Penn State football: Yes, the progress is real. Welcome to Nittany Island.
While the rest of the Big Ten also-rans are limping to the finish line, literally and figuratively, Penn State looks fresh and dominant.
Voters bumped the Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten East) up 3 spots to No. 11 in the latest AP Top 25, and their climb looks destined to continue. The program has turned a corner this season, the past 2 Saturdays are proof of that.
Beating Indiana and Maryland on successive weekends doesn’t warrant excessive celebration. But the way it has happened, well, it gives the impression that a metamorphosis is in progress in State College.
After a 2-year stretch of sub-.500 football in B1G play, Penn State has risen back to clear No. 3 status in the league. As our Saturday Tradition columnist Alex Hickey said in his B1G Monday morning feature, Penn State occupies a tier all to itself in the 14-team conference — Nittany Island, as he calls it.
Michigan and Ohio State are a cut above. In October, the Wolverines ripped the Lions 41-17 and the Buckeyes blitzed them with 2 forced turnovers in the fourth quarter of a 44-31 victory.
But Penn State isn’t going to lose again before bowl season, and probably not then either. This is real.
And given that the teams that have beaten the Lions are going to finish the regular season a combined 23-1 and will both deserve to make the CFP, one easily can argue that the Lions should be ranked higher than they are. I can make a strong case that the Lions have equal credentials to 8-2 LSU, which is No. 6 in the country according to the AP. (We’ll get to that.)
Fun just beginning
Some things are happening right now that definitely would not have happened the past 2 seasons:
- Down 3 starting offensive linemen the past 2 weeks, Penn State has averaged 214 rushing yards and allowed 1 sack. That’s B1G football. That wins in any weather. No way PSU does that down 3 starting OLs last year. Kudos to true freshman left tackle Drew Shelton. Penn State has had 4 games without taking a sack this season, the most since 2011.
- The defense, meanwhile, has 13 sacks over 2 games, a feat last achieved in 2007. The Lions are No. 2 in the B1G behind Michigan in sacks with 29, 2 more than they had all of last season.
- Even with Sean Clifford seemingly incapable of hitting a deep ball, Penn State posted its 8th game with over 400 yards against Maryland.
- With top defenders Joey Porter Jr. and Curtis Jacobs out, Manny Diaz’s defense shut down a Maryland attack featuring veteran QB Taulia Tagovailoa and a bevy of touted skill players. Reminder: Maryland was 6-3 overall entering that game, a win away from staking its claim to the No. 3 spot in the Big Ten.
Okay, beating up on pipsqueaks doesn’t prove Penn State is back to solid No. 3 status in the B1G East — and by extension, the league overall. The Lions will have to seal that deal at Rutgers this Saturday and at home vs. Michigan State the next.
It should be 2 more weekends of exactly what we’ve seen the past 2.
This is a different Penn State. It can run the ball. It has o-line depth. It has defensive depth out the wazoo. It has young players who are having a blast and probably hate the fact the season is almost over. For every guy already looking ahead to the NFL Draft, 4 or 5 others are looking to secure their spot for next year’s fun. True freshman Abdul Carter looks more and more like fellow No. 11 Micah Parsons by the week. Sophomore DE Chop Robinson registered 2 sacks Saturday against his former school, then afterward talked about how awesome it was to play in front of the revved up crowd at Beaver Stadium rather than empty stands down the Interstate 83 corridor.
Argument vs. No. 6 LSU
The 8-2 Tigers are getting a lot of mileage out of their daring, go-for-2 overtime win over Alabama. Fair enough. But the Tide have 2 losses themselves and 2 other very close calls. Nick Saban’s squad isn’t quite the monster it usually is.
LSU’s losses are to Tennessee and Florida State, the latter seemingly being discounted because it occurred 12 weeks ago in the Tigers’ season-opener. LSU barely got by Arkansas, 13-10, on Saturday. It squeaked by Auburn 21-17 just 2 weeks after Penn State had pounded Auburn 41-12 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
No, I’m not buying Noah Cain’s new team. I’ll take Nick Singleton, Kaytron Allen and the Lions going forward.
Bowl game and beyond
Penn State has been a big-time bowl draw since Joe Paterno put the school on the college football map way back when. The Lions sometimes get better destinations than they deserve. And this year’s edition is an easy sell.
The myriad freshmen plotting Penn State’s new course will play. Even if guys like Porter and PJ Mustipher opt out to get ready for the NFL Draft, the Lions will put a dynamic, hungry squad on the field. The debacle that was a 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl won’t be repeated.
Win in lose, whether in an NY6 bowl or just one on New Year’s Day, Penn State will start next season as a top 15 team — probably top 10. The Lions are going to continue earning that distinction the rest of this season. And it’ll be fun to watch.
This wouldn’t be a hot take if I waited another 2 weeks to write it. If the Lions fall on their face against the Scarlet Knights or Spartans, I’ll have egg on mine.
But even then, I’ll be looking forward to a bright future.
Perched on Nittany Island, the Lions are not over hump, but they can see the promised land where the Buckeyes and Wolverines still rule. Whether the Lions can join them there remains a tale to be discovered in the coming years.
But Penn State football has landed in a good spot for the here and now.