Penn State football: Ready or not, the Lions will be back in the national spotlight next weekend
In 6 days, Penn State will have to take the field again.
ABC will be on hand with its primetime broadcast crew. More than 100,000 fans, decked in their finest white garb, will file into Beaver Stadium expecting to be entertained. Even most of those nursing hangovers and swearing off the Nittany Lions for good this morning will be packing the bleachers or watching from the couch or the sports bar.
An ailing, battered and bruised Minnesota team visits for a 7:30 kickoff against Penn State, itself bearing scars both physical and psychological from a rough-and-tumble Saturday in the Big Ten.
Just how does Penn State, a top 10 team just 24 hours ago, recover from the hurting Michigan put upon the Nittany Lions in a 41-17 thrashing at The Big House in Ann Arbor? Can James Franklin win back the faithful after his team’s latest post-bye week failing?
The cerebral head coach, in this his 9th season leading the Lions, pretty much admitted his team can’t match up with the big boys of the B1G after Saturday’s debacle. He pretty much had to after the Wolverines rolled up 418 rushing yards, 563 total yards and 28 first downs while steamrolling his team.
“We’re undersized in some spots,” Franklin said. “So we need to be bigger. We need to be more physical. Our footwork, our technique, our fundamentals, it’s all of it. It is all of it. We own all of it.”
Most of those things can’t or won’t change in 6 days.
And Minnesota plays a smashmouth brand of football, led on offense by one of the best running backs in the nation. The Golden Gophers (4-2, 2-2 B1G West) will enter in a similar state as the Lions, coming off a physical thrashing that saw their highly experienced starting quarterback get knocked out.
Minnesota lost a divisional showdown to Bret Bielema’s No. 24 Illinois squad, which suddenly looks like the Wolverines of the B1G West. The Illini (5-1, 3-1) put a 26-14 beating on the Gophers that was way more thorough than the score indicates.
Tanner Morgan, a 6th-year senior like Penn State’s Sean Clifford, was carted off the field in Champaign after taking a hit to the head. His status will be in doubt this week, as will Clifford’s after a shoulder injury forced him out of his shoulder pads and out of the game on Saturday.
Selling the White Out
So what will ABC be selling beyond the initial glitz of a White Out Saturday night?
Well, it’ll be hyping Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who will be chasing a 15th straight 100-yard game. That’ll give the Penn State defense a shot at redemption. It entered Saturday 5th in the nation, allowing less than 80 yards rushing per game. It left in tatters. Minnesota might not quite have a Michigan-level offensive line, but it has a good one.
As for the Penn State offense, 5-star freshman Drew Allar will make the game worth watching if he gets his first start in place of the banged up, 24-year-old Clifford. The 6-5, 240-pound 18-year-old went 5-of-10 for 37 yards in Saturday’s relief stint, his 5th appearance of the season. Penn State is already hard into a youth movement anyway, with true freshmen playing huge roles at running back and linebacker.
Beyond all that, despite the buzzkill administered by Michigan, Penn State (5-1, 2-1) still has a serious shot at double-digit wins. This year doesn’t have to end near the .500 line like the past 2. Bounce back against Minnesota, and only Ohio State — the following week — will meet the Lions as a favorite. November’s B1G East opponents — at Indiana, Maryland, at Rutgers, Michigan State — will all be underdogs to the Lions, especially after Terps QB Taulia Tagovailoa suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury Saturday.
Before its first loss of the season, Penn State looked brash and bold with its mix of youth and experience. If it can regain that swagger by Saturday night and get the crowd involved, good things could happen.
But another 3-loss downward spiral, like occurred last year after a 5-0 start, seems just as likely.
Left guard Landon Tengwall, a redshirt freshman, suffered an injury during warmups and didn’t play against Michigan. Right tackle seems to be in flux, with Caedan Wallace and Bryce Effner splitting snaps there. Franklin said the rotation was planned, but offered nothing further.
Updates on Clifford’s status will likely remain sketchy too, as they were after last year’s loss to Iowa.
Penn State has a lot of unanswered questions right now.