As the Big Ten enters its first nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener.
ANALYSIS: The offense has scored at least 33 points in each of the first three games, and Saquon Barkley hasn’t had a ‘whoa’ game yet where he approaches 200 yards. Sacks are down (five) but ball security has been an issue with 12 fumbles (six lost). When quarterback Trace McSorley has had time to let the routes develop, he’s been accurate down the field. The defense has struggled with containment on running plays, and now all three starting linebackers are dealing with injuries. Penn State hasn’t faced an above-average quarterback yet.
Freshman punter Blake Gillikin has been a revelation, kicker Tyler Davis hasn’t missed and the return units have been productive. Kickoff specialist Joey Julius leads the country in SportsCenter-worthy hits by a kicker, but there have been holes in the kick coverage when he doesn’t get the ball deep enough.
KEY GAME: vs. No. 8 Michigan State, Nov. 26, Beaver Stadium
Coach James Franklin is 0-7 against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Pitt. Winning at the Big House is a big challenge, and knocking off what looks like a Buckeyes juggernaut would be tough anywhere on the planet. That leaves the Spartans, and the final game of the regular season. Winning that one could alleviate some angst from the portion of the fan base that thinks Penn State’s success level should be immune to NCAA sanctions.
KEY PLAYER: Trace McSorley, QB
It’s going to take significant improvement, despite injuries, for the defense to not give up a lot of points. The Nittany Lions need to keep scoring the way they have in the first three games. Barkley is tremendous, but he needs help from the passing game to keep teams from loading up to stop him.
FIRST MATCHUP: at No. 4 Michigan (3-0), 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Michigan Stadium, ABC
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The injury luck gets better for the defense, and the offensive line improves just enough for Barkley to become an all-Big Ten first team running back. They upset Michigan State to finish a 9-3 regular season, and after Michigan or Ohio State romps in the Big Ten title game, the Nittany Lions slip into a New Year’s Six Bowl.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Another key injury or two leaves the defense in tatters, and the offense can’t score enough to keep up against Big Ten opponents. Penn State basically becomes Indiana. Not only are there losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, but also to an upstart Maryland team and the Nittany Lions limp into a low-level bowl game at 6-6.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: The offense struggles against Michigan and Ohio State, but looks competent against everyone else. The defense plays just well enough, and kicker Tyler Davis has a huge day to help Penn State eke out a 19-17 win against either Iowa or Michigan State and the Nittany Lions finish 8-4 and return to Florida for a bowl game.