We interrupt the fretting over Penn State’s anemic running game to bring you this positive message about the No. 4 team in the land.

James Franklin’s team is doing a lot of things right, and plenty of people seem to be noticing. The sportswriters who vote in the AP Poll are tuned in enough to discount Villanova’s 2 late TDs against the Lions. They bumped up the Lions 2 spots and jumped them over Iowa in their latest Top 25. Meanwhile, the Coaches Poll puts PSU right behind Iowa at No. 6.

The Lions and Hawkeyes will meet in 2 weeks at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. It’ll be one heck of a Big Ten showdown if both teams survive primetime tests this coming weekend. Penn State will try to avenge its 2020 season-opening loss to Michael Penix Jr. and Indiana in a Saturday night game at Beaver Stadium (7:30 ET, ABC). Iowa will be in the national spotlight a night earlier, visiting Maryland on Friday night (8 p.m. ET, FS1).

Iowa will have its hands full facing Taulia Tagovailoa, the one QB in the Big Ten playing as well as Sean Clifford at the moment. However the game turns out, Penn State’s staff will get a great read on how Iowa’s stout defense matches up with a wide-open passing attack loaded with game-breaking weapons.

But first, Penn State will have to go 1-0 against Indiana, and that preparation has already begun in earnest.

“We’re going to coach hard on Sunday; the meetings will be hard on Sunday,” Franklin said following Saturday’s 38-17 victory over the Wildcats. “To me, if we have the team that I think we do, then they want that. They want us to coach them hard and make the corrections.”

While the Lions certainly have room to grow, they’ve come quite a way already.

Penn State is a top 10 team in the nation in:

  • Kickoff touchback percentage (1st): Jordan Stout is 24-of-25. His perfect streak to start the season ended at 22 straight when he sent one out of bounds against Villanova. (Individually, Stout ranks 2nd in this category. North Carolina’s Jonathan Kim is 25-of-26. But UNC allowed another kicker to try one, which didn’t result in a touchback.)
  • Average home attendance (2nd): Slightly behind Michigan, at 107,024 fans per game.
  • Fumbles lost (T-1st): 0
  • Fumbles (T-5th): 2
  • Passing plays of 40+ yards (T-3rd): 8
  • Passing plays of 50+ yards (T-3rd): 5
  • Plays from scrimmage of 40+ yards (T-6th): Penn State has 9 such plays.
  • Plays from scrimmage of 50+ yards (T-9th): The Lions have 5. (They also have 1 play of 80+ yards, KeAndre Lambert-Smith’s 83-yard TD vs. Villanova. That ties them for 3rd in the 80+ category, with 24 other teams.)
  • Turnover margin (T-8th): The Lions are at +1.25 per game, with 7 takeaways (5 INTs, 2 FRs) and only 2 giveaways (2 INTs). And the Lions should have more INTs; they’ve dropped several.
  • Red zone scoring defense (10th): Opponents have come up point-less 5 times in 13 red zone trips against the Lions. Holding foes completely off the scoreboard on 38.46 percent of those possessions, Penn State rates higher than every team in the B1G except Wisconsin.

Penn State is a top 20 team in the nation in:

  • Scoring defense (T-12th): The Lions allow 15.0 ppg.
  • Passing offense (17th): After Clifford’s 401-yard day against Villanova, the Lions passing game now averages 308.8 ypg. (Individually, Clifford ranks 14th in completion percentage at 71.7, 16th in passing yards per game at 290.5 and 20th in total yards per game at 311.0.)

Okay, some of those stats are odd, quirky and perhaps relatively meaningless. But others point to a team that is disciplined, opportunistic and tough-minded. The numbers reflect a team that’s remained mostly injury free since Week 1, had its transfers pan out across the board, been in sync with the staff (especially new OC Mike Yurcich) and vanquished the ghosts of 2020. Clifford’s name, image and likeness are appearing in Heisman watch articles. There are plenty of good vibes coming out of State College these days.

Franklin wants to keep things that way, minus some of the hype. He sensed some rare back-sliding from his guys last week.

“We did not practice the way I think we should practice on Wednesday. We’ve had very little of that since I’ve been here. The other thing I would say is we haven’t really had a lot of that during camp, but I thought Wednesday we did not have a good practice, so I think they’re getting patted on the back. I think they are reading articles, and we’ll make sure that there’s no leftovers of that come Sunday.”

It’s time to get back to work, because the schedule isn’t getting any easier. Bring on the Hoosiers.