Penn State has won 94.7 percent of its contests against Indiana, owning an 18-1 series record over the Hoosiers.
But as Lee Corso says every Saturday: not so fast.
The Hoosiers, who defeated Penn State 44-24 in 2013 and narrowly lost the following season 13-7 in James Franklin’s first year at the helm, have not only kept matters interesting with the Nittany Lions, but also the rest of the Big Ten.
Indiana (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) has played in five conference games in which the outcome was decided by 10 points or less. Three of them are wins (Michigan State, Rutgers, Maryland) and two of them are losses (24-14 at Northwestern, 27-22 vs. Nebraska).
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The only Big Ten game that was decided by more than 10 points? A 38-17 loss to Ohio State, in which the Hoosiers trailed by only a touchdown in the middle of the third quarter.
No. 10 Penn State opened as a 7-point favorite against Indiana despite recording two straight blowouts for a reason: Indiana can keep things close.
If the past four weeks is any indication, Penn State’s primary plan on offense should remain the same: get the ball in Saquon Barkley’s hands.
Obviously the sophomore superstar has torn it up on the ground recently; Barkley has racked up 675 rushing yards in the past four games.
After dusting a traditionally stout Iowa defense last weekend for 167 yards, Barkley will go up against an emerging Indiana rush defense. The Hoosiers have allowed just 3.8 yards per rushing attempt (128 carries, 485 yards) in the past three games.
However, those teams were Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers; none of those teams have a player quite like Barkley.
“They have a very, very talented running back,” Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen told IUHoosiers.com, “maybe the most complete running back in the conference.”
In addition to establishing himself as one of Penn State’s best running backs in program history, becoming just one of eight backs to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Barkley has been contributing in the passing game. The Coplay native snagged a 44-yard touchdown pass against the Hawkeyes and three catches for 70 yards at Purdue.
On the year, Barkley has 15 catches for 257 yards (17.1 yards per catch).
That’ll help quarterback Trace McSorley, facing a Hoosier defense that allows 225.1 passing yards per game and 13 touchdowns this season.
What should also aid McSorley is the recent uptick in tight end Mike Gesicki’s involvement. Gesicki, who is second on the team with 32 receptions this season, caught only one pass at Purdue, but rebounded with four grabs against Iowa including a 43-yarder that ended up one yard shy of the end zone.
Indiana, which is third in the Big Ten in passing attempts, is going to throw, throw and throw some more.
After featuring current NFL tailbacks Tevin Coleman (Atlanta Falcons) and Jordan Howard (Chicago Bears) in recent years, the Hoosiers are devoid of a dynamic runner. Indiana is led by Devine Redding, who has 793 rushing yards and three touchdowns this season.
So the offensive onus will be on Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow, as well as change-of-pace signal-caller Zander Diamont.
Lagow, a junior college transfer, has the second-most passing yards (2,574) and third-highest completion percentage (61.4) in the Big Ten. However, Lagow’s 15 touchdowns have been often outweighed by his 13 interceptions, four of which have come in his past three games.
Meanwhile, Diamont is a run-first junior whose 59-yard touchdown run highlighted last week’s win over Rutgers. The Los Angeles native, who weighs only 174 pounds, has three rushing touchdowns on the season.
The Penn State defense, which has surrendered 18.3 points per game the past four games, is looking forward to stopping the duo of Lagow and Diamont.
“We’ve seen that they are a nice, fast-paced team,” Penn State safety Marcus Allen said. “They like to shoot their shot down the field. ... It’s going to be a good test for the secondary, see if we can shut that down.”
When asked if Allen relishes those opportunities, the junior was very clear.
“I love it,” Allen said without hesitation. “I mean, as far as a quarterback that likes to give us chances to break on the ball and make more impact plays in the passing game, that’s a great feeling to have.”
Penn State has had three different punt returners this season: cornerback John Reid, and wide receivers DeAndre Thompkins and Gregg Garrity.
So, which one will be featured Saturday?
Franklin is still figuring it out.
“There’s different variables we could use,” the coach said at his Tuesday press conference.
Franklin said with Reid being a starting cornerback, he’d like to limit the sophomore’s special teams involvement. The coach knows that Garrity is reliable, but he’s hoping someone will step up and snatch the starting role.
“I’d like us to get to the point where we have someone back there that’s like Saquon Barkley,” Franklin said, “and what I mean by that is when people see Saquon is going to get the ball, everybody is kind of on the edge of their seat waiting for something exciting to happen. ... We need to be able to do the same thing with our punt return.”
Meanwhile, Franklin is pleased with freshman running back Miles Sanders, who’s handling kickoff return duties. Sanders has come extremely close to breaking loose for a really long gainer, especially with last week’s 48-yarder against Iowa.
Redshirt junior placekicker Tyler Davis is 15 of 17 on field goal attempts, with both misses coming on blocks. Freshman punter Blake Gillikin continued his nice season, booting punts of 42 and 40 yards against Iowa.