Penn State’s status shifts to spoiler role
No. 17 Penn State will have a say in who plays for the Big Ten championship, even if it is unlikely to be the Nittany Lions.
No. 18 Iowa (6-1, 3-1) comes to State College Saturday in the first of three straight games for Penn State (5-2, 2-2) against division contenders. The Hawkeyes are part of a logjam near the top of the Big Ten West, with four teams having one loss halfway through the season. They have also become a sneaky playoff contender.
After losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, both at home, Penn State will have a difficult time getting back into the East Division race. But with Iowa, No. 6 Michigan and No. 20 Wisconsin lined up the next three weeks, the Nittany Lions have a chance to play spoiler and make a case to play in a third straight New Year’s Six bowl game.
For a program that has been mostly on an upward trajectory since it surged to a Big Ten title in 2016, the next three weeks will determine whether Penn State is in the midst of a small-step-back season. The Nittany Lions have not lost three straight homes games since 2015, when they were still recovering from NCAA sanctions in coach James Franklin’s second season.
“Any time you go to State College, you’re going to play in a great venue. Challenging place to play, great college venue, loud crowd, enthusiastic crowd.” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. The last time the Hawkeyes played in Beaver Stadium — 2016 — they lost 41-14. Last season in Iowa City, Penn State won on a walk-off touchdown pass by Trace McSorley.
McSorley and the passing game has lacked consistency, but the senior quarterback has had a bigger role in the running game. McSorley already has rushed for a career-best 565 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Bottom line, he’s a winner,” Ferentz said. “Every time he’s out on the field, they have a good chance to win.”
After two straight, 8-5 seasons for Iowa, Ferentz’s team is quietly putting together a season reminiscent of 2015, when the Hawkeyes reached the Big Ten championship unbeaten before finishing 12-2. These Hawkeyes, like those, are tough defensively, led by one of the best defensive lines in the country.
“I think it’s by far the best front that we have faced in two years,” Franklin said. “They are long. They are physical. They are stout. They make a bunch of plays.”
Quarterback Nate Stanley has made these Hawkeyes more dynamic, with 16 touchdown passes, and maybe the best pair of tight ends in college football in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
Badgers eye division lead
Though the playoff is out of reach, there are still some big prizes in sight for No. 20 Wisconsin.
The Badgers have a chance to grab the lead in the crowded Big Ten West and take a key step toward their third straight appearance in the conference championship game when they visit Northwestern today.
Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) has won 16 straight division matchups and can add a little clarity to a muddied race with a victory this week. The Badgers are tied with Purdue and Iowa for second place, a half-game behind the Wildcats (4-3, 4-1).
They already have a victory over the Hawkeyes and would take out the Boilermakers by winning the rest of the way. That would thrust Wisconsin into the conference championship game for the sixth time in eight years, not a bad consolation for a team whose loss at Michigan two weeks ago dashed playoff hopes.
Of course, the Badgers first have to beat Northwestern.
“They play a lot of teams close,” linebacker Ryan Connelly said.
Big Ten standings
Minnesota 38, Indiana 31
Purdue at Michigan State, noon (ESPN)
Bethune-Cookman at Nebraska, noon (BTN)
Wisconsin at Northwestern, noon (Fox)
Illinois at Maryland, 3:30 (BTN)
Iowa at Penn State, 3:30 (ESPN)