Penn State is back in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly five years, and with that — and a win last week against No. 2 Ohio State — comes something this 2016 team has never experienced.
The Nittany Lions will be a heavy favorite on the road for the first time when they travel Saturday to Purdue. The two touchdowns (give or take a point depending on the organization offering the odds) by which Penn State is favored is its most since the season opener against Kent State and the first time they haven’t been the underdog away from Beaver Stadium.
Handing the Buckeyes their first loss last week might be a program-altering event over the next several seasons at State College. It was the signature moment for Penn State football in the James Franklin era.
While there is plenty of time for everyone else to speculate how beating Ohio State changes the fortunes of the program, the players and coaches can’t afford a letdown against Purdue, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 and recently fired coach Darrell Hazell.
“I think one of the things that helps us, is we don’t change our approach, ever,” Franklin said. “So I think since we didn’t change our approach on the front end, we don’t need to change our approach on the back end, and you know, it’s business as usual for us.”
This game against the Boilermakers (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) is as much a test of Franklin’s “no game is more important” creed as Ohio State at home in a White Out was. Doing something special against one of the best teams in the country has to be supplemented by not falling flat against one of the worst teams in the Big Ten.
Penn State (5-2, 3-1) played poorly in the first half at Pitt before a near-remarkable rally. The Nittany Lions were dominated at Michigan, with only a few hints of being able to compete with the Wolverines in the second half when the game was out of hand. That 5-2 record looks nice, but 0-2 on the road does not.
One sign of progress for this team was better play in the first half against Maryland on Oct. 8 after several poor starts. Another sign was obviously a drastically different result against Ohio State after the Michigan mauling.
The next sign will be if Penn State can truly play like a top-tier Big Ten team is supposed to against an also-ran, especially when the opportunity to let down is so prevalent.
“I think it is just the tip of the iceberg,” LB Brandon Bell said. “We have to keep pushing. We can’t be satisfied.”
That proverbial iceberg Bell mentioned is now teeming with possibilities. After being the underdog in four of the first seven games of the season, Penn State will now likely be favored in each of the final five contests.
Games at home against Iowa and Michigan State looked daunting in August, but both of those teams have underperformed. Trips to Purdue and Rutgers were expected to be victories, whether the Nittany Lions had seven injured linebackers or not. A game at Indiana is never easy, but it has shifted from a swing game to one Penn State is expected to win.
Win them all, and the Nittany Lions would almost be certain to land a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Win all but one and it is still considered a hugely successful season that exceeded preseason expectations.
Don’t beat Purdue, and the 2016 season becomes a weird, uncertain muddle again. That ranking in the AP poll goes away, and new questions arise.
That becomes part of the new task at hand this week for Penn State’s players. Don’t get caught spending too long basking in the memory of beating Ohio State. Do give the appropriate attention and focus to winning a road game at Purdue.
Beating Ohio State was a huge sign of progress for the program. Handling business the following week can be an important one, as well.
“For me, [the No. 24 ranking] just reminds me of why I came here,” LB Jason Cabinda said. “I wanted to help the team get back to where it needed to be. We’re not there yet, taking this thing one week at a time. But for me, I think it’s huge and it’s good to see and know kind of where this program is going and what direction we’re heading in.”