Penn State enters the back half of its Big Ten schedule with a 6-2 overall record, and 3-2 record in conference play. While their conference title aspirations may be very much a long shot, the Nittany Lions have been presented with a unique opportunity to get their season back on track, while also playing spoiler for some teams’ aspirations at a Big Ten Championship Game birth.
A constant criticism of Penn State this season has been finishing out games in the fourth quarter with a lead. While it wasn’t pretty, the Nittany Lions took a huge step in the right direction by holding off the Iowa Hawkeyes 30-24 this past Saturday.
It may have taken a clutch Nick Scott interception within three yards of the end zone, but this was a big moment for Penn State, as it finally took down a ranked opponent for the first time this season and ended its first losing streak in Beaver Stadium since 2014.
Now, the Nittany Lions must continue to build momentum in what are a couple of tough contests coming up.
First, Penn State travels to Ann Arbor, taking on the currently No. 5 ranked Michigan Wolverines. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan squad sits alone atop the Big Ten east division as the only undefeated team left in Big Ten play, at 5-0.
This would be a huge opportunity for James Franklin to get his first win against a ranked opponent on the road, but it will certainly not be easy in the ruckus atmosphere that is the Big House. The Wolverines are peaking at the right time, and their suffocating defense, along with a balanced offense, have made them one of the best teams in all of College Football.
Penn State will have to play a nearly mistake-free game and must excel in two areas to pull off the upset. The Nittany Lions will first need to limit the Wolverines’ explosiveness on first and second down, holding them to third and long situations.
Michigan is one of the worst teams in college football at converting on third and long situations, a problem that has certainly plagued it throughout the season. The Nittany Lions, however, have conceded an average of 5.8 yards to their opposition on first down in their last three games. This is an area the Nittany Lions defense will have to clear up to limit the Michigan offense and keep their team in the game.
On that note, it will also be more important than ever for Penn State’s receivers to make the most of the opportunities given to them. The receiving core in general has become known for having consistent issues with drops throughout the season. When playing a suffocating defense like Michigan, with a secondary that offers little to no separation, every catch counts.
Penn State will also have to make use of senior quarterback Trace McSorley’s dynamic ability as a runner to keep the defense honest. The Wolverines have not allowed an opposing Big Ten quarterback a positive rushing performance yet this season. This has allowed their secondary to be far too comfortable, only having to worry about marking receivers.
If Michigan must send a player in to spy on McSorley, that could open more space up for the Penn State receivers, and it will be up to them to help their play-making quarterback out against one of the strongest defenses Penn State will see all season.
The following week, the Nittany Lions return home to host the Wisconsin Badgers. Paul Chryst’s Badgers are coming off a tough lost to the Northwestern Wildcats. However, if the Wildcats are to trip up against their remaining Big Ten opponents, the Badgers still have an inside track to their third consecutive west division crown.
Despite Wisconsin’s regular season Big Ten dominance over recent seasons, this may be the easier of the next two tests for Penn State. The Badgers have underachieved this season, as they went to aspiring College Football Playoff hopefuls, to getting bounced at home to BYU.
Wisconsin also has several injuries on the defensive side of the ball, leaving them significantly weaker in an area which is usually one of its strengths. However, Chryst’s squad is still not to be taken lightly.
If Penn State plans to end the three-game stretch with a victory, they will have to accomplish what they failed to do last weekend at Indiana – control the running game. The Nittany Lions gave up a whooping 224 rushing yards to the Hoosiers in Bloomington. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry and company will have to draw up a much better game plan to limit sophomore Jonathan Taylor, one of the most electric running backs in all of College Football.
However, if Penn State can turn this game into a quarterback duel, it has a very good chance at emerging victorious. Wisconsin redshirt junior quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, is a mainly one-dimensional pocket passer who has struggled this season with a touchdown to interception ratio of 11-to-6, and a competition percentage under 60 percent. Hornibrook will have a hard time outplaying the more experienced, dual-threat McSorley, especially on the road.
This next stretch will be crucial for the Nittany Lions, if they fall in these next two contests, all progress gained from Saturday’s huge win over Iowa will surely be forgotten, and Franklin may find himself seriously on the hot seat.
Although, the opportunity also presents itself to silence all the rumors regarding a drop off and reestablish the winning culture Franklin and his team set two seasons ago, as well as shake up the Big Ten Championship outlook.
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