Let me say this right off the bat: Penn State could very easily be 4-0.
The Nittany Lions should have beaten Ohio on opening day. Despite the fact that the Bobcats are 4-0, and are now receiving votes in the USA Today coaches' poll, they're still the Ohio Bobcats. And despite everything that's gone down in Happy Valley, this is still Penn State. The Nittany Lions should beat Ohio every time they play.
And although there's no shame in losing at Virginia, it was the way the Nittany Lions lost that was most upsetting. When you leave 13 points on the field as a result of missing four field goals and an extra-point, you're going to have trouble beating any team.
After starting the season 0-2, Penn State won its next two games, beating Navy and then Temple. The bottom line is that this team had a chance to enter Big Ten Conference play with a 4-0 record. What a statement that would have been.
Instead, Penn State is currently tied with Illinois for last place in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. Six of the league's teams have at least three wins, and three remain undefeated.
With what we know now, here's how Penn State's season could play out:
September 29 at Illinois: The Illini are really struggling on defense, having allowed 45 points in a Week 2 loss at Arizona State and 52 points in a Week 4 loss at home to Louisiana Tech. They also turned the ball over six times in that game. With Penn State's balanced attack, and with the running backs getting healthier by the day, the Penn State offense could have a big day.
October 6 vs. Northwestern: Penn State will return to Happy Valley to take on one of the Big Ten's best. At 4-0, Northwestern has beaten teams from the ACC, Big East, and SEC. The Wildcats should enter this game with a 5-0 record. It will come down to whether or not Penn State can stop Northwestern's offense, especially its running game. Right now, you have to say that Northwestern is the better team. But playing in front of their home crown on homecoming should give the Nittany Lions a boost. It's still going to be a tough one.
October 20 at Iowa: The Hawkeyes (2-2) haven't played anyone yet, barely beat Northern Illinois, and will play at Michigan State the week before the Nittany Lions come to town. Defense and special teams were a problem in last week's loss to Central Michigan. Road games are never easy, but Penn State has to get a win here.
October 27 vs. Ohio State: Like Penn State, the Buckeyes are ineligible for the postseason. But this is still Ohio State, and it's still Urban Meyer, in his first year in Columbus. The Buckeyes' last three wins haven't come easy, but right now they may be the best team in the conference. Ohio State has an explosive offense led by quarterback Braxton Miller. That will put the Nittany Lions' secondary to the test.
November 3 at Purdue: Despite the fact that they lost to Notre Dame, the Boilermakers held their own. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State come up on their schedule before Penn State, so we'll know a lot more about Purdue (2-1) after that stretch of games. If they consider themselves to be one of the better teams in the conference, the Boilermakers will have to win at least two of those games. What we know is that they've blown out Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan, as they should have, and they almost beat the 11th-ranked Irish.
November 10 at Nebraska: Remember back in the day when the Cornhuskers used to get criticized for never playing anyone good? Well, Nebraska is 3-1 to start the season after three wins against inferior competition (Southern Mississippi, Arkansas State, Idaho State) and a loss to UCLA. Nebraska has an explosive offense (it put up 73 points against Idaho State) that will put the Penn State defense to the test. Playing on the road, this may be the Nittany Lions' biggest challenge.
November 17 vs. Indiana: After a really tough stretch of games, Penn State should be favored in this one. Indiana hasn't won a Big Ten game since 2010, and there are questions on defense when you give up 41 points in a loss to Ball State.
November 24 vs. Wisconsin: All of their games have been close, but the Badgers are still 3-1. We don't know how Joel Stave will turn out at quarterback, but Wisconsin can run the ball. We'll know a lot more about this team after the Nebraska game this weekend. Games against Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State are also on the schedule. I could see this game going either way, but it would be nice for Penn State to finish the season at .500.
Charles Costello is a lifelong fan of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
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