PSU now 3-0, but road just starting

Commentary

UNIVERSITY PARK — OK, let’s get to the real thing.

Penn State’s non-conference/exhibition season is over, and to the surprise of no one, the Nittany Lions will enter Big Ten play unscathed at 3-0 following Saturday night’s 56-0 demolition of Georgia State.

Based on the way Penn State roared to the Big Ten championship last year, the bar was set even higher this season with most seeing the Lions solidly in contention for the College Football Playoff.

And they are, but other than Alabama, there are no automatics in the four-team field, and even though the Lions have pitched two shutouts through the first three games, Penn State and the Big Ten probably have lost some ground in the early jockeying for playoff position.

The Big 12 was the Power-5 conference left out last year, and it’s pretty clear the upper echelon of that league intends to change the narrative in 2017.

If there’s an upside to 7:30 p.m. kickoffs for the media — and we’d trade all them — it’s that it provides a better opportunity to see other teams.

In that regard, the Big Ten did not have its best day.

For one, No. 7 Michigan endured a pretty good scare from Air Force before winning, 29-13, at the Big House. Nebraska lost at home to Northern Illinois.

No. 8 Ohio State, still smarting from last week’s smackdown at home to now No. 2 Oklahoma, recovered with an easy win over Army.

Perhaps what jumped out most Saturday that could work against the Big Ten was No. 9 Oklahoma State’s 56-21 waltz at Pitt. The Cowboys were up 49-7 in the first half.

Penn State’s 33-14 victory against the Panthers will be deemed less impressive in a committee examination of a common opponent — Okie State winning huge away, Penn State winning but not necessarily dominating at home.

If Oklahoma or Oklahoma State go unbeaten, Penn State may be looking up at one of them. No. 3 Clemson looks like it’s reloaded, and the Pac-10 winner, though USC looks vulnerable, may end up vying with the Big Ten champ for the final spot.

Of course, there’s practically an entire season left to sort all of this out, certainly all the meaningful games that determine bowl destination as opposed to Pennsylvania bragging rights.

It starts at Iowa on Saturday night, when the Hawkeyes typically play with extra juice.

And the road won’t get much easier from there as four of Penn State’s first six conference games — Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State with the latter two back-to-back — are away.

Based on how it’s unfolded so far, with Pitt as the only semi-measuring stick, the Nits’ 3-0 mark by a 141-14 count is a little deceiving.

James Franklin hinted as much afterward as he accurately cited a running game that hasn’t consistently mushed people and an offense that has needed to be bailed out by Trace McSorley’s legs that buy time and Saquon Barkley’s greatness.

“Offensively, I would like to see us run the ball better,” he said. “We have to sustain our blocks longer.”

Georgia State may have gotten $1.2 million for its visit, but its players aren’t paid, and they wanted no part of Barkley on the perimeter, offering up only a matador defense against the Lions’ bevy of physical backs.

The Big Ten defenses won’t be as timid.

And while the Lions’ defense has been stingy in the red zone, it also allowed even Georgia State to convert 11 third downs and keep the ball nearly 40 minutes.

If Georgia State can do that, you would suspect teams like Ohio State and Michigan can, too.

Franklin said, “Consistently being able to stop the run and get three-and-outs” remain a top priority.

“You’d love for us to be a more suffocating defense,” he said. “But the most important thing is we’re keeping people out of the end zone.”

Parts of Penn State’s offense and the bottom-line work of its defense have brought indisputable results — and its special teams, particularly the return game — have been excellent.

But it’s starting to look a lot like the Big Ten will be doing well to get just one team in the field. Last year, it was miffed it didn’t get two as Washington, despite a feeble September resume, nosed out the Lions.

Clearly, Penn State will have to win in Columbus to stay in the conversation — especially after the Buckeyes’ loss to Oklahoma — and maybe run the table to punch its ticket.

That’s a tall order, and one that the non-conference third of the schedule hasn’t fully filled.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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