UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State enters this weekend 4-0 overall, 1-0 in the Big Ten and as the No. 9 team in the country.
The only thing keeping the Nittany Lions from their potential thus far has been themselves, and miscues and mistakes continuously being made eventually could haunt them as the games begin to be more meaningful.
Penn State enters Saturday’s matchup against Ohio State averaging 55.5 points per game, which makes them the top scoring offense in college football. The Buckeyes are right behind them at 54.5 points per game.
Yet, that statistic could be better.
The Nittany Lions defense is allowing only 19.5 points per game, good enough for No. 35 in the nation but still behind teams such as Georgia Southern (31st), Kansas (27th) Fresno State (19th), and, oh — Ohio State (23rd).
That statistic should be and needs to be better.
The team giving Penn State the most trouble so far has been themselves. It has been the Nittany Lions who have struggled defensively late against Appalachian State, in the first half against Pitt and for two-and-a-half quarters against Illinois, all thanks to self-imposed wounds.
Penn State has had at least six touchdowns called back due to penalties…SIX! That’s a stat that makes coaches from middle school to the NFL cringe. It goes without saying the Nittany Lions will have to thwart that statistic Saturday night against the Buckeyes if they want to come away victorious.
Offensively, aside from dropped passes early and the weekly tradition of having a touchdown called back because of a devastating penalty, Penn State has looked every bit as good as advertised coming into this season.
On defense, though, there have been growing pains that were to be expected with a defense that boasts more youth and athleticism than experience.
And yes, allowing 19.5 points per game isn’t necessarily terrible, however, it could and should be better.
The Nittany Lions have given up 30 points or more in only one game this season, the opener against Appalachian State. Illinois was the next closest to sniff the 30 point mark with 24. Pitt and Kent State scored six and 10, respectively.
Keeping opposing drives alive thanks to costly penalties has been a weakness of the young Penn State defense through the first four games.
Kent State and Illinois used the Penn State mistakes to their advantage by turning them into points against the Nittany Lions. For the Illini, it kept them in the game until the third quarter.
Three offside penalties on the same drive, two of which were on third down, led to the lone touchdown for Kent State. It was a Trace McSorley interception that led to the field goal for the Golden Flashes after receiving good field position.
Against Illinois, Penn State went for a 44-yard field goal with a brutal headwind and missed it, setting up the first touchdown for the Illini. On the second score for Illinois, the Nittany Lions had a pass interference penalty called against John Reid before forcing a fumble.
Penn State subsequently fumbled on the next drive, and it led to a touchdown on the next play from scrimmage for Illinois. It was another McSorley interception that set up an Illini field goal prior to the end of the first half.
Faced with a third-and-9, trailing by four points and with the ball at their own 41-yard line, Illinois dropped back to pass and threw an incompletion. But the drive didn’t end there, as Cam Brown was called with a roughing the passer penalty keeping the Illini drive alive. Illinois would end up in the end zone for the final time on that drive.
As the Nittany Lions get deeper into Big Ten play, the margin of error gets smaller and smaller, as Big Ten Championship Game and College Football Playoff hopes hang in the balance.
Those hopes face one of their biggest obstacles Saturday against the No. 4-ranked Buckeyes, the first ranked team Penn State plays this year. Should the Nittany Lions be able to stay out of their own way, it will do a big part toward coming out victorious and on the right path to championship glory.