Following the bye this week, PSU faces a brutal three-game stretch that will test the Lions as much as any in memory and determine the fate of the season. Most college football fans are expecting a collapse. How can PSU surprise them?
Quick quiz, choose one of the following:
- Penn State is on track for a berth in the Big Ten title game and possibly a BCS berth.
- Penn State is on track for an 8-4 season and middling bowl berth.
- Nov. 12 - No. 9-ranked Nebraska in Happy Valley
- Nov. 19 - Rapidly improving Ohio State in Columbus
- Nov. 26 - Big Ten favorite Wisconsin in Madison
Nebraska and Ohio State are tough, tested and peaking. Wisconsin is well-balanced, complete and primed to bounce back. All three are rough-and-tumble, ready-made for November football in the Big Ten.
The Lions can find a way to squeak one out, right? Or is a 0-3 sweep likely?
Perhaps. But the optimist in RFBS is busting out a scenario by which Penn State launches itself into the inaugural Big Ten title game - by laying waste to the November gauntlet.
GAME 1: Nebraska at PSU (projected point spread, Pick 'em)
- The Bye Boost - The rest and rejuvenation will help Penn State, along with the time to recuperate from injuries (more on that below). Importantly, it will allow extra preparation time for the offensive and defensive coordinators, which should give the Lions an advantage early in this game. DC Tom Bradley with two weeks to prep should stymie the Cornhuskers.
- Home Field - Typically worth a few points. The home team is 9-3 in this series, and PSU is 10-1 in its last 11 home finales (the loss was last year to Michigan State).
- The PSU Offense Can't Do Any Worse. No, Really, It Can't - As good as the Nebraska, OSU and Wisconsin defenses might be, they can't do any better vs. PSU than Illinois, Temple and some others have. Specifically PSU can't do worse at QB and play-calling. The Lions have reached rock-bottom in those areas. So, expect the PSU offense to play a little better vs. Nebraska. Early on, the Lions should have a few wrinkles to help move the ball. By mid-game famed Blackshirts defense will have settled in and start dominating. But by the end the 'Huskers will be worn down a bit, just enough for PSU to control the ball much like it did in the 13-3 home win vs. Iowa on Oct. 8.
- Injury Recuperation - Invaluable FB Joe Suhey has missed the past two games with a stinger. The other FB, Mike Zordich, is an excellent blocker and effective in short-yardage, but Suhey's superior receiving and rushing skills have been missed. Star WR Derek Moye missed almost all of the past three games with a broken foot. The OL is banged up a bit. All should be healthy and ready to go for Nebraska. Moye especially, but also Suhey, are meaningful upgrades for the offense.
- Element of Surprise - The PSU offense has been so disparaged and underwhelming that opposing teams are bound to take it lightly. After the Illinois game, Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde said "this might be the least-explosive 8-1 team in major-conference history." But that was without Moye or Suhey, productive and experienced seniors with NFL aspirations. Plus, RB Silas Redd is excellent and the offensive line is steady and solid.
- Reverse Shellshock: After facing Northwestern and dynamic QB Dan Persa this week, going up against Penn State the following week could put the Blackshirts to sleep.
GAME 2: PSU at Ohio State (projected point spread, OSU -4)
- The PSU Offense Can't Do Any Worse ... - See No. 3 above.
- It's a Trend - The Lions beat 'em in '94, '97, '99, '01, '05 and '08, and are going to beat Ohio State again in '11. It's an every-three-years-or-so thing, and PSU is due.
- Overconfidence - OSU has been on the upswing, beating then-unbeaten Illinois and previously almighty Wisconsin its past two games. That should continue the next two weeks against Indiana and Purdue. The Buckeyes are getting good players back from suspension seemingly every week and putting the three early season losses far behind them. And they clobbered PSU in the second half in Columbus last season. By the time this game kicks off, OSU will have gone from smug to humbled back to smug in a span of 10 weeks. They might be feeling a little too good about themselves, too suddenly.
- Nebraska Lite - The Ohio State attack this season with true freshman QB Braxton Miller is a lot like Nebraska's: Centered around a running quarterback (Miller/Taylor Martinez), a pounding running back (Dan Herron/Rex Burkhead) and occasional passes downfield to try to keep the secondary honest. Except it's not quite as effective. A week after slowing Nebraska, PSU will do the same to OSU.
GAME 3: PSU at Wisconsin (projected point spread, Wisconsin -8.5)
- Psychology - If PSU has clinched the Leaders Division heading into Madison, it will provide a healthy psychological edge. Wisconsin will be frustrated and demoralized - after all, the Badgers were in the national title chase until recently. (And on the flip side, if Wisconsin, after dropping two straight in midseason to fall 2.5 games behind PSU, is in position to capture the division title with a win over PSU, then the psychological advantage reverts back to the Badgers.) Assuming PSU has clinched by then, the Lions ride into Madison with a loose swagger, while the Badgers will be aggravated and sloppy.
- Psychology, II - Wisconsin has played only two close games this season. It lost both. Every game PSU plays is close and the Lions have won them all. If PSU can prevent the Badgers from running away with it, advantage Lions.
- Recent History - For all the talk about how Wisconsin is the "It" program of the Big Ten these days - an ESPN.com story recently rated them ahead of Ohio State as a football program now and moving forward the next several years - PSU crushed the Badgers the last two meetings by an average score of 43-7. While that could give Wisconsin the revenge angle, the games were played in 2007-08, so few Badgers players are still around seeking revenge. But for PSU, those results - especially the 48-7 nighttime thrashing on the road in 2008 - demonstrate the Lions can get it done in Madison.
- The Bielema Factor - There's just something a little smarmy about the Wisconsin coach. A little disingenuous. A little too ubiquitous with the media. His face is everywhere on ESPNU and the Big Ten Network. He punctuates every conversation with "On Wisconsin" like a rookie Badgers cheerleader. He tweets more than Jay Paterno. He blatantly ran up the score multiple times last season. He skirts the ethical line on many issues, including bringing in rent-a-star QB Russell Wilson for four months this fall, recently pilfering an OL recruit commitment from PSU, and running the entire kickoff coverage unit offside vs. PSU in 2006 to flout the rules and exploit a loophole. RFBS took issue with Bielema a couple of weeks ago, said his Karma count was running in the negative, and look what happened? Two straight heart-breaking defeats for the Badgers. Perhaps he's due one more this season.
Most importantly for Penn State, in all three of these games the Lions will have the best defense on the field. A smidge better than Nebraska and Ohio State, and a little better Wisconsin. November football in the Big Ten is about defense first, then such things as turnover margin, running game, field position and field goal kicker. The Lions should match up well in those categories.
Of course, by the time these games are played much could change. Weather, injuries, upsets, happenstance all could affect the teams coming in, and impact the outcome on game day.
Can PSU really run the table? Well, yes, but RFBS isn't betting on it. The Lions could be an underdog in all three games, almost certainly at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
But if somehow it does happen, this is the blueprint.
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