Beginning with Iowa, Penn State Faces Nation’s 4th-Toughest Schedule; Are the Lions Ready?
The schedule gets a lot tougher for Penn State football.
Beginning Saturday night against Iowa in Kinnick Stadium.
The Nittany Lions face college football’s fourth-toughest schedule over the second half of the season, according to the NCAA’s latest rankings released Sunday.
Penn State’s final seven opponents have a combined 27-10 record and are winning 73% of their games. Take away Rutgers — which last week took away its head coach — and the remaining six Penn State opponents are 26-6, with a winning percentage of 81.25.
That would lead the nation in the toughest finishing slate of opponents.
As it is, poor Rutgers has the dubious distinction of having the nation’s toughest remaining schedule (29-9, 76.3%), followed by TCU and Arkansas (both at 27-9, 75%), then Michigan, Penn State and Oregon State (each at 73%).
Penn State’s remaining 2019 schedule features four road contests and is as follows (teams’ current record in parentheses): at Iowa (4-1), a Whiteout at home vs. Michigan (4-1), at Michigan State (4-2), bye week, at Minnesota (5-0), Indiana (3-2), at Ohio State (6-0) and Rutgers (1-4).
Five of PSU’s future opponents have been or are currently ranked in the Top 25. James Franklin’s Lions have not had a lot of success against ranked opponents. They are just 2-7 in their last nine games against Top 25 opponents and are 5-12 against Top 25 teams overall under Franklin.
The Buckeyes, who Penn State faces in The Horseshoe on Nov. 23, have not had an easy path to being undefeated in 2019. To date, they’ve faced the seventh-toughest schedule in major college football (20-6, 76.9%).
By comparison, Penn State has had a fairly easy path to 5-0 and its No. 10 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll. Their first five opponents have an aggregate record of 12-11 (52.2%), which is the 87th toughest schedule to date among the 130 ranked major college teams.
IS PENN STATE READY?
Is Penn State — one of 16 remaining undefeated FBS teams — ready for the upcoming gauntlet?
That’s the $800,000 question (the amount of Franklin’s bonus if PSU wins the national championship).
This season is only the eighth time Penn State has started the year 5-0 in 27 seasons in the Big Ten, and is the second time it has won its first five contests under Franklin (the other: 2017, when they opened 7-0 before falling 27-26 at Ohio State).
“I think we have a confident football team,” Franklin said on Saturday after Penn State defeated Purdue, 35-7. “We’ve got a locker room right now, those guys are having fun and not taking it for granted. I’m very, very pleased with our team. I’m very pleased with our coaching staff.”
Frank is especially confident in his defense, which is a very, very veteran group. Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry starts seven players in their fourth or fifth year in the program; three more are in their third season; and one (linebacker Micah Parsons) is in his second season.
“Defensively, we are doing some special things right now,” Franklin said. “We are playing championship level defense and we’ve been doing it for a number of weeks. Very, very pleased and impressed with that.”
The Nittany Lion defense is the only D in the nation that has not surrendered any first-quarter points in 2019, and is ranked No. 1 in sacks per game (5.0).
Overall, Penn State has yielded only 37 points this season — an average of 7.4 per game, which ranks PSU No. 2 in college football. The Big Ten dominates the Top 5: Wisconsin (5.8) is tops, followed by PSU, future foes Iowa (8.8) and Ohio State (8.8), and Florida (9.5). Michigan is No. 16 (16.0) and Michigan State, which gave up 24 second-quarter points to Ohio State Saturday night on its way to a 34-10 loss, is No. 21 (18.2).
The last time Penn State’s defense gave up fewer than 37 points through the first five games was in 1996, when they yielded 34 points against an opening quintet of USC, Louisville, Northern Illinois, Temple and Wisconsin, while jumping out to a 5-0 start before finishing 11-2.
Here’s where the 2019 defense ranks in stingiest starts in Penn State history since 1960, a span of six decades:
PSU: POINTS ALLOWED THROUGH 5 GAMES
1. 1973 — 26 points, finished 12-0
2. 1989 — 32 points, finished 8-3-1
3. 1996 — 34 points, finished 11-2
4. 1978 — 37 points, fished 11-1
4. 2019 — 37 points, started 5-0
On offense, Franklin still has plenty to nit-pick about, even though the Nittany Lions have scored 235 points. The offense been occasionally inconsistent, and just three times in five games it’s had a running back rush for over 45 yards (which certainly won’t fly against the upcoming meat of the schedule):
On Saturday against Purdue, freshman Noah Cain ran for 105 yards on 12 carries; freshman Devyn Ford ran for 107 yards on six carries against Idaho; and redshirt sophomore Journey Brown rushed for 109 yards on 10 carries against Pitt. Sophomore Ricky Slade, the top returning rusher from 2018, has a game-high of only 28 yards (vs. Maryland).
Penn State’s average output of 47 points per game places it No. 5 in the nation, with Appalachian State. The top four: LSU (54.6), with considerable game-planning help of passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who was a Penn State GA in 2015-16; Oklahoma (53.4); Alabama (51.8); and Ohio State (49.3), led by quarterback Justin Fields, a former Penn State verbal commit and de-commit.
Those 235 points rank fourth all-time at Penn State for most points scored in the first five games of the season on a list headed by the most prodigious offense in Nittany Lion history:
PSU: POINTS SCORED THROUGH 5 GAMES
1. 1994 — 258 points, finished 12-0
2. 2008 — 249 points, finished 11-2
3. 2018 — 248 points, finished 9-4
4. 2019 — 235 points, started 5-0
5. 1997 — 215 points, finished 9-3
6. 1992 — 212 points, finished 7-5
A massive amount of points scored in the first five games does not necessarily lead to overall success, save for that epic 1994 offense and the Spread HD offense that led PSU to a Big Ten title and a berth in the 2009 Rose Bowl. The other PSU teams listed above didn’t fare so well, with 2019 still to be determined.
In August, I asked Ricky Rahne, Penn State’s play-caller and QB coach, if those early points in 2018 were like “fool’s gold” — my words exactly.
“You can’t get caught up in it,” Rahne replied. “You’re trying to score as many points as you can every game. But, more importantly, trying to win every game. There are points in those games, where you go, ‘I could take some risks here to generate some points, but at this point it’s better for us not to do that.’
“We’re trying to win games, and I think that’s what our staff does a really good job of — working together. There are expectations of the outside world, but we have to keep things between the white lines and focus on what we can control. It’s about not accepting in victory what you wouldn’t accept in defeat. If a guy runs a route short, but it still works — well, you can’t accept that. If a guy is not finishing his block the way he needs to or we’re not throwing it the right guy, you can’t accept that.”
ARE THEY SPECIAL TEAMS?
Then there are the Nittany Lions’ special teams, a mixed bag under new ST coach Joe Lorig.
On Saturday, those units lost the ball on a muffed punt, were called for interference on another, missed a 35-yard field goal attempt and after two long punt returns by K.J. Hamler failed to adjust to Purdue’s tactics and had a series of returns that lost yardage.
“We need to be more consistent,” Franklin said. “We need to eliminate the penalties on special teams and we need to make sure that we control the ball on special teams.”
On the plus side, through five games Penn State ranks No. 1 in the nation for blocked kicks (3) and blocked punts (3), and No. 24 in punt return defense (3.0 yards a return). Transfer Jordan Stout adds a special dimension to the long kicking game; he has made a school-record 57-yard field goal, and 34 of his 40 kickoffs have been touchbacks, as he boasts an average kickoff of 63.1 yards.
A bit troubling are the Nittany Lions’ return games — they rank No. 126 on kickoff returns (14.33 yards) and No. 76 on punt returns (7.11). True, teams are going to great measures to make it to tough for Hamler to uncork a big return. But, they seem to be (mostly) succeeding. How Penn State adjusts and counter-schemes over the second half of the season is up to Lorig.
Punter Blake Gillikin is having a so-so season, at least in the category that matters the most — net punting, where Penn State ranks No. 83 in the nation, with a 37.05-yard average. Penn State ranks No. 55 in kickoff return defense, at 19.75 yards on the few returns it has allowed.
TURN OVER A NEW LEAF
And here’s a final stat that is the responsibility of Penn State’s offense, defense and special teams:
The Nittany Lions are a fairly ho-hum plus-1 on the season for turnover margin, gathering seven turnovers and losing six thus far in 2019, to rank No. 52 in the country.