With the easy part of the Nittany Lions schedule now behind us at mid-season, we enter crunch time. The East Division of the Big Ten race is heating up after Moo U beat Michigan. Here are some bye week observations for you. I’ll start with a look at the division championship picture, and follow with an assessment of the Penn State 2017 team at mid-term.
The Division Championship Picture
Of course, if any one of the undefeated teams in the conference (Penn State, Ohio State, or Moo U) should win out, the division is theirs. However, since they all must play each other, only one of the three can possibly go undefeated in the division. All of those games are yet to be played, complicating the picture and involving other one teams with one division loss (Michigan and Maryland). Who has the advantage?
Looking at the remaining schedules for each of the schools gives us an idea of how muddy the waters can become (zero- or one-loss division teams in bold, road games are italicized):
Penn State: Michigan, tOSU, Moo U, Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland
Ohio State: Nebraska, PSU, Iowa, Moo U, Illinois, Michigan, (already beat Maryland)
Michigan State: Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern, PSU, tOSU, Maryland, Rutgers, (already beat Michigan)
Michigan: Indiana, PSU, Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland, Wisconsin, tOSU, (already lost to Moo U)
Maryland: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan, Moo U, PSU, (already lost to tOSU)
Clear As Mud
What is clear is that anything can happen from here on. No one has a decided scheduling advantage, although with tOSU having already dispatched Maryland and Moo U knocking off Michigan, those three teams each have only three remaining games with division contenders, while Penn State alone has four. Three of those four are road games for the Nittany Lions. Thus, I believe that PSU will have the roughest time navigating the second half of the season.
The combinatorial possibilities are too numerous to mention here, and I’m too mentally lazy to list them out. I’m also too lazy to calculate the odds of a one-loss team winning the division. Rampant speculation and tie-breakers hurt my head. All I know is this: The Big Ten scheduling gods sure as hell made the second half of the year interesting!
Anyone out there want to pose some interesting second-half scenarios?
Mid-Term Ass-essment of the 2017 Nittany Lions
Now that we know nothing more than when we started this article, let’s look at where the team is. I’m not going to give the ubiquitous and puerile “grades” — c’mon, Mommy, look at my report card! — but I will supply some subjective bullshit and some stats.
Penn State Defense Better Than Expected
The Nittany Lions have exceeded my expectations on defense, in spite of not having played anyone with any great offensive credentials. The turnover rate is particularly impressive. They rank first in the conference in that category (+12), as well as scoring defense and red zone defense. They are third in sacks.
Special Teams: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
Special teams have given me alternating euphoria and heartburn. Kickoff and punt returns and coverage have improved immeasurably, as is evident by the number one ranking in kickoff returns and second ranking in punt returns, and top rankings in punting and kickoff coverage. What an improvement! However, field goal production has gone straight down the toilet at 46.2%, putting Penn State dead last in the Big Ten and 99th in the FBS. It suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks!
At season’s outset, some were comparing the potential of this Nittany Lions offense to that of 1994, using terms like “juggernaut”. I never like those kinds of comparisons. Trace McSorley broke Kerry Collins‘ successive completions record, which is the only direct comparison I can point to. I think Saquon Barkley is an even more capable back than the great Ki-Jana Carter, too. On the other hand, the 1994 offense was talented throughout, including an offensive line that included a couple of All-America linemen in Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera — throw in Kyle Brady, too. They all wound up with long, productive pro careers. This year’s offensive line is best considered a jugger-NOT!
What else can one say about this year’s offensive line? Typically, we say that the offense is productive in spite of those guys, who rank 11th in the conference in sacks allowed. That’s not exactly a sparkling recommendation, but on the strength of McSorley’s arm, some excellent receivers, and the talent and persistence of Saquon Barkley, the offense produces. In the Big Ten, it ranks third in scoring offense and total offense, and second in passing offense. Rushing offense, hampered by that offensive line, is sadly, seventh. Finally, with one guy (Barkley) accounting for 38 per cent of the offense, the obvious cracks are ripe for exploitation by some forthcoming opportunistic defenses.
Toughest Games Lie Ahead
One caveat here, though. As you saw above, the toughest defenses are yet to come. With those, a balanced offense is necessary to exploit any potential weaknesses. It will require sustained effort in all areas of the offense to be competitive — we cannot count on putting thirty or more points on the board against some of these guys. The Penn State offensive line continues to be its Achilles heel, so it remains to be seen whether the offense can compete against a competent defense.
With half a season in the bag, how does this Penn State team look to you?
I didn’t have anything else to write about during the bye week, so while procrastinating on things I should be doing, I decided to write this!