Distractions provide the latest test for the Nittany Lions
Tonight’s visit to Iowa is a great test for Penn State on several fronts.
Number one, after landing in the top 10 for the first time this season, the Nittany Lions will find out how they handle prosperity with the campus slapping their backs and heaping praise on them.
There’s less pressure when a team has not raised its expectation bar, and through this 5-0 start, the Lions have energized their fan base and, at least so far, put their consensus preseason 8-4ish predictions in their rear-view mirror.
Most figured 5-0 was possible if not likely, but the Nittany Lions’ dominating defense and Sean Clifford’s smooth transition have accelerated the enthusiasm heading into this first toss-up game.
Secondly, tonight will be an indication of how Penn State deals with distractions.
James Franklin likes to tweet “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa, Iowa,” (or fill in the opponent) every Sunday night, but the Lions spent much of this week focusing on more than just the Hawkeyes.
They opened the week by addressing the unfortunate letter from an alumnus that was sent to special teams ace Jonathan Sutherland and seemingly aimed at some of the African-American players, criticizing them for their dreadlocks.
One of Sutherland’s teammates — Antonio Shelton — called the letter racist, and tweeted it out, which brought a collective show of support from fans and the Penn State camp.
James Franklin opened his Tuesday press conference with a passionate stance on how Penn State proudly represents a melting pot of races and religions and cultures that bring a united front on Saturday afternoons.
It was Franklin at his best as he clearly turned the uninvited adversity to opportunity and admirably underscored Penn State’s values to the college football and sports world.
Maybe the situation will serve to further bring this team together.
If that wasn’t enough to deflect attention from “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa, Iowa,” how about the Lions’ appearance as the featured team on HBO’s 24/7 College Football, a 60-minute behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Lions’ weeklong preparation for Purdue?
Though there wasn’t much in it that most close observers didn’t know — other than a peek at Franklin’s home, his stated goal to be the first African-American college football coach to win a national championship and the custom of no talking by the players, only the coaches, during Friday walk throughs — it was a unique, well-done and unfiltered look.
But it, too, took some singular focus off “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa, Iowa.”
Whether the combination has a negative effect en route to a 6-0 record, we’ll see.
Regardless of the off-the-field shift, Penn State still must answer the bell physically tonight.
And it faces a fascinating matchup against a patient team, led by its old-school coach, Kirk Ferentz, who no doubt will be trying to keep the Nittany Lions’ offense off the field.
Time of possession is considered an overrated statistic, but you can’t score if you don’t have the ball, and Iowa is second in the nation in time of possession, averaging 35.40 per game.
Also consider the Hawkeyes come off a horrific showing at Michigan in which they lost 10-3 and managed a grand total of one yard rushing. And the Wolverines, at least proven by Wisconsin, are not that good.
You know the Hawks, returning home, will be eager to engage their fans with some evening entertainment, and the Lions will have to be fully engaged from the start.
So it shouldn’t take long to judge whether their last few days took their toll.
In rolling to a 5-0 record, Penn State has beaten several teams that are struggling — Idaho (2-4), Buffalo (2-4) and Purdue (1-4) — and crushed starry-eyed Maryland (3-2).
The Lions’ toughest test came against Pitt, which is 4-2 with a strong showing in a 17-10 loss to the Nits as well as quality wins over UCF and at Duke.
Iowa should be closer to Pitt than anybody the Lions have played so far.
Franklin mentioned on his radio show Thursday night that he’d like to pursue some neutral-site games with the non-conference schedule, rather than home-and-homes.
Some of the home-and-homes currently scheduled for upcoming seasons include Auburn, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
Franklin mentioned Met Life Stadium (Meadowlands) and Washington D.C. (FedExField) as potential venues. The guess here is he’s targeting the Virginia Tech series to be played in D.C.
Personally, I see this hurting the home schedule, which in the years of a neutral-site game would be limited to Big Ten opponents and a steady diet of Mid-American Conference teams.
Franklin said this kind of out-of-the-box thinking is important to continue to raise the profile of the program and noted that Alabama has only played one non-conference game outside of the state since 2010 (ironically, that was a trip to Penn State in 2011).
Alabama has opened its season with the following neutral-site games since 2012: Michigan, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Southern Cal, Florida State, Louisville and Duke.
If the Lions can’t play like the Tide, they apparently want to think like them.
Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at 814-946-7527 or by email at email@example.com.