The promise in Penn State football: Two steps to conquer 2022 schedule
An opening game shouldn't mean everything.
Falling down in prime time at Purdue on Sept. 1 won't necessarily keep Penn State from doing anything that it really wants to accomplish for the season, certainly not in theory.
And yet this performance is more important, more telling than usual in regards to a must-have recovery in 2022. A game not only used to judge the physical nature of this team but maybe, even more importantly, its psychological one.
It should provide crucial insight into its senior quarterback and that underperforming offensive line and its new defensive leader and ...
This opener is a different kind of springboard than maybe any other under James Franklin.
While Penn State owns a lot of promise, much more than its combined 11-11 record from the past two years would indicate, it must accomplish a few distinct things in yet another Big Ten opener on the road.
It needs QB Sean Clifford to make smart decisions and eliminate road game blunders (bad interceptions at Indiana in 2020; at Iowa in 2021).
It needs defensive linemen PJ Mustipher and Adisa Isaac to be at full-go, top speed.
It must be able to push the ball on the ground.
Those things will set a tone that should create a successful night that could lead to another 5-0 start.
Because the Nittany Lions' schedule provides the proper kind of opening to build momentum behind acclaimed new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and an improving running game. Both need time. That will be provided by home games against two mid-pack Mid-American Conference teams (Ohio, Central Michigan) and offensive-impaired Northwestern and a trip to regrouping, unsettled Auburn.
Penn State should win each.
Which will lead to the tell-all middle of the schedule.
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Those consecutive weeks against Michigan in Ann Arbor and Minnesota (White Out) and Ohio State in Beaver Stadium? They will ultimately decide where these Lions go.
Performing well enough in that stretch will cement their place in the Big Ten title race and protect a shot at their first playoff appearance. It should provide enough charge to conquer the expected "letdown" road trip to Indiana that follows.
It would give the Lions all the incentive needed to stay motivated and sharp during the relatively smooth ending (Maryland, Rutgers, Michigan State).
This isn't about projecting an undefeated or one-loss season.
Rather, Penn State desperately needs a serious recovery (at least nine victories) to keep the staff together, to protect an impressive recruiting run and reinvigorate trust in Franklin.
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It all starts with that rare season/Big Ten opener on the first Thursday night of September. That trip to West Lafayette, Indiana against an All-America-type quarterback will mean even more than usual to a program that must prove its reputation, again.
Do the Lions really own enough healthy stars? Can they fix their nagging issues? Are they simply better, as they believe, than the last two years?
Proving is necessary when you suddenly can't win more games than you lose. And when fundamental qualities like blocking and running the football and employing multiple standout linebackers at Linebacker U. are continually questioned, and for good reason.
This team needs feel-good momentum and belief more than ever. Needs it in order to grow into something really good − even if a lot of people won't trust that its possible.
This a chance for a new start, a new feeling that could help lead a team that just may need to believe in what it can do while so many are complaining about what it can't.
To embrace this: The promise of a schedule, of a season, open to whatever they want it to be.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState. pp