Penn State Ranked No. 4 In First College Football Playoff Rankings Of The Season

Penn State’s schedule over the past three games has been a gauntlet. 

The Nittany Lions remain unbeaten after navigating through a tricky primetime win at Iowa, holding off Michigan in the White Out and exercising some demons with a 28-7 win at Michigan State. 

While further tests await, including this weekend’s clash with surprise unbeaten Minnesota and a showdown at “The Horseshoe” with Ohio State, Penn State is right in the thick of the College Football Playoff race through eight games. 

On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff committee revealed its first Top-25 of the season, with Coach James Franklin’s team checking in at No. 4. 

This marks the first time the program has been ranked inside the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings at any point.

Penn State trails No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama at the top of the rankings, but edged the defending national champs Clemson at No. 5 and Georgia at No. 6.

This weekend’s opponent, the Golden Gophers, appeared at No 17. Other Big Ten companions Wisconsin (13), Michigan (14) and Iowa (18) were all also ranked. 

You can see the full rankings at the bottom of this story. 

A berth in the College Football Playoff for Penn State could hinge on the Nov. 23 matchup in Columbus against the Buckeyes. The winner of that game will almost certainly win the Big Ten East Division and earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. 

Win the Big Ten title game and Penn State is essentially a lock to make the Playoff as an unbeaten conference champion. 

Still, a path does exist for the loser of the Penn State-Ohio State game to still find its way into the committee’s final four. 

In the Nittany Lions’ case — with wins over the likes of the Wolverines, Hawkeyes, Pitt (Yes, the Panthers have been solid since their loss to Penn State in September), and potentially Minnesota and Indiana  — their final resume as a one-loss team is going to be just as strong as any other contending team at the end of the season.

Penn State would obviously need some help in that scenario, namely needing the likes of Georgia, Oregon, Utah and Oklahoma to lose again between now and the final selection show on Dec. 8.

There’s plenty of football to be played. And all of that being said, my focus is on Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota.

I’m just eager to see Penn State go 1-0 this week.

We Are! 

— Vincent Lungaro ’18

Full Rankings 

1. Ohio State

2. LSU

3. Alabama

4. Penn State

5. Clemson

6. Georgia

7. Oregon

8. Utah

9. Oklahoma

10. Florida

11. Auburn

12. Baylor 

13. Wisconsin

14. Michigan

15. Notre Dame

16. Kansas State

17.  Minnesota

18. Iowa

19.  Wake Forest

20. Cincinnati

21. Memphis

22. Boise State

23. Oklahoma State

24. Navy

25. SMU

Penn State Preview: Michigan State

Penn State v. Michigan State 2018 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 6 Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) vs. Michigan State (4-3, 2-2), 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Spartan Stadium, which features a capacity of 75,005.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 54 degrees with some sunshine giving way to clouds and rain at times in the afternoon.

The line: Penn State –6.

Last week: Penn State outlasted Michigan 28-21, while Michigan State had a bye.

All-time series: Michigan State leads 17-15-1.

Last meeting (2018): Michigan State escaped Beaver Stadium with a 21-17 win.

Throwback classic (2016): We’re sending it back only two years, to when Penn State demolished Michigan State 45-12 to win the Big Ten East Division title, before winning the conference championship a week later against Wisconsin in Indianapolis.

Overview: Penn State is 7-0 for the fifth time since joining the Big Ten, and while the Nittany Lions have created a ton of momentum the last few weeks (and really, the entire season), Saturday looms ahead. Michigan State has been outscored 72-10 in its last two games — losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin — and that stat actually makes the Spartans seem more dangerous. That’s how odd this game has been since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.

Penn State wins if: Sean Clifford continues to protect the ball. The first-year starter has thrown only two interceptions, and the home crowd will be thirsting for a win Saturday. It’s been almost a month since the Spartans’ last victory, a 40-31 win over Indiana on Sept. 28, and the same amount of time since Michigan State’s last home game. The atmosphere should be plenty rowdy, though won’t be anything Clifford hasn’t seen before. Protect the ball, and stay unbeaten: That’s the mantra Saturday for the superstar sophomore.

Michigan State wins if: the Spartans’ offensive line gives quarterback Brian Lewerke enough time to have downfield success. Penn State ranks fourth nationally in rush defense per game (66 yards), and Michigan State doesn’t appear to have the ground game to make it work Saturday. The Spartans average a respectable 117 yards per contest, though nothing that’ll shift the dynamic of the game. Unless a team can gain 200-plus yards against Penn State, and it doesn’t appear the Spartans have that potential, the air attack is the best bet. That’s what Michigan State will need Saturday.

Keep an eye on: Noah Cain (yes, we’re going with the true freshman running back again). Saturday will be a game when James Franklin might want to (have to?) divert from the running back rotation and go with a bruising back if the game turns into a contest of one grinding possession after another. Cain leads Penn State with 329 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Trivia tidbit: Though Michigan State leads the overall series, Penn State is ahead 14-9 since joining the Big Ten.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 34, Michigan State 30

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 30, Michigan State 21

Penn State connection remains strong for chapter president

Penn State @ Michigan State (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Michigan Chapter President Gary Wade welcomed alumni and friends to East Lansing in 2017. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Not much has changed for Gary Wade ’77 over the years. And that’s good.

Wade heads up the Penn State Alumni Association’s Michigan Chapter, serving as president since 2012.

“I’m involved for the same reasons I first got involved, it’s exciting,” Wade said. “I really enjoyed my years at Penn State. Studying was hard, there was a certain grind to get your degree, but there’s a certain joy to the Penn State community.

“You meet another person, and you’ve never met them before, and as soon as you have a common bond as Penn Staters, you enjoy sharing stories — even if they’re decades apart.”

Whether the stories revolve around studying at the library or attending a football game, “the thrills are the same over the years,” Wade said.

That consistency has served the chapter well, most notably through a core group of board members. The chapter successfully holds repeat events, like television watch parties, annual member socials, and student sendoff picnics, with Wade pointing out that things run more smoothly with minimal turnover.

One of the main contributors is Bob Veres ’74, the chapter’s treasurer, and as Wade describes, “sports guru.” Veres has been active with the chapter since the 1970s, securing football tickets for numerous games and overseeing various contests for the Michigan group.

Complementing these stalwarts, the chapter has expanded its efforts with the help of some personnel additions.

“We do have a couple of new people on board, and that’s made things a bit more exciting,” Wade said. “They’ve come in with ideas and made a few changes with what we do.”

For one example, Wade pointed to Brodie Schultz ’15, ’17g and his work toward organizing a THON golf outing each of the past few years. Schultz helped the chapter exceed its goal for each of the past two years with the golf event, raising more than $25,000 combined.

Additionally, the new members have increased the chapter’s presence on social media, and you can follow the Michigan Chapter on Facebook.

“They like Penn State, the networking, and the benefit of meeting up with Penn Staters in different fields and degrees,” Wade said. “They all have the common core value of wanting to help Penn State and wanting to help the chapter.”

Sometimes, these demographics merge: longstanding board members contributing to recent graduates getting involved.

The chapter has worked diligently with scholarship fundraising, awarding $13,000 last summer to nine students, and awarding more than $83,000 over the last decade. The scholarships benefit Penn State students hailing from Michigan, such as Alexandra Fahoome ’16, who received a scholarship in 2015. Fahoome returned to Michigan after graduating and now leads the Michigan Chapter’s communications efforts.

Penn State @ Michigan State (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Families will enjoy time with the Penn State Cheerleaders and Nittany Lions at Friday night’s mixer (photo from 2017 event in East Lansing). Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Wade and his group will be busy this weekend, when undefeated and No. 6 Penn State comes to East Lansing for a showdown against the Spartans.

Friday night, the chapter will host an alumni mixer at a local restaurant. Then, there’s a block of tickets available for members for the game. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Spartan Stadium.

The atmosphere Friday night is more manageable for alumni and friends to get photos and some face time with the cheer team and Nittany Lion, who typically headline each away game mixer that Alumni Association affiliate groups host. It’s a little less hectic, Wade said, and Penn Staters have the opportunity for some meaningful interaction.

Wade has a little more time for himself now, too. He retired last summer after 41 years at Chrysler, a job he landed out of college because of his Penn State degree. He was recruited by another Penn State grad, George Miller ’59. Miller is still involved with the Michigan Chapter, so Wade continues to see him on a regular basis

It’s those types of connections that have enriched Wade’s Penn State experience, one that transcends decades, geographic regions, and different perspectives from generation to generation.

“The Penn State community in Michigan and other places I’ve been, it’s a great community to be involved in,” Wade said.

There are nearly 300 Alumni Association affiliate groups, spanning geographic regions, academic colleges, and shared interests. You can view a full list and connect with Penn Staters anytime at alumni.psu.edu/groups.

Penn State Preview: Iowa

Each week throughout the 2019 season, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays. 

Game details: No. 10/9 Penn State @ No 17/18 Iowa, 7:30 p.m., broadcast on ABC

Venue: Kinnick Stadium 

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): Kick-off temperature of 49 degrees, mostly clear skies. 

The line: Penn State – 3.5 

Last week: Penn State won its Homecoming matchup against Purdue, 35-7. Iowa lost a defensive struggle at Michigan, 10-3. 

All-time series: Penn State leads 16-12. Penn State has won five consecutive meetings. 

Last meeting (2018): Penn State held off Iowa in a cold, sloppy afternoon game in which Trace McSorley gutted out an injury he suffered in the second quarter. A timely interception at the goal line by Nick Scott, and a late fourth-quarter stand helped the Nittany Lions hold of the Hawkeyes, 30-24.

Throwback classic (2007): Having suffered five-straight losses in the series, Penn State won comfortably 27-7 on Oct. 6, 2007. The win marked just the second time in seven meetings that Joe Paterno had gotten the better of Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes went on to win the next three meetings. 

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Overview: Two of the best defenses in the Big Ten will go head to head at Kinnick. Penn State is the fourth-ranked total defense in the country, while Iowa is fifth-best. This game will probably come down to which offense can make the most big plays. The Hawkeyes were dreadful against Michigan, while Penn State has scored 94 points combined in its first two Big Ten games. That being said, Iowa’s defense will be a much more difficult test for Sean Clifford and the Nittany Lions’ offense than the Maryland and Purdue defenses were. 

Penn State wins if: The Nittany Lions defense can bottle up the Hawkeyes run game. Penn State’s front seven has feasted through five games, leading the nation in sacks and tackles-for-loss, albeit all against unranked teams. Iowa is going to want to win this game by running the football and controlling the clock. If the Nittany Lions bottle up the Hawkeyes rushing attack and get after Nate Stanley, who was flustered by a blitz-heavy scheme from the Wolverines a week ago, they can walk out of Kinnick victorious. 

Iowa wins if: It can limit Penn State’s big-play ability. The Nittany Lions offense thrives on chunk plays. Getting the ball down field and in space to the likes of KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson, and others is what makes this offense tick. As good as the Hawkeyes defense has been, they’ve only registered seven team sacks this season. Led by defensive end AJ Epensa, Iowa is going to have to get after Clifford and limit the time he has to find his big weapons. 

Count On: A close game. The history of this matchup will tell you, these two teams usually play a close game, especially when they play at Kinnick Stadium. Penn State isn’t going to blowout Iowa the way it did Maryland and Purdue. It’s going to be another tight contest with a handful of key plays deciding the outcome of the game. 

Keep an eye on: Noah Cain. The freshman had a breakout performance against Purdue a week ago with 105 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Penn State is going to continue its running back committee approach, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lean on the physical running style of Cain a little bit more this week. 

Trivia tidbit: As consistent of winners as Penn State and Iowa have been over the years, both programs only have one Heisman trophy winners to their names. John Cappelletti is Penn State’s lone winner, securing the award in 1973. Nile Kinnick, the namesake of Iowa’s stadium, won the Heisman in 1939. 

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 31,  Iowa 21

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 27, Iowa 17

Penn State Preview: Pitt

Penn State at Pitt  (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

 

Game details: No. 13/11 Penn State vs. Pitt, noon kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

 

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 292-74. 

 

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 74 degrees, with a few showers.

 

The line: Penn State – 17.5

 

Last week: Penn State used an explosive second half to upend Buffalo 45-13, while Pitt outlasted Ohio 20-10.

 

All-time series: Penn State leads 52-43-4.

 

Last meeting (2018): Penn State dominated Pitt in the rain at Heinz Field, winning 51-6.

 

Throwback classic (1981): Once upon a time, Pitt’s football program was nationally relevant. The Panthers were ranked No. 1 in 1981, but not after the Nittany Lions overcame an early two-touchdown deficit to score 48 consecutive points, resulting in a 48-14 victory that dethroned and derailed Pitt. Todd Blackledge outdueled Dan Marino, completing 12-of-23 passes for 262 yards, and two touchdowns to Kenny Jackson. The defense intercepted Marino four times, and the Panthers lost three fumbles. You can read more about the game in this New York Times article.

 

Overview: Here it is, the 100th and last scheduled meeting between Penn State and Pitt. Did this use to be a rivalry? Sure? Is it anymore? Eh, not really. The game is still important, just as much as Idaho and Buffalo, though not more beyond that. As James Franklin said earlier this week, players aren’t choosing Penn State because of the outcome of one game, so there aren’t recruiting implications like before. And it’s a non-conference game. Pitt won in 2016, and Penn State went on to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl. The Panthers, meanwhile, finished the year 8-5 with a loss to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl. So, this game doesn’t have lasting ramifications like it once did. 

 

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions establish the running game. Most likely, Penn State will have a handful of explosive plays, with Sean Clifford proving he can throw a nice deep ball. However, Penn State can’t depend on those plays to win. A solid ground attack should go a long way to ensure the Nittany Lions win their third straight in this series.

 

Pitt wins if: the Panthers can put together sustained drives all game. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett struggled last year — indicated by the six points the Panthers scored — though he threw a career-high 321 yards in last week’s victory over the Bobcats. Pitt will need that level of playmaking to have a chance Saturday.

 

Keep an eye on: KJ Hamler. The speedy and electric wide receiver scored on a jet sweep in last year’s game at Heinz Field, and he’s spoken about having his role expanded. Basically, the idea is to get Hamler the ball as much as possible, put him in open space, and let him do what he does best.

 

Trivia tidbit: Penn State has won nine straight games over non-conference opponents.

 

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 42, Pitt 21

 

Vince Lungaro: Penn State 38, Pitt 17

Nittany Lion Look Back (And Ahead)

Buffalo and Pitt

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — It was the proverbial tale of two halves in the second game of the season for Penn State. The Nittany Lions struggled in the first two quarters against a Buffalo team fresh off a 10-win season. Some fans showered the players and coaches with boos as they jogged off the field and into the locker room, not hiding their displeasure in seeing their team down 10-7. 

The second half was a completely different story, though. Penn State blew past the Bulls in dominant fashion, outscoring their MAC foe 38-3 in the second half for a 45-13 win. It was an offensive, and defensive, explosion that showed what the Nittany Lions can become when they’re clicking. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look back at Saturday’s win before looking ahead to Week 3 opponent Pittsburgh. 

Looking Back

Star Of The Game: TE Pat Freiermuth  

After being held to a single catch for negative yardage in the first half, Pat Freiermuth rebounded for a seven-catch, 99-yard performance in the second frame. He said he asked offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen to throw his way more in the second half, and they seemingly obliged. It wasn’t so much he was frustrated with his lack of targets, and more so he felt he was someone the team could lean on to get a spark on offense. The second play of the third quarter saw Clifford connect with Freiermuth for 17 yards to the Buffalo 48-yard line. On Penn State’s second drive, after a John Reid interception return for a touchdown and a punt from Buffalo, Clifford flicked a throw over the middle and Freiermuth did the rest, racing past the safety and into the end zone. In a flash, the Nittany Lions were back in control, 21-10. 

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Moment of Magic: John Reid’s pick six

Following a Ricky Slade fumble on the Nittany Lions’ opening possession of the third quarter, the Bulls were back on offense, looking to extend their unexpected lead. John Reid wasn’t having it. The fifth-year cornerback read the eyes of Buffalo quarterback Matt Myers perfectly as he threw an out route to his receiver. Reid jumped the route, snagged Myers’ pass and jetted to the end zone. It was exactly the jolt the team, and Beaver Stadium, needed to spring back into life. The boos became cheers and chants. The Nittany Lions never looked back.

Looking Ahead

Mixed bag for Pitt’s Pickett through two weeks

Pitt dropped its season opener to Virginia, 30-14. Starting quarterback Kenny Pickett was under duress all game long behind a Panthers offensive line that is breaking in four new starters. Pickett attempted 41 passes against the Cavaliers, but completed just 21 of them for 185 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Things were much better in the Week Two win over Ohio, with Pickett throwing a career-high 321 yards and a touchdown. He was also much better protected, with the Panthers only surrendering a single sack. 

Injuries to the Pitt defensive front

The Panthers will be without two key pieces when they face the Nittany Lions. Junior defensive tackle Keyshon Camp, who injured his knee in the season opener, has been ruled out for the season. So to has junior defensive end Rashad Weaver, who went down with a knee injury during training camp.

Coming to an end

Saturday’s game between Penn State and Pitt is the last scheduled meeting between the two Commonwealth rivals. There are no immediate plans to renew the series after the latest four-game matchup. Pitt won in dramatic fashion in 2016. The Nittany Lions have dominated the past two games, though, beating the Panthers by a combined score of 84-20. Penn State is looking to make it three wins in a row over the Panthers, and claim its 53rd win in the series.

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel