In this season of two bye weeks for much of college football, Penn State finds its pair to have been apportioned just about right.
After one bye week in September that separated the end of the non-conference schedule and the start of the Big Ten season, the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) prepare during this bye week for a stretch run of their remaining four regular-season games, two against teams (Minnesota, Ohio State) that have yet to lose, and one versus an opponent (Indiana) that already is bowl eligible.
Fans are entertaining the possibility of a College Football Playoff berth, but the Lions have to be focused on each game. The road to the postseason goes through Ohio State, the Nov. 23 opponent in Columbus, and losses to either Minnesota (Nov. 9 away) or Indiana (Nov. 16 home) would make fulfilling that goal unlikely.
Head coach James Franklin was encouraged during his team’s recent three-game stretch – on the road at Iowa and Michigan State sandwiched around the “White Out” against Michigan – without a loss, and it’s safe to say few people thought that possible when evaluating the schedule at the start of 2019.
Franklin even retreated briefly from his weekly “1-0” mantra to salute his team’s effort.
“As much as I want everybody to take it one game at a time, every single one of our 700,000 alumni, every single one of you (reporters), looked at this three-game stretch and we knew this was going to be a challenge,” Franklin said after the Michigan State game.
“So for us to be able to get through it and get into the bye week is really important. So it’s going to be important how we handle this bye week, that we take a step, that we clean some things up. But I’m proud of these guys.”
Yet it was a grind, and Franklin admitted later in his post-game that he was emotional in the locker room when he spoke with his players before he met the media.
“I think we’re in a good place,” he said. “We’ve got a healthy locker room that loves and cares for each other. I’ve got a really good group of coaches that kind of have my back as well.”
Asked what was discussed in the locker room, quarterback Sean Clifford said he would not talk about “family business” but mentioned that the Lions are “a very emotional team.
“The bottom line is, I love – and I know all these guys love – every single guy on our team,” Clifford said. “So I think that’s kind of what we talked about, where our program is at right now, and we just can’t lose sight of that. But I love coach Franklin and he’s doing great things.”
The Nittany Lions relied on their defense in the last three games, with the offense averaging 293 total yards during that stretch, or more than 200 yards fewer than their 499.6-yard average in their first five games. Clifford is ninth in the nation in pass efficiency but has not hit the 200-yard passing mark in the last three weeks.
The Lions need to tighten up their pass defense against the Golden Gophers’ talented passing game, having allowed 286 yards to Iowa and 276 to Michigan. They hope that starting corner John Reid and backup Trent Gordon are ready after suffering undisclosed injuries at Michigan State.
Another question is how effective Penn State can run the football against elite defenses. The Nittany Lions rushed for 101 yards against Michigan and 113 against Michigan State, and Minnesota allows just 117 yards per game. Freshman Noah Cain, whose 350 yards is the most of any of the team’s four running backs, was injured against Michigan State and his status is uncertain.
One of the biggest issues going forward is Penn State’s recent lack of poise. The Lions were penalized nine times for 104 yards last Saturday and were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on three occasions, including one that resulted in the suspension of starting defensive tackle Antonio Shelton for the Minnesota game.
The November focus must be sharp, but the Lions know what’s at stake.