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Is Penn State Rounding Into a Big Ten Contender?

The Lions appear headed toward another 5-0 start. Then the conference schedule intensifies.

Penn State coach James Franklin almost always chooses data over his gut but also allows his gut to respond to data. On Saturday, he didn't know which was right.

In their 33-14 victory over Central Michigan, the Lions won Franklin's four key statistical categories: field position, turnover margin, explosive plays and penalties. We'll throw in time of possession, third-down conversions and sacks for good measure.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it felt like this," Franklin said, "but we won all of them."

Franklin's "feeling" illustrates the difference between Penn State's 4-0 starts of 2021 and '22. The seasons have followed similar maps, with a conference road win to start, a comfortable MAC home-opener and a lethargic non-conference closer.

The primary difference involves Auburn. Penn State held on for a 28-20 win in the 2021 White Out and uncorked one of coach James Franklin's best road wins this season. Now, the Lions return to Big Ten play against a lethargic Northwestern that is winless since beating Nebraska in Ireland.

As a result, Penn State has every expectation to reach 5-0, just as it did last year. Only this start is quite different.

Here's a look at where Penn State stands through the season's first month, where it's headed and whether it can contend in the Big Ten.

One key difference: Penn State's run game

The Lions' rushing offense is playing demonstrably better this season. The whole operation is an upgrade.

Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is playing to his offense's strengths by going under center more often and using more tosses and sweep. He's playing the right personnel. Freshmen Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen are the top backs, but Devyn Ford and Keyvone Lee (injured Saturday) have carved important veteran roles.

And the line's left side (tackle Olu Fashanu and guard Landon Tengwall) mostly has blocked the run game assertively.

That means huge numbers upgrades. Through four games, Penn State is averaging 185 yards rushing, 70 more than last season. That's with an almost equal number of carries per game (34.25 this season, 33.25 last year).

They also have been much better running on 3rd-and-short, averaging 9.1 yards per carry. Which gives Franklin and Yurcich more comfort doing so.

Penn State running back Kaytron Allen

Penn State's Kaytron Allen has not lost a yard in 36 carries through his freshman season. He rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown in the Lions' 33-14 win over Central Michigan.

Manny Diaz is doing what he promised

"Who wants to play passive defense?" defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said before the season. "Doesn't make sense."

So far, the Lions have been anything but passive. They have produced nine turnovers in four games, including eight over the last two. They also lead the nation, by a huge margin, in passes defended with 41. The next closest teams are Illinois and Pitt, tied with 25.

Granted, Penn State also has faced a Big Ten-high 189 attempts, and its October opponents lean heavily on the run. Still, this expanded secondary (it's playing five cornerbacks and three safeties) has made an even bigger defensive impact than projected.

James Franklin was right about the freshmen

Fans know about running backs Allen and Nicholas Singleton, who rejuvenated the offense. They also have embraced quarterback Drew Allar, greeting him with huge cheers at Beaver Stadium.

But this freshman class has contributed across the field. Abdul Carter, who arrived on campus in June, quickly has become one of the team's better linebackers. Diaz found ways to get him and Curtis Jacobs on the field together Saturday, though they play the same position.

Defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton made two sacks in four plays against Central Michigan. Receivers Omari Evans has climbed the depth chart, as have linemen Drew Shelton and Vega Ioane.

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In all, 15 of the 25 players in Penn State's 2022 recruiting class, which ranked sixth nationally, have played. That's a huge number and represents that the future is now.

The breakout stars

Brenton Strange: Penn State's injury situation at tight end required one player to take charge. That's been Strange, who is tied for the team lead with three receiving touchdowns and has improved his blocking.

Olu Fashanu: The Lions didn't get great left-tackle play last season. Fashanu, in his first season as a first-time starter, has been among Pro Football Focus' highest-graded tackles in the country.

Zakee Wheatley: The safety so often puts himself around the ball. He has two interceptions and a forced fumble in four games.

Chop Robinson: The sacks will come for Penn State's best pass-rusher.

Barney Amor: Having a punter slide smoothly into Jordan's Stout role has been a welcome surprise for Penn State's special teams.

Penn State tight end Brenton Strange

Penn State tight end Brenton Strange, pictured with former Lions tight end Pat Freiermuth, has caught three touchdown passes this season.

What's next for Penn State

After hosting Northwestern, the Lions get a bye before running their gauntlet against three of the Big Ten's best teams:

  • Oct. 15: at Michigan
  • Oct. 22: vs. Minnesota (White Out)
  • Oct. 29: vs. Ohio State

One common denominator to note: Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State are the Big Ten's top rushing teams, in that order. Minnesota has rushed for 17 touchdowns while allowing none through four games.

Consider the competition, sure, but those three weeks will determine whether Penn State is playing on New Year's Eve, in a playoff semifinal, or on Jan. 2.

Read More

Penn State inches closer to the top 10

The Penn State-Central Michigan report card

For Penn State's offense, a glaring lapse vs. Central Michigan

What we learned from Penn State's 33-14 win over Central Michigan

Penn State approves expanded beer sales at Beaver Stadium

Penn State is capitalizing on Chad Powers fever

James Franklin pitches new athlete dorms at Penn State

AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.