Minus Rutgers, a conference foe and coincidently one of the few moments I believe we saw the full team in motion, the Nittany Lions have been busy strengthening their depth and giving all the young guys as much live game experience as they possibly could. Versus Army last week, we saw a very telling still shot from late in the game. Manny Bowen, a true freshman linebacker, had just recovered a fumble. Flanked on each side during his celebration was John Reid, a true freshman on the left and Jake Cooper, yep you guessed it, another true freshman on the right. This was not during the late stages of a blowout, as we all so excruciatingly know. No, this was in the heat of battle with the game on the line. It was not pretty. There was nothing sexy about the 20-14 win over the Cadets of West Point. But, it was a win. And it was a win, in part, thanks to a large handful of new faces that would not have even sniffed the field were this under normal circumstances.
Now, it is time for the meat and potatoes. The appetizers have all been gobbled up. The leaves have started to change, the weather has turned a little brisk. It's Homecoming Weekend in Happy Valley and it's time for Penn State Football to put up or shut up, to be blunt. The proverbial "preseason" is over and all that awaits is the nitty gritty of the Big Ten Conference. The Hoosiers of Indiana roll into town this week and bring with them a high-powered offense capable of making Penn State look very bad if the Nittany Lions do not bring their A-game. Led by Head Coach Kevin Wilson, in his fourth season at the helm, Indiana (4-1, 0-1 in Big Ten play) is coming off an emotional loss to Ohio State, a game in which they had the chance to beat the defending national champs at the end but fell just short. Whether that loss proves to be a letdown or the catalyst of confidence is the major question surrounding this week’s opponent. Starting QB Nate Sudfeld gashed the Penn State defense two years ago as he led the Hoosiers to a rare 44-24 romp in Bloomington, Indiana. After missing last season due to injury, he comes into Beaver Stadium right where he left off in 2013. On fire. Late in the loss to OSU, he was forced out with an ankle injury and has been listed as day to day this week. For all intents and purposes, I fully expect Sudfeld to be a go come kickoff at noon. If not, Zander Diamont brings more of a running QB style as his replacement. Also, dealing with an ankle injury is leading rusher Jordan Howard. If he's unable to go, Devine Rettine will be his replacement. Ricky Jones has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best receivers so far with over 400 receiving yards. Once again, the Nittany Lions punt and kickoff return teams will have their hands full, as Mitchell Paige is a threat to make any return a run for the money.
On the flip side, the Hoosier defense is one of the worst in the business. They have allowed an average of over 30 points a game and should give the much-maligned Penn State offense plenty of opportunity to prove itself. The biggest factor rests on the ankle and health of freshman sensation, Saquon Barkley, of course. Barkley has had a full week of practice, but in the words of Franklin on Thursday, "he is not yet 100%". So, do you run an 85% Barkley and risk having him at 80% next week versus Ohio State? Or, do you sit the kid one more week and unleash him at a full 100% in Columbus? It is a valid question and one that Franklin has been juggling for much of the season. Not just with Barkley, but with multiple starters. A bit of good news is that Andrew Nelson is back and listed as the starter at right tackle. He should be able to pay immediate dividends along the O-Line. On defense, Brandon Bell and Marcus Allen are both slated to return on Saturday and provide the Nittany Lions with their entire set of starters. A huge boost to the nations #15 ranked overall defense.
As everyone makes their way back to State College for Homecoming festivities, Penn State Football once again stands at a crossroads. A year ago, the Nittany Lions were 4-0 and we were all looking ahead to a New Year’s Day bowl game. Our visions of oranges and roses were short lived as the Northwestern Wildcats came to town and exposed the flaws that would haunt us all year long. This year, it's all up to Indiana. No one is really thinking Rose Bowl right now, but we are at a stage as fans where a six point win simply isn't good enough. Everyone is starved for the glory days of Penn State football. The fact is, those glory days are really just a distant memory that most of today's current students have no recollection of. Sure, there are plenty of big wins and high rankings to savor over the past 20 years. There are memorable moments that only a handful in college football can equal or better. But those glory days of the late ‘70s and early to mid ‘80s were when Penn State was not just the Beast of the East. We were the Beast of College Football. Period. There is a large portion of this fan base that remembers it like it was yesterday, myself included. Whether we ever live up to those expectations again, only time will tell.
Indiana comes into this contest the latest and greatest Cinderella of the Big Ten Conference. Let me be the first to say, despite last weeks near win over an uninterested Buckeye squad, their four wins are nothing to write home about. S. Illinois, Florida International, Western Kentucky, and Wake Forest are not exactly perennial barnburners. Of course, neither are any of the teams we played to date (although those mighty Temple Owls are still undefeated). I have been reminded of the old cliché, "two steps back, to move three steps forward," all week as I pondered my newest prediction. With that in mind, I believe we make a small statement on Homecoming Day. Saturday, at high noon, Penn State Football takes a few steps in a positive direction. 31-13 Nittany Lions.