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Make Or Break Factors For The Penn State Football Season

Penn State football enters this season as a legitimate national championship contender for the first time in nearly a decade.

With the excitement building in Happy Valley, there are a few key factors that will be crucial to whether or not Penn State will live up to the hype or leave fans with much to be desired. If things go right, Penn State should waltz into the top four at the end of the regular season. If things go wrong, then the Blue and White hype train could crash.

Health/Injuries

“Make” The Season: Saquon Barkley and other core members of the team like Marcus Allen, Jason Cabinda, Mike Gesicki, and Trace McSorley avoid injury for the majority of the season.
“Break” The Season: Barkley and/or Allen miss extended time.

The Nittany Lions were plagued with injuries early last season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The embarrassing 49-10 loss at the hands of Michigan last year was largely due to a brand new linebacking corps after Cabinda, Brandon Bell, and Nyeem Wartman-White all went down early in the season. While this helped Penn State develop some depth with young players like Koa Farmer, Manny Bowen, and Cam Brown, it would be easier for James Franklin and company to operate if the Blue and White avoided the same awful injury-bug that plagued them early in 2016.

A healthy Saquon Barkley can easily lead Penn State to a playoff berth by season’s end, yet it’s hard to imagine such lofty aspirations if he were to miss extended amounts of time due to any injury. The running back’s durability is by far the largest contingency that may lead or derail this team.

No. 2 Marcus Allen is one of the key leaders returning on the defense for the 2017 Nittany Lions.

Marcus Allen’s health will loom larger than any other player’s on the defensive side of the ball. Allen’s leadership role in the secondary has increased even more with the preseason injury to cornerback John Reid. The Nittany Lions’ are already inexperienced — or at least unproven — at safety following Malik Golden’s graduation. An injury to the senior safety would give the Nittany Lions a weak spot in their defensive secondary.

October 7 – November 4

“Make” The Season: Penn State wins all four games in this time span or suffers their only loss in a close game to Michigan or Ohio State.
“Break” The Season: Penn State loses two or more games in this stretch.

The heart of Penn State’s schedule features a five week period with three away games and the home White Out game. The trip to Evanston to face Northwestern, a gritty team that will surely give the Nittany Lions a tough battle in their second road matchup of the season, could spell trap game. Assuming the Nittany Lions get over that roadblock, they would meet a powerhouse division rival in the Wolverines for a primetime matchup within the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium fresh off of a bye week.

Should the home team avenge last year’s horrible loss against Jim Harbaugh and company, a trip to Columbus for a game with major conference and national title implications would be on the docket. Assuming Ohio State and Penn State both enter the game undefeated, there would likely be a top-five matchup for the first time in the rivalry’s history.

The Nittany Lions end that grueling four game stretch by traveling to East Lansing to square off against Michigan State. The Spartans went 3-9 in 2016, breaking a three-season streak of 11-plus wins per season. They also missed a bowl game for the first time since 2006. Mark D’Antonio’s squad does bring back star running back L.J. Scott, so anything is possible in the Land Grant Trophy meeting with the Nittany Lions.

It also wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for D’Antonio to surprise the nation with another terrific season.

No. 6 Andre Robinson and company put up 35 unanswered second half points to beat Michigan State 45-12 in 2016.

Ideally, Penn State could suffer a close loss to Ohio State and still have a shot to win the division. However, more than one loss would likely knock the basic blues out of national title contention, much like last season. Northwestern and Michigan State are perfect examples of sleepy, noon start games where big-time teams can sometimes slip up. If Penn State wants to be in the playoff conversation, the Nittany Lions need to be very careful during this timeframe.

Starting Fast

“Make” The Season: Penn State improves first half performance.
“Break” The Season: Penn State continues to fall behind early and it finally catches up with them.

James Franklin deserves credit for his ability to lead the program to multiple improbable second half comebacks last year. The team never seemed to quit even despite facing large, early deficits routinely in 2016.

The Nittany Lions possessed the nation’s second-best scoring offense and 12th-ranked scoring defense in the second half. This combination made for one of the top post-halftime score differentials in the nation. The pattern continued (successfully) into the Big Ten championship game as Penn State defeated Wisconsin.

Saeed Blacknall shined during Penn State’s memorable comeback victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

But the losses to Pitt and USC showed that major comebacks aren’t always enough to pull out victories.

If Penn State can’t manage to start games stronger than they did a year ago, then it may be the Achilles’ heel that derails a national championship campaign. Not showing up early during the aforementioned crucial four game stretch could be fatal to the lofty expectations for this year’s team.

About the Author

Mitch Stewart

Mitch is a sophomore majoring in Broadcast Journalism. Despite growing up in Roanoke, VA (Redskins/Nationals country), he is an avid Dallas Cowboys and New York Mets fan. In addition to being an editor for Onward State, Mitch loves to watch sports, talk about sports on PSU CommRadio, and tries his hardest to avoid the agony that being a Mets fan brings. To contact Mitch, feel free to send him an e-mail at [email protected], and if you really don't value your social media accounts, follow him and his garbage opinions on Twitter @mitchystew.

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