Lose in this week’s showdown with the No. 3 Buckeyes, and the No. 18 Nittany Lions start 0-2 for the first time in eight years. In a week when the Big Ten suffered its first loss (Wisconsin-Nebraska due to COVID-19), the urgency of a shortened season is magnified.
If the Penn State loses, it’s difficult to imagine beating out Ohio State for the Big Ten East title. The Nittany Lions would have to win out and hope the Buckeyes lose at least three times. Ohio State would own the head-to-head tiebreaker and be up two games in the standings.
Perhaps that’s getting ahead of things. Penn State is in this situation because it did about everything wrong in losing the opener at Indiana. Cleaning up all those sins in one week against Ohio State might be too much to ask.
Or it may be a prelude to a classic. Penn State has won once in the series since 2011. But this game has been a fantastic rivalry in the last six years. Ohio State has won five of those with three of the last four decided by a field goal or less.
Last year’s game was typical. Ohio State rushed out to a 21-0 lead before Penn State roared back to make it 21-17. OSU eventually won 28-17. The larger point was that the outmanned Nits hung in there.
That 2019 win ran the Bucks’ streak to three in a row. It began with a pair of one-point decisions in 2017 and 2018. Penn State came back from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit in 2016. That was one of only two Penn State wins at home against top-five teams since 1983.
“We found a way to beat them when very few people have,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “And we played them to the wire. Sometimes those games that go to the wire, they’re the most painful on anybody.”
It’s a rivalry impacted, like everything else, by COVID-19. Those on both sides lamented an empty Beaver Stadium. An empty stadium means no White Out.
“I love the White Out,” said Ohio State All-America corner Shaun Wade. “It’s definitely a challenge. I love the competition. I love their fans.”
The feeling may not be reciprocal. Ohio State has been so much better for so long against everyone else in the Big Ten, it’s getting monotonous. That explains the 12.5-point spread.
Both teams come in with rushing concerns. With Franklin’s team down to the third-string running back, it looks like quarterback Sean Clifford has taken some of those responsibilities on his own. Clifford’s 119 yards accounted for almost half the rushing total against Indiana.
Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields ran 15 times in a 35-point win against Nebraska. Part of that load is explained by the fact that neither Major Teague nor Trey Sermon are Ezekiel Elliott or J.K. Dobbins. It may be that Fields is Ohio State’s best runner — at quarterback. And that’s OK. He ran almost 10 times a game last season in winning the Big Ten and leading the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff.
While NFL (and Ohio State types) might want to preserve Fields as a thrower — he was 20 of 21 against Nebraska — he is definitely not looking ahead.
“A big part of playing quarterback is making decisions and not second-guessing yourself,” Fields said this week. “… It’s hard to look into the future. If you mess up this week, that opportunity never comes.”
Fields considers Saturday to be somewhat of a respite. He took a veiled shot at Nebraska — and others like the underdog Cornhuskers — for taking advantage of him in a pile.
“It definitely happened a little bit last game,” Fields said, “in terms of getting tackled and guys trying to twist my ankle and what not. It happens more so when we play — I don’t want to say worse teams — but teams that, I guess, that don’t have that good of a chance of winning. … When we play teams that are more well coached and better teams, it tends to happen less. That might come with respect.”
2. Texas coach Tom Herman was asked about his playmakers. When a media member wondered how many the Longhorns had on the roster, Herman paused about 10 seconds before responding, “Some.” Some? This was a program that was expected to challenge for the Big 12 and a College Football Playoff berth. Instead, it’s No. 6 Oklahoma State that will have playmakers all over the field when the teams meet Saturday.
The Cowboys defense is no fluke giving up 12 points per game. (Talking to you, SEC. Alabama is 64th in that category.) We knew 10 starters were back on that D. These guys are actually causing havoc. The unit is averaging 18 1/2 “havoc plays” per game (sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, passes defended). We’ll go there again: Alabama is averaging 14.4 such havoc plays.
A case can be made that the most powerful unit in the Big 12 is Oklahoma State’s defense not Oklahoma’s offense. Mike Gundy’s teams tend to fade against stiffer competition, but Oklahoma State (4-0) always seems to play Texas tough. Gundy has beaten the Longhorns in seven of the last 10 meetings.
3. Lady Luck and Coach Gus: If not for some fortunate, um, bounces … Auburn would be 1-4. Instead, the Tigers are a thankful 3-2 heading into the LSU game because of some, um, massive fortune. In the opener, Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson threw a pick six after review failed to overturn what may have been a breaching of the goal line on a (non-)touchdown run. A couple of weeks later, Bo Nix fumbled not once but twice trying to spike the ball. Auburn somehow retained possession and won late at Arkansas. Last week’s review revealed an Auburn returner had touched a kickoff that bounced into the end zone for what was ruled a touchdown. (More on that below.) Gus Malzahn is a God-fearing man, but does he have a direct line to the Big Guy? LSU and Auburn meet with both unranked for the first time since 1999. It is the SEC on CBS Game of the Week.
4. Your moment of Mike Leach Zen: “[Nick Saban] is not one of those sweater-wearers. They wanna wear the sweater, but they’re not really up to their neck in it. But man, Coach Saban is a guy that it’s all football all the time. Very committed.” That’s one coach’s preview for Mississippi State at No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night.
5. Oxford deflection: Ole Miss (at Vanderbilt) has the second-worst record in the SEC (1-4), but by all means, let’s giggle over Lane Kiffin threatening to ship his $25,000 fine to the SEC office in pennies. Ugh.
6. A player to root for: We pause in this crazy season to salute Ohio State wide receiver Chris Booker. The senior walk-on from St. Louis might be the only player in the nation who can brag about being both a teammate of Elliott and Fields. Booker’s story emerged this week when he was named Ohio State’s special teams player of the week. he played football at Elliott’s high school in St. Louis before redshirting at Dayton for a season and moving to Ohio State’s club team. There is such a thing where players have to pay for everything. There is no training table and injury risk with less-than-elite medical care. “The difference in club, we only practice two or three days a week. The rest of the time, I got to hang out with the dudes. It felt like high school again.” Booker joined the Buckeyes’ varsity team in 2019 where he reveled in Ryan Day merely recognizing him in the hall. “What I’ve been able to accomplish is nothing short of … it’s amazing,” Booker concluded. He’ll be covering kicks against Penn State.
7. Upset of the week: Rutgers over Indiana (+12.5). Hey, Bruce Springsteen just released his new album, why not some more New Jersey magic? The Hoosiers needed everything to go right last week in beating Penn State. In the only Big Ten game between undefeated teams, look for Schiano’s magic to prevail again.
8. Quick Kicks: If Clemson beats Boston College, it will have gone an entire presidential election cycle without a home loss (27 straight games). It will also do so without QB Trevor Lawrence, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. The Tigers last lost at home was Nov. 5, 2016 to Pittsburgh, three days before the 2016 election … sorry to see Kylin Hill‘s career end in such a depressing way. Mississippi State’s talented tailback entered the season as the SEC’s leading returner rusher and the noble activist behind changing the Mississippi state flag. He has now opted out for the season after being season for one game last week … No. 10 Florida is back in action Saturday against Missouri after two weeks sidelined due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Gators will be wearing blue helmets for the first time since the 1960s … happy trails to Dave Hirsch, who is leaving the Pac-12 after 25 years as the ultimate media communications professional