For the first time in almost a decade, the Nittany Lions headed into a college football season with legitimate championship aspirations. Now that the non-conference schedule is in the past, here’s five things we’ve learned about Penn State.
1. Work To Be Done Along The Offensive Line
Despite returning experience and talent along the offensive front, the big guys upfront haven’t been a strength like many thought they would be. That’s not to say they’ve been bad (this isn’t a 2014 or 2015 situation), but they didn’t exactly put up stellar performances against Pitt or Georgia State, especially in the run game.
Fortunately, the offensive line is a unit that usually needs time to gel. The more these guys play together, the better they should be, so there’s still ample time to turn it around. I think they’ll figure it out.
2. You Can’t Contain No. 26
Teams are rightly selling out to stop Saquon Barkley in the run game. The bad news for them: There is no stopping Saquon Barkley.
Even with some rather mediocre run blocking, Barkley is still having a Heisman-esque season, totaling 548 total yards (307 rushing and 241 receiving) for 5 total touchdowns through three games. And, folks, those numbers are only going to get better as Barkley sees more and more snaps. Everything Penn State does offensively — either directly or indirectly — is aided by Barkley. If the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten, No. 26 will be the reason why.
3. No #1 Wide Receiver
Figuring out who was going to replace Chris Godwin as the No. 1 wideout was always a tough question to answer. Through three games, it appears as though the answer is “nobody.” That’s not to say the Nittany Lions are without weapons at wide receiver — Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins, Daesean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, and Brandon Polk have all had solid seasons thus far — but no one has separated themselves from the rest of the pack, as evidenced Mike Gesicki and Barkley leading the team in receptions.
4. The Defense Is Good...Maybe?
Two shutouts. 14 total points. One touchdown allowed. So everything is good? Maybe, maybe not.
I wouldn’t say the defense has struggled against the run — they’re allowing just 2.95 yards per rush — but they certainly haven’t been dominant. The defensive tackles are doing a decent enough job of holding their ground, but with linebackers over pursuing or not being in the right position, there’s holes in this defense. Better teams like Michigan, Ohio State, and potentially Wisconsin will take advantage of those gaps.
On the positive side of things, the secondary is very good. There really isn’t a passing attack in the Big Ten that should give this unit too many problems, so if things can be cleaned up at linebacker, Brent Pry should have a championship caliber unit.
5. 15-0 or GTFO Is Still Possible
Perhaps not the expectation, but the goal heading into the season was for the Nittany Lions to go undefeated — or, as we like to say here at BSD, “15-0 or GTFO.” Despite a concern or two, that’s still a possible outcome for Penn State. Of course, not all of that is the Nittany Lions’ doing, as the rest of the Big Ten has been...meh. Ohio State hasn’t lived up to expectations, while Michigan’s offense still looks stuck in the mud. Even teams like Iowa and Northwestern — the trendy picks for upsets during the preseason — don’t look so scary anymore, even in road environments. That’s not to say the schedule is easy — it isn’t — but compared to what it appeared to be heading into the year, it definitely doesn’t look as daunting.
This is weird to say for a team that has outscored its opponents 141-14, but I don’t think we’ve seen the best version of Penn State yet. The Nittany Lions have been good, no doubt, but there’s an extra gear to this team that we haven’t seen yet. If they reach it, it might be time to book a flight to Pasadena.