Lots of talk about That Team Up North lately, most of it laughingly watching as the dumpster that was the Big House appears to be burning uncontrollably. So, I was intrigued last night, while watching the B1G Show (weekly Big Ten football recap on BTN), when someone brought up the 2016 season and Penn State. It got me thinking. How bad are the Wolverines really, and are they completely out of the Big Ten race?
2016 Penn State Season
Coming off a 7-6 campaign in 2015, in which they lost their last four games including a bowl game to Georgia, third year head coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions were unranked in the AP and Coaches polls coming into the 2016 season. They had the 20th ranked recruiting class (247Sports), and were projected about 28th in the S&P+ preseason ratings. They had lost third year QB Christian Hackenburg and four defensive players to the NFL Draft earlier that spring.
In Week One, PSU hosted a bad Kent State team. Led by first year starter sophomore Trace McSorely and sophomore Saquon Barkely, Penn State won 33-13. The score was only 16-13 at intermission, but the PSU defense stepped up and shut out the Golden Flashes in the second half.
The following week, Penn State lost by a field goal 42-39 to an uranked, Pat Narduzzi coached, Pitt team at Heinz Field. Pitt dominated time of possession (35:29 min to 24:31 min) and rushing yardage (341 yds to 74 yds), but PSU dominated the passing stats (332 yds to 91 yds). In the end, total yardage was about equal: Pitt 432 yds, Penn State 406 yds. The biggest difference between the two was two first half PSU fumbles (one at the PSU 12 yard line, the other at their own 30) that led directly to Pitt touchdowns, giving the Panthers a 28-14 halftime lead.
Penn State hosted Temple in Week three, and secured an unimpressive victory 34-27. They never trailed in the game, and they dominated the Owls on both sides of the ball. Again, they put the ball on the ground twice, but this time it bounced into PSU hands. It was a "revenge" win after losing to Temple in 2015. No one thought much of Temple at the time, until week 13 when Temple beat a ranked Navy team and won the American Athletic Conference Championship.
Penn State opened Big Ten play in Ann Arbor against a #4 ranked Wolverine squad, which had beaten Hawaii, UCF and Colorado by a combined score of 159-45. A Wilton Speight led offense and a stout defense led TTUN to a 28-0 halftime lead. A third quarter PSU field goal and an early fourth quarter touchdown closed the gap to 35-10, but it was a hopeless effort. 49-10 was the final. From the game recap:
PENN STATE : The Nittany Lions couldn't compete on either side of the ball. Depth is becoming a serious issue at linebacker, with four players injured, so the defensive staff is going to have to find a new way to stop teams on the ground and on short passes.
MICHIGAN : The Wolverines dominated in the trenches, with their defensive line continuously overrunning Penn State's offensive line. They registered five sacks while building their first-half lead. Speight, meanwhile, had all the time he needed.
At 2-2, with a loss to TTUN, the unranked Nittany Lions were out of the conversation. Or were they?
Over the next nine weeks, Penn State won eight straight games beating Minnesota 29-26 in overtime, Maryland 38-14, #2 Ohio Sate by a field goal 24-21 (which propelled PSU to #24), Purdue 62-24, Indiana 45-31, Rutgers 39-0, Michigan State 45-12. At 9-2, they climbed to #8 in the AP and Coaches' Polls and were ranked #7 by the College Football Playoff Committee.
By virtue of Penn State's head-to-head win over the Buckeyes (11-1), their only Big Ten loss coming at the hands of That Team up North, and the Wolverine's two Big Ten losses to OSU and Iowa, the Nittany Lions were the Big Ten East divisional champs and got their ticket stamped to Indianapolis.
On week later, Penn State defeated #6 Wisconsin for the Big Ten Championship. After going down at the half, again, Penn State rallied from a 28-14 deficit and this time came out with a win, 38-31. They earned themselves a #5 ranking from the CFP Committee and a Rose Bowl birth against USC, in what turned out to be one of the most entertaining games of the 2016-17 bowl season. Penn State lost by a FG and ended up ranked #7 in the Final AP Poll (one spot behind 11-2 Ohio State).
That Team Up North 2019
I'm not going to waste time breaking down the Wolverines' season to date game by game. Suffice to say, they're not playing up to the potential of the talent on their team. A big win over Middle Tennessee, a close OT win versus Army (I see you Oklahoma), and an absolute thrashing at the hands of Wisconsin.
But, even Urban Meyer has stated repeatedly that they have some of the best talent in the Big Ten. Donovan Peoples-Jones (a receiver that many OSU fans coveted) was out for two games and is just coming back. Shea Patterson was a five-star recruit out of the IMG Academy, was the #4 quarterback in his class and was the #1 Pro Style quarterback that year. They have other quality players on the field as well.
Yes, they got their asses kicked at Wisconsin. But I'm not willing to write them off completely as some have. They have Rutgers this week to get themselves together, then they host Iowa. Come out of that alive, and the Wolverines are 4-1 heading to Champaign. Take care of business there, and they could be 5-1 and have a lot of confidence when they go to Happy Valley for a White Out.
Going back to 2008, PSU is 4-1 versus TTUN at home. (They didn't play each other in 2011 or '12). But, Penn State is 5-6 in White Games (thanks to OSU). Aside from beating FCS Idaho 79-7, Buffalo 45-13, and Pitt 17-10, what leads anyone to think Penn State is markedly better than the Wolverines? These teams are almost dead even in their 2019 and 4-year recruiting averages. In terms of coaching, I'd say Harbaugh and Franklin aren't that far apart. They're good coaches, but definitely not elite.
After Penn State, the Wolverines have Notre Dame, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana before the Buckeyes come to town.
I'm not saying it's likely, but it is definitely a possibility that Harbaugh is able to weasel his way to a 9-2 record heading into The Game (loses to ND and wins over remaining B1G opponents). If that were to happen, November 30 would shape up to be an interesting day. Schadenfreude is nice and all, but hubris is the downfall of man.
If you haven't had the chance to watch Coach Meyer break down a team on film, this is an excellent watch. He points out the good and the bad of the Wolverine's defense against Wisconsin last week. They aren't completely broken, yet.