STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It will be four weeks Saturday since Penn State went to Michigan for a humbling experience.
The Wolverines punished the Nittany Lions that day, collecting the second-most yards Penn State has allowed in the past five seasons in a 49-10 win. Penn State’s offense was just as inept, producing the second-fewest total yards in the past five seasons for the Nittany Lions while allowing six sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 55 snaps.
Four weeks later, Penn State has a chance to prove it has made progress since the big debacle in the Big House. Michigan is one of the two Big Ten powers ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll, while also featuring in the top 5 in both scoring offense and scoring defense in the nation.
The other is Ohio State, and the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes come to Beaver Stadium on Saturday night for a White-Out showdown in Happy Valley.
“I think experience of games, all different types of games, from the Maryland game to the Michigan game and everything in between you can always learn something,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I think our guys’ focus this week is going to be on preparing really hard and practicing really hard so we can go out and play loose and confident on Saturday.
“I don’t know if we necessarily did that against Michigan. I think we’re in a little bit different position right now.”
Michigan dominated Penn State from the outset. The defensive line disrupted everything, and the offensive line mauled its way to 326 rushing yards. Wolverines quarterback Wilton Speight said after the game that Michigan ran the same play eight straight times at one point.
Ohio State might be better than Michigan. Oddsmakers have the Buckeyes as a seven-point favorite over Michigan when the rivals clash on Nov. 26, the last day of the regular season. Ohio State ∏— a 19-point favorite this Saturday against Penn State — is definitely better at quarterback and running back, and probably at linebacker as well. They are probably about the same as the Wolverines at every other position, with a slight advantage to Jim Harbaugh’s defensive line.
Why would Penn State expect a different result then? The Nittany Lions haven’t beaten Ohio State since 2011, and that 20-14 win at Ohio Stadium is the only one of Tom Bradley’s coaching career to this point. They haven’t beaten Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State since Franklin arrived.
“They put their pads on the same way,” Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton said. “They might be held to a higher standard, but they are still football players, and we’ve got to go out and we are just going to give it our best shot. We are not going to do anything different just because they are the No. 2 team or whatever the team is ranked that we play throughout the season.”
One reason for optimism is location. Granted, the Buckeyes have not lost a true road game since Urban Meyer took over in 2012, but Ohio State has been troubled a couple of times by night games away from Columbus. One of those was in 2014, when the Nittany Lions took the eventual national champions to double overtime in a 31-24 defeat.
Another is health. Franklin said Penn State could have one or more injured linebackers back in the lineup from a group that includes Jason Cabinda, Brandon Bell and Jake Cooper. Cabinda, Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White all missed the Michigan game, then Brandon Smith was ejected for a bogus targeting call and another reserve, Jan Johnson, was injured during the game as well.
Reinforcements at linebacker could make a huge difference, especially because Ohio State will want to run the ball a lot and try to wear down the defense. That was something Michigan did with ease.
“I think we need to make them a one-dimensional team,” Penn State cornerback Grant Haley said. “We obviously need to stop the run, the quarterback run especially, and also running backs back there, Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel, just make them beat us through the air. If we can make them a one-dimensional team, it makes our chances of winning more successful.”
Another reason is rest. The Nittany Lions had this past weekend off, while the Buckeyes played in physical, grueling overtime game against Wisconsin. Penn State’s players had a chance to relax and reset for the second half of the season, while Ohio State’s were locked in a stressful battle with another top-10 opponent.
The final reason could be the most important one. Penn State looks like it has improved in some key areas. The offensive line provided Saquon Barkley with plenty of places to run against Maryland, but can they put together a similar performance against Ohio State?
The defensive line was one of the most inexperienced units at the start of the season, but they are starting to pressure the quarterback better and help slow down teams like Minnesota and Maryland, two foes that wanted to run the ball a lot but were met with some resistance.
Quarterback Trace McSorley has played better since Michigan. Manny Bowen has emerged for the defense. Connor McGovern might be a true freshman but he’s getting more and more snaps at right guard.
It’s time for another wellness check with the Penn State program. The Nittany Lions do not need to win Saturday, but if they did it would be the top on-field accomplishment since securing a Rose Bowl bid in 2008 and the signature moment of Franklin’s tenure. Just as important, Penn State needs to prove it can compete with the best teams in the nation.
“[The players] understand how big this game is, Franklin said. “They see it all over social media, walking around town and on campus and from their families and ticket requests and all those things. They get it.”