After a 49-10 dismantling at the hands of the Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan Wolverines, it looked like there might not be a bowl game in store for the Penn State Nittany Lions.
But sitting at 2-2 and with talks about head coach James Franklin being on the hot seat intensifying, Penn State returned to the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium for the beginning of a three-game homestand.
Up first was an undefeated Minnesota team, a team with 13 graduating seniors this season. The match-up between two of the youngest teams in college football got off to a rough start for the Nittany Lions as they were down by 10 at the half. But following the half, Penn State outscored the Golden Gophers 26-13 en route to a 29-26 overtime victory.
Since that overtime win, the Nittany Lions’ offense — especially its running game — has been nearly unstoppable.
Against Minnesota, much like Forrest Gump, running back Saquon Barkley took the ball 25 yards on the first possession in overtime for the Nittany Lions — and he hasn’t stopped since. Barkley picked up where he left off in that overtime win with a performance for the ages against Maryland.
The sophomore running back rushed for 202-yards on 31 carries in the 38-14 victory over the Terrapins. Penn State’s offense amassed 524-total yards in the rout of Maryland, and the Nittany Lions’ defense held a Terrapins rushing attack that had been averaging 300 yards per game to only 170 yards on the ground.
The Nittany Lions have done all this despite having at least seven linebackers miss time due to injury so far this season. Not only has Penn State overcome the adversity, the team’s defense has only gotten better each game since getting beat by Michigan.
Now, up next is a tough test for the Nittany Lions is a game against a very tough Ohio State team (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) that is currently No. 2 in AP polls and that dominated the match-up in Columbus last season. This year’s game, however, will be played in prime time and in front of 107,000 fans wearing white in Beaver Stadium.
The last time Penn State played the Buckeyes following a bye, the game was an instant classic; it took two overtimes for Ohio State to outlast the Nittany Lions. That game, played in Beaver Stadium, was also a prime-time game featuring an all-stadium white-out.
Penn State will be a heavy underdog this year as the Buckeyes should remain ranked in the top-five in the country — barring a surprise loss to Wisconsin on Saturday.
Following the game against the Buckeyes, Penn State’s schedule gets easier in the second half of the season. The Nittany Lions head to Purdue for a Big Ten road contest before coming back home to host Iowa the following week.
Penn State then hits the road for back-to-back road games against Indiana and Rutgers before returning home for a battle for the Land Grant Trophy in a regular-season finale tilt against Michigan State.
Could Penn State finish the second half of its season by going 5-1? It’s a lot more possible given the performance over the last two weeks, especially as the defense continues to get healthy.
Looking ahead, Iowa and Michigan State look to give the Nittany Lions the most problems, but the benefit for Penn State is that they play both of those games at home. The road trips to Purdue and Indiana could be troublesome, but the biggest wins for Purdue and Indiana came against Illinois and Michigan State, respectively, and neither of those teams have winning records.
Finishing 9-3 would be a dream scenario for the Nittany Lions, and the schedule following Ohio State bodes well for a dream scenario. A strong performance against one of the nation’s best teams in the Buckeyes would prove big in terms of keeping momentum going as Penn State looks to earn bowl eligibility.
As the halfway point of the season passes and the bye week ends, the Nittany Lions find themselves in the driver’s seat of their destiny the rest of the way, a destiny many thought might end in the firing of Franklin and with a losing season. Franklin’s team is primed to make a statement the rest of the way and should get back to an elite bowl game for the first time in years.
Image credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP