1. The B1G reality

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the team that COVID gutted: Penn State.

From a potential top-5 team, to what could devolve into one of the worst seasons in the illustrious history of Penn State football, the Lions have been impacted by all things pandemic more than any other team in college football.

Not from specific positive cases, but from the unintended consequences of dealing with the daily fallout.

From star players, to the head coach, to the new offensive coordinator – and all the way down to the weighted shoulders of the starting quarterback. No one has been shielded.

The gut punches just keep coming.

“We’re all fighting through it,” James Franklin says.

It began with All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opting out to prepare for the NFL, leaving the team without the best defensive player in college football and a void in leadership. While Parsons was looking out for his best interest, Franklin was busy protecting his.

He and his wife agreed they’d isolate his family at their home in Destin, Fla., to protect his daughter Addison, who has sickle cell disease and is at a higher risk of dangerous complications from COVID.

Franklin admitted last week he has done a poor job dealing with his family being so far away. He never admitted as much, but how could it not impact his job at Penn State?

Then, the final blow that floored the team: The regression of QB Sean Clifford, who many on staff believed could make as big an impact on the program this season as Trace McSorley.

Only COVID arrived in the spring, and those critical 15 practices were canceled. And those months of summer work – where strong first-year starting quarterbacks grow into elite players and leaders – were canceled.

New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca never got his hands on Clifford, never poured over game tape in the quarterback room and built a relationship on and off the field with a player who was primed for a significant step in development.

Weeks turned into months, and sterile days staring at a laptop version of an offensive install reinforced the need for human connection. Then the Big Ten canceled the season, and nearly a month later, started back up.

Meanwhile, there was Clifford: new receivers, new offensive coordinator, the team’s best running back shutting down the season with medical concerns, and he’s asked to go out and play at a high level.

To almost no one’s surprise, Clifford was benched in last weekend’s loss to Nebraska after 4 straight subpar performances. Finally, mercifully, the crazy ride has come to a stop. At least for now.

“All of us, the head coach, and every assistant and every person in the program, obviously we’re not doing a good enough job,” Franklin said. “That’s on all of us. And it starts with me.”

For Clifford, it began with yet another change at offensive coordinator.

Turnover at the position is a huge obstacle for most programs. Three new coordinators in 4 seasons is enough to turn it all sideways.

Joe Moorhead specifically recruited Clifford and coached him during his redshirt season in 2017 before leaving for the head coaching job at Mississippi State.

Ricky Rahne coached Clifford for the next 2 seasons, and Clifford not only grew into one of the Big Ten’s best players in his first year as a starter in 2019, he was voted team captain.

Everything was set for a huge 2020 before Rahne left to take the head coaching job at Old Dominion. By the time Clifford met his 3rd coordinator in 4 seasons, before they could connect at a football level, COVID suffocated everything.

“I watch (Clifford) on tape now, and he’s not the same guy,” one Big Ten defensive coordinator told me. “Looks like he’s afraid to cut it loose – and he was a gun-slinger type last year. They’re not protecting well, and that’s definitely affecting how he plays. It’s a quarterback game now, and if your guy is struggling, your team is struggling.”

Penn State is off to its worst start since 2001, when the Lions lost 4 games to begin the season and won 5 of their last 7 to keep it from hitting rock bottom.

The problem for this Penn State team: They haven’t hit bottom, and even a change at quarterback (Will Levis) may not be enough.

They’re out of position on defense and don’t tackle well. They have no rhythm on offense, and every pass play looks like an adventure. They can’t protect, and only last week against Nebraska did they run the ball with power and consistency.

By the time Clifford was benched, he had nearly matched his interception total from last season (7 in 2019; 6 in 2020). His completion percentage has decreased (59 to 56%), his quarterback rating is significantly lower (148.5 in 2019, 128.4 in 2020), and he has been sacked 14 times in 4 games.

They’re halfway through the season, and the remaining schedule is manageable (Iowa, at Michigan, at Rutgers, Michigan State). But at this point with what has happened since the end of last season, those manageable games are also games they could lose.

“All of us in every single area can be better,” Franklin said. ‘We’ve all got our jobs to do.”

2. The move to Levis

As much as the PSU staff wanted Clifford to succeed, it had no choice to play backup Will Levis after a Clifford fumble (on yet another sack) led to a defensive score against Nebraska.

The question: Where is the position moving forward?

Franklin says they’ll look at all options, but it’s hard to imagine the staff not giving Levis the chance to start a game and see where it goes.

Levis is more of a true dual-threat quarterback. A big and strong physical specimen, he’s more of a Taysom Hill-type mold from his BYU days.

The offense moved with Levis, though he completed only 45% of his passes and made more of an impact in the run game (20 carries, 62 yards) – forcing Nebraska to account for quarterback-specific runs.

Penn State is at its best when it runs consistently and can throw off play-action. Clifford nailed that in 2019, but the offseason of uncertainty derailed all that momentum. Even if Levis starts this week, it’s hard to imagine Clifford won’t play again over the following five weeks of the season.

He accomplished too much in 2019 to file him away.

3. The B1G matchup

Indiana has been the story of the B1G season. A longtime loveable loser elevating to the top of the conference.

Now, welcome to reality: a prove-it game at Big Ten king Ohio State.

“There is no real secret to it that any other place has not had to go through in these situations,” IU coach Tom Allen said of dealing with expectations. “We just have not had it happen here in recent history. We need to learn how to handle and manage that, if we want to be a top-10 program.”

They also need to prove that these 4 games aren’t a mirage. Look at the schedule again.

For all the good Indiana has accomplished – and stacking wins is never underestimated – the top-10 ranking was built with wins over Penn State (0-4), Rutgers (1-3), Michigan (1-3) and Michigan State (1-3).

Ohio State, meanwhile, will be a significant step up in competition.

The Hoosiers’ stout defense (10 INTs, 12 total turnovers forced) goes from figuring out quarterbacks Sean Clifford, Noah Vedral, Joe Milton and Rocky Lombardi, to dealing with Justin Fields.

The first 4 quarterbacks IU faced this season have combined to throw 24 interceptions. Fields hasn’t thrown an interception and has as many touchdowns (11) as incompletions.

There won’t be a better example of the chasm between Ohio State (and to an extent, Wisconsin) and the rest of the Big Ten than this weekend in Columbus.

4. Powered up

This week’s power poll – and one big thing.

1. Ohio State: We get it, Justin Fields is rare. I’m just not so sure about the rest of the Ohio State team. Let’s reassess after this week vs. Indiana.

2. Wisconsin: Big Ten officials had the opportunity to match the conference’s two best teams in the regular season (remember, it’s a COVID world, we can do anything). It instead opted for spite and gave Ohio State a West Division game with Nebraska.

3. Indiana: Hoosiers need a flawless game defensively, and a unique performance from QB Michael Penix Jr. to beat Ohio State. Other than that, right on track.

4. Northwestern: Wildcats already have more wins this season (4) than all of last year. Wisconsin is a significant step up in competition for an offense that still lacks consistency.

5. Iowa: Despite the early problems, Iowa has won 2 in a row and Kirk Ferentz added more attitude to a program with an Us vs. Everyone mentality: his “we’d take Floyd with us and leave the timeouts here” jab at Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck was epic.

6. Maryland: The cancelation of last week’s Ohio State game prevented us from getting a good read on Maryland in Year 2 under Mike Locksley. Here’s another: can’t slip up at home against uneven Michigan State.

7. Purdue: Don’t expect star WR Rondale Moore to play unless he’s completely healed (hamstring) and comfortable with the idea of playing. He has too much to lose (see: NFL) by returning early and exacerbating the injury.

8. Nebraska: Maybe the Huskers found a quarterback in freshman Luke McCaffrey. If that were the only problem, we’d all feel a lot better about a program stuck in neutral in Year 3 under Scott Frost.

9. Michigan State: Spartans have scored 7 points since the upset of Michigan (was it really an upset?), and the offense stagnated under starting QB Rocky Lombardi. Backup Payton Thorne gives MSU the ability to run more zone-read principles and get the quarterback more involved in the run game. More than likely, both will play against Maryland.

10. Michigan: QB Joe Milton is a mess. The team’s best players – DEs Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson – are injured. Coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t seem to have answers. How much worse can it get, you ask? A road game at Rutgers is next.

11. Penn State: The hideous truth: PSU is on the verge of a disastrous season. A loss this week to Iowa and the rest of the season is teetering close to the unthinkable.

12. Minnesota: The worst part about Minnesota’s fall to the back of the Big Ten pack: the diminished attention for TB Mohamed Ibrahim. He’s an All-American talent on a second-tier Big Ten team.

13. Illinois: If only every Illini opponent decided to screw conventional wisdom, embrace crazy chance and start chucking the ball on the positive side of the field when the idea is to run clock and kick a game-winning field goal.

14. Rutgers: See: Illinois.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread

  • Indiana at Ohio State (+21.5)
  • Purdue (-2.5) at Minnesota
  • Iowa (-2.5) at Penn State
  • Michigan State at Maryland (-6.5)
  • Michigan (-9.5) at Rutgers

Last week: 3-1.
Season: 9-9.