't get enough credit for being one, James Franklin has navigated his team out of a death spiral into deserved optimism.

"We're sitting there at 2-2 and we had a tough loss," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "And last week at halftime we're sitting there and it's not happening yet and then this week, this is exactly how Penn State football should play and will continue to play in the future. Just confidence, fast, physical, just be Penn State man. I think we're starting to do that."

The loss of tackle Andrew Nelson adds another level of intrigue to the ongoing puzzle, but Penn State is a better team after six games than it was after one.

And at 4-2 the Nittany Lions are about where everyone thought they would be.

But two weeks ago that was hardly a guarantee.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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