Anyone who saw Penn State’s schedule in August noticed the big three-game stretch in the second half of the season against nationally ranked Michigan and Big Ten favorite Ohio State, followed by a trip to Michigan State against a Spartans team that could have moved into the top 25 by game day.
Well, it’s two down and one to go. The No. 7 Nittany Lions (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) put themselves in a precarious position last weekend with their drop-from-ahead loss to the Buckeyes, and now need a win over the No. 24 Spartans (6-2, 4-1) on Saturday to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive.
It won’t be easy. The Lions have injuries — two starters, offensive tackle Ryan Bates and defensive end Ryan Buchholz, may not play Saturday — and their regulars still must have bruises after two games against the most physical teams in the Big Ten. The mental and emotional grind of the last two weeks also must have taken a toll.
Tight end Mike Gesicki said, however, that recovery from the previous game is the same pretty much every week, no matter whom the Lions are playing.
“When you’re playing for Penn State, you know that every week, teams are going to come out and give you their best effort,” Gesicki said Wednesday. “So whether you’re playing a top-ranked team or an unranked team, they’re still going to be at their best and they’re going to play like a ranked team.
“It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing, it’s going to be physical. This is football. It’s going to be physical. It’s going to be mentally demanding. It just so happened that the three teams that we played in a three-week stretch are all ranked, they’re tough, athletic, talented football teams. But nothing really changes.”
Senior cornerback Christian Campbell said it’s no problem for the Nittany Lions to keep their focus against any opponent, particularly a dangerous one.
“We’ve got a great team that we’re playing against ahead of us,” Campbell said. “It just makes me hungrier, and I feel like everybody on our team has a chip on our shoulder because we want to prove to the world that we’re the No. 1 team in college football. Things happen and sometimes teams have to bounce back from a tough loss. I want to keep playing and keep fighting.”
On the physical side, Campbell said the players “don’t take anything for granted” when it comes to taking care of their bodies.
“The one week we do take that for granted, then it’ll be a game where we feel sore,” he said. “As a team, you don’t want that. So we’re always talking about getting in the ice tub or the hot tub and making sure our body feels good.”
The Nittany Lions will play their second straight game on the road. They struggled with crowd noise at Ohio State, which in part fueled the momentum for the Buckeyes that led to three fourth-quarter touchdowns after Penn State held a 35-20 lead.
Now that the initial College Football Playoff rankings are out, the Lions know where they stand. It’s clear they have to win out and see what happens with the teams ahead of them. Right now, however, it’s not an issue to the players.
“No, I don’t care about the college football rankings,” Campbell said. “I feel like as a team, we don’t care. We try to take it one game at a time, beat the team that’s ahead of us. It doesn’t faze us as a team and you know anything can happen, so it really doesn’t matter.”