Penn State hopes to learn lessons from last year's Big Ten opener

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Penn State at Michigan
Michigan running back Chris Evans (12) rambles down the Penn State sideline in last season’s matchup.

The ingredients for Penn State’s Big Ten opener Saturday night are relatively similar to last season’s first conference game: On the road, sold-out stadium, fundamentally strong opponent that likes to control the football and is proficient at converting third downs.

Of course, you all remember last year’s Big Ten opener: Michigan 49, Penn State 10. The game was so one-sided that quarterback Trace McSorley called it “an embarrassment” and apologized to Nittany Nation, while critical fans wondered anew whether head coach James Franklin was the right man for the job.

The Lions undeniably pulled themselves up. They have won 12 of 13 games since then, with their only loss coming on the last play of the Rose Bowl, earning Franklin a lucrative contract extension along the way. At 3-0 and ranked fourth in the nation, they begin the conference season at Iowa with high expectations.

Now, however, the thought is that, as they come off a non-conference schedule in which they outscored two overmatched opponents and a subpar Pitt team by 141-14, they must raise their level of play for Big Ten opponents.

Running back Saquon Barkley feels his team already has done that.

“I don’t think we’ve got to increase anything,” he said. “I think we’ve got to continue to come out and hold ourselves to our standard and play to our standard. Obviously, you’re aware you’re now in Big Ten play and the Big Ten is one of the hardest conferences in college football. But I don’t think we have to increase anything.”

Asked whether his team has been tested yet this season, Barkley said it has, “because it’s Division I college football.”

“We can’t control the team that’s on our schedule,” he said. “We can only control what we can control. If we don’t come out and play to our level, we could have lost any of those games. … Those guys work just as hard as you. Those guys have been recruited by schools just like you, and you can’t take that for granted.”

The test Saturday will be a strong one. Iowa (3-0) is sixth in FBS in time of possession at more than 35½ minutes per game, while Penn State is 125th at a little more than 24. The Hawkeyes also convert third downs at a 47.8 percent rate, third in the Big Ten.

The Lions played well below their level in last year’s opener. They were outgained by 515-191, allowed Michigan to convert 11 of 16 third-down chances, and managed only a little more than 24 minutes in possession time.

McSorley said his team has learned lessons from that game, particularly how to prepare for the season’s first road contest.

“Knowing that we’re going on the road is something that we’ve got to stay ahead of this week, being in another stadium and not in our comfort zone,” he said. “It’s just preparation, whether it’s watching more film, asking more questions, whatever it might be, getting more sleep, whatever it is, being able to prepare a little bit more this week knowing that we’re going on the road.”

Franklin said he feels the Lions have learned lessons “based on a lot of different past experiences,” and the fact that many of his players have competed in other Big Ten stadiums will help.

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to prepare, to show our guys what it’s like to go on the road,” he said. “But we’ve got a much older, more mature team right now that has played a lot of games on the road in Big Ten venues. So I think we’ll be much prepared from an experience standpoint.”

Three things to watch

  • James Franklin says that Penn State needs to run the ball better between the tackles, so a key matchup will be Saquon Barkley trying to go up the gut against an Iowa defense led by middle linebacker Josey Jewell, one of the best in the Big Ten.
  • The Nittany Lions are third in the nation with nine takeaways – six interceptions and three fumble recoveries – and the Hawkeyes already have fumbled the ball away five times.
  • Iowa sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley is tied for fifth in FBS with 10 touchdown passes, and Penn State’s Trace McSorley has passed for nine TDs and rushed for two.

By the numbers

0: Yards that Iowa has allowed opponents on punt returns through three games; Penn State is tied for ninth in FBS with almost 18 yards per return.

10: Consecutive games in which Penn State has scored 30 or more points, the third-longest active streak in FBS after South Florida (20, going into Thursday night’s game against Temple) and Oklahoma (13).

121: Yards that Saquon Barkley needs to become the seventh running back in program history to rush for 3,000 in his career.