Penn State hits pivotal three-game stretch

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State might never truly get over its losses to Ohio State and Michigan State this year, and nobody would blame the Nittany Lions.

While those games defined the first half of the season, however, it’s a pivotal three-game stretch beginning Saturday with hosting No. 18 Iowa that will make or break their 2018 season.

The Nittany Lions took down Indiana in a close game last weekend to get back in the win column after the back-to-back losses, but the Hawkeyes will be looking to notch their first road win over a ranked team this season and their fourth victory in a row.

Iowa enters the game with a 6-1 record, 3-1 in the Big Ten, with its only loss coming at home against Wisconsin, ranked No. 18 at the time. The Hawkeyes will be on the road for only the third time this season and make their first visit to Penn State since 2016, a 41-14 loss in Beaver Stadium.

A win against Iowa will give the Nittany Lions momentum heading into a matchup at Michigan next weekend. The Wolverines, currently ranked No. 5, have been dominant nearly every game since losing to Notre Dame in their first game of the season.

It’s quite possible Penn State suffers from nightmares of their last trip to Ann Arbor in 2016, where they found themselves on the wrong end of a 49-10 shellacking. The Nittany Lions were able to dominate when the Wolverines came on the road last year with a 42-13 victory.

This year’s edition of Penn State-Michigan will feature two vastly different teams than what they were last season and also two teams looking to spoil each other’s season. A win by the Nittany Lions would all-but thwart the Big Ten Championship dreams of the Wolverines, while a Penn State loss would put a New Year’s Six bowl game out of the picture.

And even a win wouldn’t guarantee anything, as the Nittany Lions still must face Wisconsin for the first time since the 2016 Big Ten Championship game, won by Penn State, 38-31.

The 20th-ranked Badgers were upset by BYU early in the season and have only lost to Michigan since. Wisconsin hasn’t played at Beaver Stadium since 2012, a 24-21 Penn State victory.

Barring unforeseen circumstances and a barrage of upsets over the next three weeks, the Nittany Lions and their next three opponents will be ranked within the top-20 at game time.

The Nittany Lions have played, at times, like a team ranked in the top-10 nationally — most games prior to Ohio State — and also a team that isn’t worthy of even a top-25 ranking — see their game against Michigan State. The up-and-down nature of Penn State this season fits the expected narrative of a young team.

However, the Nittany Lions have quarterback Trace McSorley at their disposal, and he has been a major part of their back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl appearances and their Big Ten Championship, so the experience is there in places.

Simply put, the potential is there for Penn State to go through this pivotal stretch 3-0 or 0-3.

For the Nittany Lions to make it through this stretch 3-0, they’ll need their defense to continue to play at the level they did against Ohio State and Michigan State. Offensively, Penn State needs to get into a groove early, both calling plays and executing them.

Too often this season, drives have been halted based on drops by receivers or bad penalties, and against better teams, those flaws have been exploited quite a bit. Against these three teams, the offense has to execute smart, efficient game plans that feature McSorley in space as a runner, as well as wide receiver KJ Hamler. They also must give running back Miles Sanders holes to run through.

If the Nittany Lions can do that, in addition to sprinkling the ball around to the other receivers without them dropping the ball, Penn State has as good of a chance as any team to make another climb back into the top-10 in the country. If they can’t, they’ll fall short of their lofty expectations and find themselves finishing their season in a lower-tier bowl game.