BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — We finally get Big Ten football this weekend, and for Indiana, it starts with a stern test from blueblood Penn State, a perennial top-10 team. The Nittany Lions are highly ranked again, checking in at No. 7 in the Coaches Poll and No. 8 in the Associated Press poll.
Indiana is unranked but receiving a handful of votes in both polls. The Nittany Lions are a 6.5-point favorite. (Game time is 3:30 p.m. ET, and is televised on Fox Sports 1.)
To get a feel for what's going on at Penn State, I reached out to my Sports Illustrated colleague Mark Wogenrich, our publisher for AllPennState. Here are my five questions for Mark:
- 1.) TOM BREW: Do Penn State fans feel comfortable with this team being ranked as high as No. 7 or No. 8? Do they really feel like they're that good, a potential national title contender?
MARK WOGENRICH: They probably felt better before Monday night, when Penn State announced that running back Journey Brown might miss the season while being treated for a medical condition. That means the Cotton Bowl offensive and defensive MVPs (including Micah Parsons) won’t play this season.
There’s still plenty of anticipation for what offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca will accomplish, particularly with quarterback Sean Clifford, and a defense that has produced 40-sack seasons for five consecutive years. But the high-profile losses, coupled with playing Ohio State before an empty ‘Whiteout,’ likely mitigate the expectations.
- 2.) BREW: I had Micah Parsons as my national defensive player of the year back in the summer. He opted out, so how much does that change Penn State's defense?
WOGENRICH: James Franklin likes the term “game-wrecker” to describe players with takeover ability, and Parsons was that player for Penn State’s defense. He led Penn State in tackles the past two seasons — even as a freshman who didn’t start in 2018 — and single-handedly wrecked Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.
Losing that kind of playmaker can’t be underestimated. Still, Penn State’s linebackers are out to “earn our respect,” said Jesse Luketa, who replaces Parsons. Watch for fellow linebacker Brandon Smith to become the unit’s “game-wrecker,” with defensive end Jayson Oweh potentially becoming the next All-American.
- 3.) BREW: Indiana is 1-22 all-time against Penn State, but has played them tough the past couple of years. What's the respect level out there for Indiana, and do the Nittany Lions take them seriously?
WOGENRICH: Considering the situation, Penn State is taking Indiana very seriously. In fact, James Franklin this week called this “by far” the best Indiana team he has seen since becoming Penn State’s head coach.
The way the Hoosiers threw on the Lions last year terrified them, and they expect Michael Penix Jr. to expand on that. Beyond that, this is not a benign nonconference opener at a friendly Beaver Stadium. And from the larger view, having the season taken away and then restored gave the players life, particularly tight end Pat Freiermuth, defensive end Shaka Toney and safety Lamont Wade.
- 4.) BREW: That said, Ohio State looms on the schedule in Week 2. Is there any chance that Penn State might be looking past the Hoosiers?
WOGENRICH: None. Penn State might not play well, might make mistakes and might not have the timing of its offense down well enough in Game 1. But the reason won’t be that Ohio State is coming in Game 2. James Franklin doesn’t tweet out the game week’s opponent 28 times just to check the responses.
- 5.) BREW: If Indiana were to pull off the upset, how surprised would you be?
WOGENRICH: Not surprised at all, and I’m not sure how big an upset it would be. Indiana’s offense can run score-for-score with Penn State’s, which might be the kind of game it wants to play. And Penn State’s offense, for all the excitement Kirk Ciarrocca brings, hasn’t run a play against another team in 10 months. I really have no idea what to expect, and kind of like it that way.