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Ready or not, No. 4 Penn State resumes Big Ten season vs. Indiana on Saturday night

The Nittany Lions return to Big Ten play for the remainder of the season starting with the Hoosiers, who shocked the Lions in overtime last season with the aid of a controversial call.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has moved up the passing efficiency charts in recent weeks.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has moved up the passing efficiency charts in recent weeks.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Like most head coaches in any sport, Penn State’s James Franklin would rather his team grow and learn following a win than do so after a loss.

It’s not that the Nittany Lions were in much danger last weekend of getting knocked off by Villanova, but Franklin didn’t exactly appreciate the lack of focus he saw at one practice during game week.

So the day after his team defeated the Wildcats, Franklin said he was “a little edgy” but added, “That was intentional for everybody to make sure that we’re not satisfied or complacent with where we’re at.”

The Lions now turn to Big Ten opponents for the remainder of the regular season, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Indiana. The Hoosiers stunned Penn State, 36-35, last year and Franklin and his players have dismissed all talk this week about this being a revenge game.

» READ MORE: Is Penn State a top-five team? | Mike Jensen

Franklin did say that the coaches’ film breakdown included last year’s Indiana game, because the Hoosiers’ head coach and coordinators, and presumably their schemes, are the same. But did he also want to implant a subtle message in his players’ heads as well? Maybe?

What to expect

Controlling the football. The Hoosiers have run about 10 more offensive plays per game and hold a seven-minute advantage in time of possession over their opponents, so look for them to run Southern California transfer Stephen Carr (396 yards rushing) a lot to keep the big-play Nittany Lions from getting on the field. The Nittany Lions had eight drives of five plays or less against Villanova and will be trying yet again to get their ground game going and have some ball-control drives of their own, hoping that junior Noah Cain is back to full strength. And if that doesn’t succeed, Sean Clifford can go to Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington on the outside and tight end Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren on the inside to keep the chains moving.

» READ MORE: James Franklin wants to see improvement from Penn State’s offensive line and running backs

Looking at Clifford. In the last two weeks, Clifford has jumped from 64th to 14th in passing-efficiency rating in the NCAA statistics. He completed 28 of 32 passes, including all 12 in the second half, for 280 yards against Auburn, then topped that versus Villanova with 19 of 26 for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Clifford now is completing 71.7% of his passes (14th in FBS), averaging 289.5 yards per game (17th) and 9.65 yards per attempt (12th). The Lions average 307.8 yards passing (18th). The Hoosiers give up 229 per game (73rd).

The other guys

Nittany Nation’s worst nightmare. Michael Penix Jr. pretty much willed the Hoosiers to their win over Penn State, with a touchdown run, a TD pass and a pair of two-point conversions late in the fourth quarter and in overtime. He returns this season after recovering from a torn ACL suffered last November – the third straight year he had suffered a season-ending injury. He has four touchdown passes and six interceptions but he threw for 373 yards without a pick last week against Western Kentucky, so he can still get the job done. His favorite targets are seniors Ty Fryfogle (10 catches last week) and Peyton Hendershot.

Note: The Penn State secondary has limited opponents to 5.28 yards per attempt, and the first-team unit has not allowed a touchdown pass all season.

» READ MORE: Accountability is fueling Penn State’s defensive resurgence

The hits keep coming. The Indiana defense has allowed 29.3 points per game, last in the Big Ten, but the unit is peppered with big-time players. Junior cornerback Tiawan Mullen and senior linebacker Micah McFadden made the 2020 All-America team. McFadden and graduate student lineman Ryder Anderson have combined for 10½ tackles for loss and five sacks. Some of the more eye-popping numbers: the Hoosiers have limited opponents to a 30% rate on third-down conversions but they have not prevented a single score in the red zone, allowing 14 scores (10 touchdowns) on 14 trips.

Keys to the game

Special teams could decide it. Indiana redshirt junior Charles Campbell has kicked all seven of his field goal attempts through the uprights, including efforts of 49, 48 and 46 yards. Classmate Jacolby Hewitt averages 27.0 yards per kickoff return (18th in FBS) but punt returner D.J. Matthews, who was averaging more than 20 a return, suffered a torn ACL last week. For Penn State, Jordan Stout is sixth in the nation in punting (49.2-yard average) and has not allowed a kickoff return, but he has converted just five of eight field goal attempts. Dotson has yet to break a punt return, averaging 7.6 yards.

Third-down advantage. In addition to its stingy third-down defense, Indiana is fourth in the Big Ten converting third down, being successful on 44.8% of its attempts compared to 35.4% for Penn State (12th in the conference). It would help if the Nittany Lions could convert some third-and-short situations in the run game; they went 0-for-3 when faced with third-and-2 against Villanova. Then again, with the Big Ten schedule in full swing, it’s a case better late than never for the Lions’ rushing attack, which has not hit the century mark in three of its four games.

Indiana at No. 4 Penn State

Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College

  1. Line: Penn State by 12½.

  2. Records: Indiana, 2-2 overall, 0-1 Big Ten; Penn State, 4-0, 1-0.

  3. TV/Radio: 6ABC; WCAU-AM (1210),

  4. Coaches: Indiana, Tom Allen (fifth season, 26-24); Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 64-28).

  5. Series: Penn State leads, 22-2. The Hoosiers won last year’s matchup, 36-35 in overtime.