Well here we are- after six weeks of football, Penn State remains unscathed and finds itself among the favorites to make the College Football Playoffs. Standing at 6-0 and #3 in the nation, Penn State now just needs to keep winning. And winning. And winning.
The Nittany Lions saved all their first-half season drama for a heart-stopping, last-second victory against Iowa. Outside of that wild night in Kinnick Stadium, they have taken care of business and cruised to victory each week. The offense has been great at times but not quite the ‘94 replica we were hoping for, while the defense has exceeded even the wildest expectations, allowing just 9 points per game.
The schedule will get much harder from here. Barring any upsets, the next three games will be against ranked opponents. After that, Penn State will get the best shot of teams who view the Nittany Lions as a major rivalry game, as well as a Nebraska team that could be dangerous as they look to ruin someone’s season after nothing but disappointment this fall.
If Penn State is to make its first appearance in the College Football Playoffs this season, here are a few things that absolutely must happen:
Improved Run Blocking From the Offensive Line
If there’s been one major gripe about Penn State’s 6-0 start, this is it. Sure, teams are selling out to stop the otherworldly Saquon Barkley, but there is still plenty of things to address. Many fans assumed Penn State’s offensive line would finally turn a corner as they have both depth and talent upfront for the first time in years. While they have come a long ways since the disasters of 2014 and 2015 that set Big Ten records for most sacks allowed in a single season, they still have a long ways to go. The right tackle position has remained problematic, and Connor McGovern is still making adjustments to his new role at center. Some of the young group of lineman are still quite inexperienced, and struggle at times facing a Big Ten front seven.
You can be certain that working to improve the line will be a major focus of the bye week. While things have looked scary at times, this group has the talent to shine once they gain more experience and gel to play as a cohesive unit. Either way, it’s do or die time considering the talent of the next three defensive fronts on the schedule.
Fix the Field Goal Unit
If the performance of the offensive line is the largest concern, consider the field goal unit as the ‘1b’ concern.
Picture this- Penn State is down 23-21 to Michigan with seconds remaining. Thanks to some late heroics by the offense, the Nittany Lions have a shot at a 40-yard field goal on the game’s final play. After what we’ve seen the first six weeks, how do you feel about this scenario? Are you already chewing your fingernails and hoping your ulcers don’t begin to flare up?
There aren’t many positives to discuss about the field goal unit from the first half of the season. After being nearly perfect in 2016, Tyler Davis is off to a six of 13 start- not even connecting on half of his field goal attempts. Unless Davis is fighting off an injury that is impacting his play, he seems to have a case of the yips. We know he’s a talented and reliable kicker, but he may be getting inside his own head.
It could also be the fact that he doesn’t know what to expect with each kick. The entire unit has been problematic- bad snaps, poor holds, and blocking mishaps have all led to misses so far. Perhaps it’s as simple as Davis’ timing being off since he can never be certain when the ball will be in place or if he’ll have a good look without a defender breaking through the line.
These are all fixable problems- now it’s time to address them before a missed field goal costs Penn State a close game down the stretch.
Keep Winning the First Quarter
One of the biggest improvements from a season ago is Penn State’s ability to start fast. Last season, the Nittany Lions developed a reputation as a second half team by digging themselves in a hole with a sluggish start, only to dominate the second half to earn a victory.
This now seems to be a thing of the past. Through six games, Penn State is outscoring opponents 76-0 in the first quarter and are the only team in the nation not to allow any points in the opening stanza. These types of starts will be incredibly valuable as the competition grows stronger.
The defense has been nothing but phenomenal for the most part- if Penn State can continue to jump out to early leads, even the best teams ahead for Penn State may have trouble coming back to take the lead.
Gameplan to Take Advantage of the Attention on Saquon Barkley
By now, we all know and love offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. He’s led a stunning turnaround for Penn State’s offense and developed them into one of the nation’s most prolific. Now it’s time for him to really earn his paycheck during the second half of the season.
Unless there’s a major turnaround during the bye week, Penn State will be at a disadvantage in the key matchup of offensive line vs. the front seven in the next three contests against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. Despite this, Penn State has the playmakers to outpace anyone on the schedule- they will just need to get creative to get the ball in their hands and give them opportunities to make plays.
It’s extremely likely that every defense from here on out will focus on shutting down Barkley. Even if they succeed, Penn State must capitalize on all of the attention that goes in to stopping Barkley on each play and find the holes to keep the ball moving and find the end zone even when their superstar isn’t able to do contribute much to the stat sheet.
Get Up for Each Game
There is no reason to doubt that this team will show up each and every Saturday and do their job. They proved as much last year- despite having one of the nation’s youngest teams, they never slipped up against a weaker opponent once they got things going following a 2-2 start. Still, it’s no easy task.
As the defending Big Ten champions and #3 team in the nation, they will get everyone’s best shot. Each opponent will be coming off a great week of practice with a laser focus on taking down a team to make their season. They also have an incredibly tough stretch coming up- a prime time showdown against Michigan, followed by road contests in tough environments at Ohio State and Michigan State. All will be hard-fought, emotional contests that are difficult to bounce back and prepare for the next game. They will need to do just that to get through that stretch unscathed, and remain that way against a number of opponents who can easily topple Penn State if their heads aren’t clearly in the game.