After back-to-back losses, Penn State football still confident heading into road game at Indiana
The Nittany Lions, now ranked 18th, hope to rebound from back-to-back losses against a Hoosiers team they have defeated 20 out of 21 times.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Despite losing back-to-back games to Ohio State and Michigan State at home, Penn State's players say they remain confident as they head into Saturday's game at Indiana.
"I don't think we lost any confidence," senior linebacker Koa Farmer said. "I just think ultimately, we've got to look at each other in the eye and look at the film and get better at all of it. I don't think losing games destroys our confidence. That's not who we are necessarily."
The situation for the 18th-ranked Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) mirrors that of last year. They lost to the Buckeyes and the Spartans on consecutive Saturdays last year on the road, then came home and routed Rutgers. This time, they had to board a plane for the first time in almost a month to face the Hoosiers (4-3, 1-3), a team they've defeated 20 out of 21 times.
That's not to say it's going to be easy. The Lions will be facing a capable dual-threat quarterback in Peyton Ramsey, a 236-pound running back in Stevie Scott who is the nation's fourth-leading rusher among freshmen, and a deep corps of receivers.
"When you've got receivers that are all a part of the offense, when you've got a quarterback who's running the ball, when you've got a tailback that's making plays, that's when you become really problematic," Penn State head coach James Franklin said.
The Nittany Lions defense allowed the deciding touchdowns late in their two disappointing defeats but the unit received no help from an offense that could not hold the ball down the stretch. Actually, the defense hasn't played all that badly, allowing the Buckeyes and the Spartans to convert just nine of 37 third-down opportunities.
"I think the last few games, we did play well," Farmer said. "Ultimately, our defense has to take it to the next step as far as getting off the field. When it's third and long or third and short or third and medium, whatever it is, we have to get off the field. We can't drop interceptions. We have to make the tackle."
Dropped interceptions and a lack of forcing turnovers have been an issue. Garrett Taylor and Amani Oruwariye could not hold on to picks on the last two Michigan State drives. The Lions have just eight takeaways in six games.
"We had some opportunities to make some plays and could have made more," Franklin said of the Michigan State game. "I think that's the difference. We have to get more turnovers when we have opportunities to make those plays. I think we all realize we've got to make more of those."
Maybe they'll have a chance on Saturday. Although Ramsey is in the top 20 in FBS in completion percentage (68.0) and completions per game (24.5), he has thrown seven interceptions, including two red-zone picks in last week's loss to Iowa.
Penn State at Indiana
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., at Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Ind.
TV, radio, online streaming: 6ABC, WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440), espn.com/watch
Records: Penn State: 4-2, 1-2 Big Ten, ranked No. 18 by the AP; Indiana: 4-3, 1-3.
Coaches: Penn State: James Franklin (fifth season, 40-19); Indiana: Tom Allen (second season, 9-11).
History: Penn State holds a 20-1 lead in the series, its latest victory a 45-14 decision last year at Beaver Stadium. The Hoosiers' only win in the series, 44-24, came in 2013 at Bloomington.
Three Things to Watch
More aggressive play for the Penn State offense
The Nittany Lions threw downfield very infrequently in their loss to Michigan State, with their longest completion covering just 25 yards. Franklin talked about a need for more explosive plays at his weekly news conference, so it will be interesting to see what deep routes will be on offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne's play sheet.
That means the offensive line will have to hold protection for Trace McSorley a little bit longer against an Indiana team that has recorded 12 sacks in seven games. And the big question will be whether the Lions' passing attack can be more productive after a disappointing first half of the season.
Can the Nittany Lions get their mojo back?
Franklin listed a number of needs for Penn State: forcing more turnovers, reducing the number of penalties, eliminating dropped passes and catching interceptions. Maybe he could have added playing looser and with more confidence. The offense scored fewer than 20 points last Saturday for the first time since Game 4 of 2016 against Michigan and appeared tentative. The defense was on the field for 89 plays and had trouble getting to the quarterback late.
Indiana runs an up-tempo, no-huddle offense with a mobile quarterback and seven receivers who have caught at least 18 passes, so rotating players on defense will be a must. Players have denied all week that there is a confidence issue following two straight defeats, but we won't know until the Nittany Lions get out there and take care of the little things.
Finding that fourth-quarter knockout punch
The story is well-known: Penn State's five defeats in the last 29 games all have happened after the team blew a lead in the fourth quarter. The offense was unable to run any clock down the stretch last week, managing just one first down on their final two possessions to keep Michigan State alive.
Franklin has talked repeatedly about running an effective four-minute offense that picks up first downs and winds time off the clock. Perhaps what will assist that effort, in addition to more precise execution, is better execution — including a willingness to be more aggressive in going for first downs.