Schedule will toughen; another defeat looming

Most of the preseason predictions, including mine, had Penn State going 10-2 this year.

So what have we seen for that to change?

Really, not much. At 4-1, the Nittany Lions are about on schedule.

They were fortunate to avoid a stunning upset by Appalachian State in the opener and overwhelmed Pitt, which completely unraveled, led by its head coach.

Penn State was not overly impressive in beating Kent State or Illinois.

Then, with the whiteout drums beating, the Lions played great against Ohio State before losing a two-score lead and fell by one point, just like they did last year in Columbus.

One of the themes James Franklin has been advancing in the aftermath of the loss is the Lions’ game-to-game improvement.

“We’ve gotten better every single week,” Franklin said Tuesday. “I don’t think there’s too many people out there that could argue differently.”

One of the hallmarks of Franklin’s teams, at PSU and at Vanderbilt, is game-to-game and season-to-season improvement.

But that trend will be put to the rest over the rest of this season because to this point this year, you can make the argument — one of Franklin’s favorite sayings — that there hasn’t been as much improvement as CJF is suggesting.

Twice the Lions haven’t put away opponents after building a comfortable lead so they sure haven’t improved at that, a troubling trend that stretches back three seasons in PSU’s losses (and even some of its wins).

They’re still searching for a go-to receiver.

They have also fumbled nine times, including a back-breaking momentum-shifter before halftime against Ohio State. They only fumbled eight times all of last year – just three times in their final nine games.

Their penalty count has regressed. They opened the season vs. App State with two flags for 10 yards and were relatively clean vs. Pitt (4-45). However, the last three games have produced 24 penalties for 221 yards, a per-game average of 8-73.6 yards.

And their field-goal operation merits close attention as freshman Jake Pinegar has missed three of his last five, one reason Franklin opted against a 40-yarder late in the first half against the Buckeyes. Pinegar is a freshman so there’s more leeway, but he probably can’t afford to miss too many more.

Even with Ohio State in September, the second half of the season (post-open date) figured to play tougher.

Michigan State is typically a tooth pull. Then there’s the trip to Indiana, where Penn State’s next inspired performance will be its first.

Then Kirk Ferentz, the Big Ten’s most veteran coach who is perfectly comfortable in a 6-4 game and always seems to give the Lions a problem, comes to town.

If Penn State can go 3-0 against that portion of the schedule, November opens with the tagteam of at Michigan and Wisconsin. The Lions will likely be an underdog in Ann Arbor and won’t be spotting the Badgers more than a few points.

An open date at Rutgers follows before the season concludes with Maryland, a mercurial program that sometimes perks up at the mere sign of blue and white.

I see another loss somewhere — probably Michigan — and if the Nittany Lions don’t improve in some of the areas in which they’ve been less than elite, that one loss could turn into a couple.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or