The Monday morning overreactors have been loud this season for the Nittany Lions. Aspirations have cries shouted from the rooftops in Happy Valley and the great reaches of beyond, proclaiming that this football team is going to the College Football Playoff in 2017. Now officially halfway through the season, Penn State does sit at a perfect 6-0. But there still is a long way to go, including a much more difficult six game stretch in the back end of the season, as the summer air that hangs around in State College will quickly turn to an Autumn breeze, and even more swiftly become the gray of winter, as the sun won’t make an appearance until the spring arrives in early April.
Penn State has cruised through the first six games in a docket that, at best, we could call lackluster, and at worst, we could say downright easy. Outside of Iowa in Kinnick Stadium a few weeks ago, the Nittany Lions haven’t had any issues thwarting lesser opponents week after week leading up to this point. These undemanding wins don’t give the Nittany Lions any standout, marquee victories, but in turn, they do keep a perfect season and playoffs hoped alive. So the trade off is certainly there, especially when, just a year ago, Penn State missed out on the playoff because of a loss to Pitt in non-conference play, as Washington got to dance instead after beating Idaho, Portland State and Rutgers in non-Pac 12 affairs.
But even with a big win for the fifth time in six weeks, and a much deserved bye week approaching before the Michigan-Ohio State gauntlet part of the schedule begins, the Nittany Lions didn’t let up off the throttle against a lesser Northwestern team in Evanston this past weekend. As I mentioned earlier in the week and in the preseason, this was a game that I projected Penn State to fall in. Pat Fitzgerald has routinely outcoached James Franklin in matchups between the two squads despite having lesser talent. On the road, with Michigan looming, this appeared to be a quintessential trap game for Penn State. The Nittany Lions took care of business handedly, however, and improved to 6-0. As always, I learned a few things about this game and the Nittany Lions as a whole.
1. Marcus Allen Has Become The Real Deal
When you’re caught up in the heat of the moment watching football games of teams you simultaneously root for and write about, it’s very difficult to keep the two separate sometimes. Certain, small aspects get lost occasionally in the grand scheme of things, and you overlook minute details that you have to go back and watch a second time to appreciate. That’s why I always record the game and watch it a second time on Monday to get a better feel on things I missed. One thing I certainly missed, that apparently Twitter didn’t, was that Marcus Allen has played himself into a top two rounds talent in the NFL next season. The love that Allen has received on social media over the last few weeks has been astounding. I’ve counted fans of nearly a dozen teams who have said they’d love for Allen to be drafted by their team come April.
At first, I wasn’t sold on it when Allen joined the roster out of Upper Marlboro, Maryland four years ago. He seemed a little unexplosive out of the secondary and didn’t have that read recognition that every great, next level safety needs. But over the years, Allen has transformed, in my eyes, to an NFL caliber safety. His field vision has become so apparent over the course of this season, that he’s putting himself in position to be drafted high in 2018. At 6’2″, he has the height to contest balls at their highest points with taller receivers that certain safeties just don’t possess. Of course, you can’t teach height, but it’s another attribute that will help Allen play on Sundays in the coming years.
Allen is constantly all over the field. He makes play in the secondary like a center fielder tracks down fly balls. He makes plays at the line of scrimmage as if he were a fourth linebacker. Brent Pry uses that large frame to his advantage, and often has Allen creep up in the first level to act in a multitude of rolls. He can chip tight ends at the line, limiting their route trees. He can stop the run with the linebacking core. He can blitz opposing quarterbacks off the edge with good speed. Allen has become a strong, competent defender in the secondary for Penn State over the years, and it’s been a treat to watch him polish his game.
He has 284 tackles in his collegiate career, which is 12th among active college football defenders and is good for eighth in Penn State history, including 35 this season. He needs just four more to pass Dennis Onkotz for seventh all time. He grabbed his first career interception against Georgia State earlier this season as well. CBS Sports now has Allen projected as the second best free safety in the country behind just Minkah Fitzpatrick of Alabama, and 36th best player overall. If he isn’t snatched up in the late first round, it’ll certainly be early in the second day. Most NFL teams would be getting a hard working, form tackling safety if they take Allen in next years’ draft.
2. The Wide Receivers Can Hurt You In So Many Ways
I mentioned at the beginning of the season ways in which Penn State could replace Chris Godwin at the wide receiver position. I said it would likely come from a variety of sources instead of just one key contributor this season. Sometimes, we get things right in the sports industry. Often times I’m wrong, as evident of my pick of the Diamondbacks going to the World Series this year, but sometimes, just sometimes, I’m right. The Nittany Lions have employed numerous different receivers on any given week to beat opposing secondaries in 2017. This week, the ball was evenly distributed by Trace McSorley to his receiving core. Leading the way was Saeed Blacknall with four catches for 74 yards. He was closely followed by Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins who combined for 12 receptions and 100 yards through the air. In total, McSorley connected with nine different receivers, including backup quarterback Tommy Stevens, who caught the lone McSorley touchdown in the classic “Keep Tommy Stevens from transferring out of Penn State” package. That gadgetry seems to be reserved for lesser teams, as Stevens didn’t see much of the field against Iowa a few weeks ago, but it’s a nice extra tool to pull out when the team needs a big play.
So far this season, five different players have recorded at least 15 receptions, but none have more than 29. Seven different receivers have caught a touchdown this season as well, but again none have more than Mike Gesicki with four. That means that the Nittany Lions offense is firing on all cylinders, and that Joe Moorhead has the confidence in a multitude of receivers to make plays whenever necessary in any situation. That’s a far cry from a few years ago, when you or I could have contributed as the third receiver in the offense.
3. The Offensive Line Is In Trouble Next Week
I said it last week. I’ve said it countless times this season. The offensive line stinks. And it isn’t improving any time fast. Northwestern has a good front seven, but it isn’t world beating by any means. To scale the season to this point, it’s probably the second best the Nittany Lions have faced, behind just Iowa. But it pales in comparison to the task that lies ahead: Michigan. The Nittany Lions offensive line gave up five sacks this past weekend and allowed an additional seven tackles for a loss. In total, that offensive line has allowed 16 sacks through six games, which is better, on average than just 25 teams in the country. That average, through six games, finds the Nittany Lions giving up 2.67 sacks per contest, better than just Purdue, Michigan and Northwestern in the Big Ten. But it’s not just sacks that have been the concerning factor for Penn State this season. As mentioned, the offensive allowed 12 tackles for loss to Northwestern. Now, though the first half of the regular season, the offensive line has given up 50 tackles for loss, an average of 8.33 per games. That’s good for 121st in the nation, tied with California and Texas State. It’s also the worst in the Big Ten by nearly a full tackle for loss per game, where Michigan sits at 7.60. While Trace McSorley has done an excellent job of extending plays this season, a mobile quarterback will be in trouble with an offensive line with as many holes as this one.
Coming into town in two weeks time are the Michigan Wolverines, and while Michigan has certainly had its own share of struggles to keep Wilton Speight and John O’Korn upright this year, the defense hasn’t been a problem whatsoever. The Wolverine defense comes into this game ranked sixth in sacks per game with 3.60, as they’ve recorded 18 sacks in five games. That defense is also tied for 16th in the country in tackles for loss per game, averaging 7.8 through its first five games in 2017. But perhaps most importantly, the Michigan front seven is one of the most stout in the country against the run. Opponents have run the ball 166 times this year against the Wolverine defense, gaining 435 yards, or 2.62 yards per carry. That total comes out to be just over 87 yards per game on the ground. Couple that with the fact that Michigan has allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season long, and Saquon Barkley, and more importantly, the offensive line, could be in for a long night next weekend.
4. Penn State Could Make Big Ten East Two Team Race Next Weekend
While this isn’t directly learned from the win over Northwestern, it has been grounded in the Big Ten scope as a whole. After Michigan was knocked off by “little brother” Michigan State again this past weekend, they now are skating on extremely thin ice in the College Football Playoff picture. Michigan now has a conference loss and will need a 2016 Penn State-like miracle to make the Big Ten Championship game, as both Penn State and Ohio State remain undefeated in conference play. If the Nittany Lions can find a way to defeat Michigan in two weeks times, no matter how sloppy or close the score actually is, it would essentially eliminate the Wolverines from playoff consideration having two conference losses. That would leave three teams undefeated in the Big Ten East, but only two real competitors. While Michigan State has yet to lose in conference play, a loss to either Penn State or Ohio State would end their dreams. Effectively, Penn State defeating Michigan next weekend would make for a two team race to the finish between Penn State and Ohio State, who clash in three weeks in Columbus. Last season, we all know how dramatically the victory over Ohio State swung Penn State’s season around. The Buckeyes were highly ranked and without a loss coming into Beaver Stadium at night. They walked away with a defeat to a lesser ranked team. This time, the rolls are flipped, and it’s Ohio State who will play host to the higher ranked, undefeated Nittany Lions. Think they have redemption on their minds? You can bet Urban Meyer’s guys have circled this one with a big red sharpie. First, however, the Nittany Lions will have to take down Michigan and make this a two dog fight. It won’t be easy, but it will be the first major hurdle James Franklin’s players will have to clear in order to get back to the conference championship game.
Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports