Critical First Month Awaits Nittany Lions
During James Franklin’s press conference introducing him as Penn State’s new head football coach in January 2014, he provided plenty of memorable sound bytes.
Here’s the one that comes to mind as the new season is only days away.
“Our recruiting philosophy, we are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region.”
The phrase “Dominate the State” instantly got thrown on T-shirts, and although he prefaced the statement in regards to recruiting, those three catchy words are certainly relevant for Penn State’s immediate future.
For Franklin and the football program, September 2016 is the opportune time to do just that on the field.
If Penn State can claim college football ownership of Pennsylvania during the first month, then the match-up at Michigan on Sept. 24 suddenly becomes an early-season showdown with possible late-season implications. Split the two games against the in-state foes, or lose both, and an even record (or worse) seems likely going into October and the meat of the Big Ten slate.
The early part of the schedule features the Sept. 3 season opener against Kent State at Beaver Stadium. Then a visit to Heinz Field for the clash against Pitt, a home game against Temple, and then the trip to Ann Arbor the following week.
At last check, Penn State’s a 20-½ point favorite in its opener, though is a 7-point underdog against Pitt. That’s the critical contest. Beat the Panthers, who are threating to become nationally relevant under second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi, and the Nittany Lions have momentum and a 2-0 record going against Temple. And at 3-0, anything can happen at The Big House.
Below is a snapshot of each game in September, how often Penn State wins that contest, and an overview of what fans can expect.
Sept. 3 vs. Kent State
Penn State wins this game: 88 percent of the time
What fans can expect: I have a feeling this one’s going to be fun. Season openers are usually full of uncertainty, and that’s true here. Though with new starting quarterback Trace McSorley running first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s upbeat system, the Nittany Lions will look like a new team right away. And with kickoff at 3:30 p.m., fans have plenty of time to absorb everything that goes along with tailgating, and the student section should be close to packed by the time the game starts. McSorley will get the ball to playmakers on the outside, and after splitting first-team reps with Tommy Stevens throughout most of training camp, expect him to stay in for the entire game, even if Penn State has a comfortable lead in the fourth.
Sept. 10 at Pittsburgh
Penn State wins this game: 51 percent of the time
What fans can expect: If you’re in the stands, ugliness. Hopefully, I’m wrong, though with alcohol sales planned for the renewal of this in-state rivalry, I have a feeling a lot of pent-up nastiness is going to come alive at Heinz Field. Penn State fans gobbled up Pitt season tickets because it was cheaper than simply buying a one-game ticket, so fan support should be close to split. Take away the three points a home team typically receives in the spread, and odds-makers have this a four-point game. Essentially, a field goal separates Penn State and Pitt. In that close of a margin, I take the team with the best player, and that’s the Nittany Lions and star sophomore running back Saquon Barkley.
Sept. 17 vs. Temple
Penn State wins this game: 75 percent of the time
What fans can expect: Temple earned an impressive 10-2 mark in the regular season last year; the Owls lost their conference championship and bowl game to finish 10-4. Do fans remember that, and even if they do, does that make last year’s season-opening 27-10 loss any better? I’ve seen some folks cite revenge as a source of motivation for the Lions in this game, but I don’t buy it. Does Penn State really need revenge as motivation to beat a team it’s regularly dominated since anyone can remember? Perhaps some of that is festering on the surface, but Penn State has more lofty goals this season than to beat a team that plays in the American Athletic Conference. It’s difficult to gauge whether or not Temple will drop off from last year’s pace; the Owls lost 26 seniors and linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy last year as the nation’s top defensive player and was drafted by the Steelers. My guess is Penn State will wind up close to a touchdown favorite, and win by around that margin.
Sept. 24 at Michigan
Penn State wins this game: 22 percent of the time
What fans can expect: Chances are Penn State won’t win 10 games or compete for a Big Ten championship this season, but if the Lions do, this is when it’ll first become apparent. If Penn State can create some momentum by winning its first three games, this contest will be a must-watch for the entire conference. Even at 2-1, this game probably loses some luster since it’s so early in the season. Michigan, which is ranked No. 7 in the AP pre-season poll, will almost certainly win its first three games. If the Lions can match that, an early showdown of unbeaten teams with national appeal becomes a great way to see just how far Penn State can go this season.
Franklin and the administration has emphasized that this season is being treated as a true Year 1, with scholarship reductions gone. Will fans give Franklin that same grace period? That’s unclear, though they should. To come out of what the Lions did without a losing season and maintain continued success in the classroom and in the community, that should mean something.
Actually, that should mean everything.