We’re on Week 4 of the college football season, which means it’s Penn State’s first bye week. So we thought we’d take stock of the first break in action this season and ask our two resident experts: How are the Nittany Lions living up to your expectations so far?
The Nittany Lions remain undefeated at 3-0 and are ranked No. 13 nationally by the latest Associated Press Top 25 Poll. But they also got off to a slow start against Buffalo and struggled against Pitt in a low-scoring affair.
So, should fans be pleased with where Penn State is at? Does the early part of the season bode well for the Nittany Lions?
Here’s what our two beat writers said:
Josh Moyer: Penn State has fallen short of expectations so far — but so has the entire Big Ten
In the preseason, I predicted an 8-4 record. And, honestly, Penn State has struggled even more than I anticipated. But it’s also still in better shape than I expected.
How does that make any sense? Let me explain. In the preseason, I outlined three reasons I wasn’t bullish on the Nittany Lions: Sean Clifford would be a drop-off at QB, Ricky Rahne is not a strong offensive coordinator, and Penn State’s opponents — such as Maryland and Purdue — would provide a stiff challenge.
Well, those first two points definitely weren’t wrong. Penn State’s offensive line has also been lousy, the running game has been inconsistent, and the third-down offense has been atrocious. Defensively, the pass-rush was non-existent in the first half against Pitt, and the secondary didn’t do itself many favors. But — and this is key — Penn State still might be the second- or third-best team in the Big Ten. Seriously.
This isn’t what I expected in the preseason. I looked at Minnesota and saw a likely top-25 team. I watched Maryland and thought “explosive offense.” And I envisioned Purdue as the wild card that could struggle against Illinois while still edging out Penn State.
Instead, what we’ve gotten is a Terps team that lost to Temple, a Minnesota squad that hasn’t beaten a team by multiple scores (South Dakota State included) and a two-loss Boilermakers program. Penn State may have plenty of problems — but, fortunately for James Franklin’s squad, the Big Ten has more.
Michigan nearly lost to Army. Michigan State fell to Arizona State. Big Ten West favorite Nebraska lost to Colorado in overtime. And Ohio State — well, OK, the Buckeyes are still the team to beat.
But, overall, I look at this conference and I don’t see a team outside of Ohio State that Penn State cannot beat. That’s not what I expected to see before the season started.
There’s a lot of football left to be played, and it can be a fool’s errand to glean too much from the nonconference schedule. But, at this point, is Penn State playing better than I expected? No. But is Penn State in better shape than I expected? Absolutely. It’s not a great year for the ACC, and it sure doesn’t look like a strong campaign for the Big Ten.
So, if Penn State can fix some of those offensive issues, we could be looking at a very interesting November.
Jon Sauber: The Nittany Lions, like the Big Ten, don’t look good but are in position to exceed expectations
I came into this season with a projection of 9-3 for Penn State, and I’ve lost some confidence in that mark. At the time, I thought the team would lose to Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, although I wasn’t confident Michigan was much better. Now? Michigan had to go to overtime to defeat Army, and Michigan State lost to Arizona State when the Spartans were heavily favored. Those two games look very winnable now, and 11-1 doesn’t seem too far out of reach for Penn State
The problem for the Nittany Lions is that they haven’t looked much better. They trailed at the half against Buffalo, 10-7, and were tied with Pittsburgh at the half, 10-10. Of course, they went on to blow out the Bulls, who then lost to a bad Liberty team the next week. Against Pittsburgh, the Nittany Lions needed a horrible decision by Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi to walk out with the victory.
Those games don’t appear to be outliers, either. The offensive line has been bad, Sean Clifford has been shaky, and the Penn State pass rush has vanished. As Josh and I discussed on the latest episode of Airing it Out, the pass-rush issues should rectify themselves. The other two issues aren’t that simple. Clifford has happy feet in the pocket, and occasionally hurts his offensive line by moving into defenders. He’ll have to navigate the pocket better to reach his upside. With that being said, the offensive line has been bad as well, and they’ll need to give him more space to allow him to succeed.
The Nittany Lions will have time to figure out their issues, with a bye this week, and two games against very beatable opponents to follow, in Maryland and Purdue. If they can use that time to get right, then the three-game stretch against Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State could turn out very positively for them. Winning all three of those games would put Penn State in prime position to be 10-0 heading into its Nov. 23 battle with Ohio State.