Big Ten Preview: What Threat Does Each Opponent Pose To The Nittany Lions
By Shane Coolen, Austin Smith, and Matt Fox
Penn State begins Big Ten play this Saturday with a difficult nighttime road clash against Iowa, but that’s not the only struggle the Nittany Lions might face this year.
Ahead of the upcoming nine-game conference slate, we took a glimpse at each of the opponents on Penn State’s schedule and how much of a threat they’ll be to derail the Nittany Lions’ hopes of another Big Ten title and possible College Football Playoff run.
Iowa — Threat Level: High
Riding a 3-0 start to their season, the Hawkeyes have the potential to pull off one of their signature Kinnick Stadium upsets. Even though a double overtime win against Iowa State and a 17-point victory over North Texas don’t seem too impressive, night games in Iowa City are historically tough matches as the Hawkeye faithful bring a big presence.In recent history. Iowa has taken down several highly ranked Penn State teams, including the No. 3 Nittany Lions in 2008 and the No. 5 Nittany Lions in 2009. Iowa running back Akrum Wadley is arguably the biggest threat to Penn State’s defense but is questionable for the upcoming matchup as he injured his ankle early in the second quarter in last Saturday’s showdown. Quarterback Nathan Stanley has a sturdy 10:1 touchdown to interception ratio so far and is also a vital part of Iowa’s offense.
Indiana — Threat Level: Medium
The Hoosiers’ game last week was cancelled against FIU and as a result they have only played two games so far this season. Last year, Indiana led Penn State until the fourth quarter and had Nittany Lion fans more than restless for much of the game. Look out for a very intriguing matchup between the nation’s top running back and All-American senior linebacker Tegray Scales. As a junior, Scales led the country with 23.5 tackles for loss and finished the season 10th in total stoppages. This will be a good assessment for Saquon Barkley before facing the likes of Michigan and Ohio State later on in October. It also should be noted that Indiana QB Richard Lagow put up 410 yards against the Buckeyes’ highly touted defense in week one. Indiana has a potentially more explosive offense than a team like Iowa, however its scouting report is definitely hazier than most because of a lack of games played. With this being said, Indiana is still a middle of the road Big Ten team and the Nittany Lions should have no problem taking care of business, especially at home in Beaver Stadium.
Northwestern — Threat Level: Low
Before the start of the season, many college football analysts marked this matchup as a trap game for Penn State. It was thought that quarterback Clayton Thorson and tailback Justin Jackson could challenge Penn State’s quarterback-running back tandem for best in the Big Ten. Fast forward to after week 3 of the 2017 season and Northwestern hasn’t yet shown any potential of making this happen. It took Northwestern until the fourth quarter to gain control of the game against Nevada in its home opener. It have followed this with a blowout 41-17 loss against Duke and a 49-7 win against MAC opponent Bowling Green. The Northwestern player to keep an eye on is still running back Jackson who racked up 1,743 all-purpose yards last season. At this point in the season nonetheless, the Wildcats do not pose a measurable threat to Penn State.
Michigan — Threat Level: High
The Wolverines very much looked like the team to beat for the most part last season, thrashing the Nittany Lions 49-10. However, with only five remaining starters from a season ago, Michigan is one of the youngest teams in the nation. Depth is not necessarily an issue for Harbaugh, as many of the defensive starters appear more than capable of filling in. The problem is the offense, and the inconsistency of quarterback Wilton Speight. Through the Wolverines’ first two games, the offense has looked sluggish, with Speight overthrowing his receivers on multiple occasions. Since Penn State hosts Michigan for a White Out this year, expect the young Michigan players to be rattled. The game should be close, but I still project Penn State to win by a touchdown or two. Michigan is simply too inexperienced to survive the hostile environment that is Happy Valley, but it certainly could keep it close.
Ohio State — Threat Level: High
It may have been the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, but Ohio State has not looked like the usual Urban Meyer team. It lost a lot of production to the NFL a season ago, but were expected to dominate with J.T. Barrett at quarterback. Barrett struggled mightily against Oklahoma last week at home, as Baker Mayfield constantly outplayed him. The defense didn’t do Barrett any favors either. Ohio State ranks 129th out of 130 teams in total passing defense, a number it need to improve upon come Big Ten play. The Buckeyes will be looking for revenge come October 28, as the Nittany Lions make their appearance in Columbus. This will probably be Penn State’s biggest test, as Ohio State should shake off the rust that showed last week by then. If the Buckeyes can begin to gel and improve in the secondary, it could be a barn-burner.
Michigan State — Threat Level: Medium
Last year’s Michigan State team was one like no other. Dantonio’s squad limped to a 3-8 record, with losses to all major rivals. The quarterback position is still a concern, as Brian Lewerke has not shown he can play on the big stage. The Spartans are 2-0, but both wins came against subpar competition in Bowling Green and Western Michigan. This seems like another rebuilding year for Michigan State in the post-Connor Cook era, but don’t be surprised if it pull off a few upsets. When Penn State comes to East Lansing this year, it could easily be a trap game. Both the Michigan and Ohio State games are played on the road, so Spartan nation should be a tough environment for McSorley and Barkley to experience. Expect Dantonio to dial up some trick plays in this one, with Penn State ultimately coming out with the victory.
Rutgers — Threat Level: Low
Last season was yet another in a long line of disappointing football campaigns for the Scarlet Knights, as they went winless in Big Ten play en route to a 2-10 overall record. This season they are off to an even worse start. Despite last week’s drubbing of Morgan State, Rutgers will enter the Big Ten portion of its schedule with a 1-2 record, following losses to Washington and Eastern Michigan. There is no singular weakness for this football team, rather it still lacks depth and quality talent across the entire roster. The Scarlet Knights have gone winless against Nittany Lions since joining the Big Ten back in 2014, and have been unable to even muster a touchdown in the last two meetings between the two teams. Penn State won the last two matchups by a combined score of 67-3, and should once again find this game to be a walk in the park.
Nebraska — Threat Level: Low
A game that many had penciled in as one last late season test may not be much of a test at all come November. Nebraska entered the season on the periphery of the AP Top 25, receiving a handful of votes but not enough to earn a spot in the rankings. But back-to-back losses have suddenly made people begin to reevaluate just how good these Cornhuskers are. Losing a shootout to Oregon is forgivable, but losing to Northern Illinois at home is not. Tanner Lee has so far proven to be an inadequate replacement for Tommy Armstrong at quarterback, throwing more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5) this season. Nebraska has the talent to potentially cause the Nittany Lions some problems, but it’s hard to envision the Cornhuskers walking out of Beaver Stadium with a victory.
Maryland — Threat Level: Medium
How about Maryland? Normally an afterthought in the Big Ten East, the Terrapins have come out of the gate scorching hot on offense. They were able to ruin Tom Herman’s first game in charge at Texas with an impressive 51-41 road upset in week one of the season. Then, they followed that up with a 63-17 whipping of Towson in week two. All of this has been in spite of the fact that they lost its starting quarterback, Tyrrell Pigrome, for the rest of the season in its first game. Backup QB Kasim Hill has filled in admirably completing 84% of his passes for 207 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. But the star of the offense so far has been running back Ty Johnson who has put up 256 yards on only 17 carries, good for a 15.1 yards per carry average. If the Nittany Lions want to beat Maryland for the third year running they will have to find a way to contain Johnson.