CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – You might say that Penn State's preseason is over, that the 2018 regular season really doesn't start until 7:30 p.m. Saturday, when fourth-ranked Ohio State is surrounded by more than 107,000 fans wearing white and ESPN's College Gameday coming to Happy Valley.
The first four games all counted, however. There was a close call against Appalachian State that forced an extra period, then three routs, in which the Nittany Lions outscored their opponents by a combined 177-40. That included Friday night's 63-24 romp over Illinois, in which they scored the game's final 42 points after trailing, 24-21, early in the third quarter.
Head coach James Franklin must pick out the mistakes on tape and try to fix them this week at practice. He wants to see the Lions step up the passing game, keep improving on defense, and show more consistency in the kicking game.
"I do think we're getting better, and that's the thing I focus on — do we get better individually and collectively every week?" Franklin said after the game. "And, I think, for the most part, you could say we have.
"Have there been quarters or drives or times where we haven't played the way we're capable of playing? Yes. But overall, we're gaining a lot of experience for a lot of different players on a very young football team."
The Lions are talented but young, and inexperience could prove harmful against Ohio State. Franklin said that 30 players on Friday night's 74-man travel squad were redshirt or true freshmen. The more game action they see, the better, and the recent lopsided scores have helped them get on the field.
"I don't know of any other way to get guys better other than to get them on the field and play them," Franklin said. "We're making mistakes that we've got to get cleaned up, and that's really in all three phases. We've just got to get better."
The Nittany Lions, averaging 55.5 points per game, finally have found the physical offensive line they've been waiting for. The unit cleared the way for 387 yards against Illinois, including 200 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries by Miles Sanders.
Sanders, a junior, who played behind Saquon Barkley in his first two years, certainly appreciates his linemen.
"Every game I say it, 'I'd like to thank those guys,' " Sanders said. "I don't think I really know how much I really appreciate them, and I told them that today. I tell them every drive, 'Keep pushing, keep going.' "
The rushing attack, averaging 275 yards in four games, is outshining the pass game for the first time since Penn State went to its no-huddle offense in 2016. In exceeding the 8,000-yard mark for career passing yards, Trace McSorley passed for 160 yards and rushed for 92 against the Illini. His three touchdown passes extended his streak to 32 games in which he has thrown for at least one TD.
Through the air, however, the Lions are averaging 239.5 yards. Franklin knows that area of the offense must improve.
"We've got to be more consistent in the passing game," he said. "There's too many throws that we're missing, too many balls that we're not coming down with. We're going to have to be more balanced."
The defense, after another sluggish start, picked it up in the second half. The unit understands the importance of not repeating such a start against Ohio State.