UNIVERSITY PARK — They can’t make a bowl appearance or represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game.
Neither NCAA-mandated takeaway has eliminated the buzz surrounding Penn State’s homecoming game.
The Nittany Lions (3-2) are in the middle of stages of preparing for Saturday’s visit from 24th-ranked Northwestern (5-0), one of the Big Ten’s two remaining undefeated teams. Everything from the calendar flip to October to the planned “whiteout” suggest this could be a frantic weekend.
“I have been around for two seasons now and I know the big-game feel,” junior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “This is definitely one of the big games. We are definitely focused for this game and this is a must win. We are really looking forward to playing to this game. It’s absolutely one of the biggest games I have played in.”
Asked if he agreed with Carson’s claim that Saturday is a must-win situation, sophomore running back Bill Belton, replied, “Yeah, it is.”
Three weeks ago, the Nittany Lions were simply looking for one victory. A three-game winning streak, which included a crisp 35-7 victory last Saturday at Illinois, has altered their season.
The opening act to an eight-game conference schedule included few glitches. Penn Sate committed no turnovers, had just two penalties and tied a season-high with 173 rushing yards against the Fighting Illini.
Multiple key players, including running backs Bill Belton and Derek Day and left tackle Donovan Smith, returned from injuries. The only lingering physical pain came when junior safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong left in the third quarter because of cramps. Even tight end Matt Lehman continued playing after a violent helmet-to-helmet hit.
Penn State used 11 offensive and nine defensive linemen in the victory. The Nittany Lions proved they could handle strong emotions, decking an Illinois program that tried recruiting away multiple players after last summer’s NCAA sanctions announcement.
Throw out streamers? Blast some Kanye West and Def Leopard? Purchase a massive blue and white sheet cake?
For a day.
NCAA rules require one day without organized football activities. Penn State’s off day comes immediately.
“We let them get their pats on the back on Sunday,” coach Bill O’Brien said.
Monday begins with the positive. The team gathers at 2:45 p.m., with O’Brien and assistants first discussing what went right. The coaching staff then introduces flaws.
“You keep them focused on the things they are doing well, but you have to make sure they understand we have to do things better if we are even going to come close to beating a 5-0 Northwestern team,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s behind-the-scenes demeanor hasn’t changed during the surge, according to multiple players. His messages of Penn State playing 12 one-game seasons and relishing opportunities remain focal points in weekly media briefings,
“I wouldn’t say he’s very different,” junior offensive guard John Urschel said. “He’s done a great job of moderating the mood of the team and making sure we are focused every week, coming off a loss or coming off a win.”
Securing wins might become tougher beginning Saturday. Six of Penn State’s final seven opponents own winning records, with Ohio State and Nebraska joining Northwestern in the Top 25. The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers, who meet Saturday in Columbus, are ranked 12th and 21st, respectively.
Because of the postseason ban, facing opponents such as Northwestern, Ohio State and Nebraska represent the Nittany Lions’ version of bowl games. The season ends Nov. 24 against Wisconsin no matter how many big wins, or deflating losses, the team posts.
“I don’t have any concerns about our team maintaining our intensity,” senior linebacker Michael Mauti said. “We only have a fixed number of games. There really is plenty of emotions for each and every game.”
Plus, the schedule doesn’t offer reprieves. Penn State held second-half leads in season-opening losses to Ohio University and Virginia. The setbacks still bother the rugged junior who has raised Saturday’s stakes.
“Those two losses at the beginning of the season are the things that are helping the most,” Carson said. “They are keeping us hungry. Although we have three-win streak, we’re still hungry. We are still upset about those two losses at the beginning and I think that’s what makes us a pretty dangerous team.”