DETROIT — Mike Gesicki remembers the reaction and the atmosphere well.
The first College Football Playoff poll of 2016 hit Penn State with some fanfare. At the same time in 2017, the Nittany Lions have a better record and a higher ranking, but the expectations are much different.
“Last year, that felt like there was a parade going on downtown when we got the No. 12 ranking,” Gesicki, a senior tight end, said of last October. “Now, a year later, you’re sitting at No. 7,” and it’s not exactly the same for the Lions.
“I don’t care about the college football rankings,” senior cornerback Christian Campbell said. “As a team, we don’t care because we try to take it one game at a time and beat the team that’s ahead of us. The rankings are predictions, so it really don’t faze us as a team. Anything can happen.”
Granted, had they held on to beat Ohio State last week, they would have debuted in one of the top three spots — in line for a Playoff berth — and the buzz would be greater headed into Saturday’s road trip to No. 24 Michigan State.
What the Lions can’t afford is to let things snowball. Penn State was ranked No. 2 before losing to the Buckeyes, and the last time the program was that high in the polls was 1999, when one late-season loss quickly turned into three straight, dumping the Lions from the national title picture down to the Alamo Bowl.
“There’s nothing to worry or panic about,” Gesicki said. “We have four guaranteed games left in the regular season.”
The first of those figures to be the most challenging. A road game against the stingy Spartans, who have rediscovered their form following 2016’s 3-9 meltdown.
But like the mood in State College, East Lansing is also a bit subdued this week as the Spartans are coming off of their own painful loss — a triple-overtime defeat to Northwestern.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio recalled his team’s last-minute loss to Nebraska in 2015 — and also that the Spartans rebounded from it to win the Big Ten and reach the Playoff.
“As I remember back then, it was a tough loss,” Dantonio said. “We sort of regathered ourselves. We still had control of what we had to do, much like this loss. We had control at this point in time, knew what we had to do, knew it was going to be challenging, but still just pushed through it. Our guys just came to play.”
It’s a mantra both teams will take into this game.
THREE AND OUT Holes to fill
All eyes will be on how Penn State responds up front on both sides of the ball, especially with injuries to two starters in left tackle Ryan Bates and defensive end Ryan Buchholz.
Buchholz’s injury appeared to be more serious, as the sophomore was carted off the field after just one snap against Ohio State.
That leaves the Lions in a bit of a tough spot, as they are also without Torrence Brown, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in September. The next guys up on the depth chart for Penn State are redshirt freshmen Shaka Toney and Shane Simmons as well as true freshman Yetur Gross-Matos and walk-on Colin Castagna.
All will likely get some reps on Saturday, but another option that may work better against the Spartans’ run-first mentality is using defensive tackle Kevin Givens at end.
Toney, for example, is a pass-rushing specialist at this point, inserted mostly on third downs.
“But playing Michigan State, where they’re using two tight ends, three tight ends, a fullback and trying to pound you, that’s prob not (Toney’s) style of game,” Lions coach James Franklin said.
Close eye on the QB
A week after allowing 95 rushing yards to J.T. Barrett, the Lions must again deal with another quarterback who is a threat to run.
Spartans starter Brian Lewerke is second behind Barrett and just ahead of Penn State’s Trace McSorley in rushing by Big Ten quarterbacks, running 75 times for 343 yards and three scores.
Of course, the redshirt sophomore isn’t afraid to throw it either. Lewerke broke school records in passing yards (445) and completions (39) in last week’s triple-overtime game.
“He’s having a good year, playing well,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “We’re definitely going to have to watch out for him, make sure we’re disguised, play with a ton of personnel, see if we can’t peg his pre-snap (reads).”
In the eye of the beholder?
If it’s November in the Big Ten, that means it’s time to bust out the ol’ forklift and get the Land Grant Trophy out of storage.
The (estimated) 40-pound monstrosity belongs to the Lions after their 45-12 win over the Spartans in the faux-rivalry game.
“We take a lot of pride in keeping the most beautiful trophy in all of college football home,” Franklin said. “… It’s not your normal trophy. It’s unique. It’s unorthodox. It’s cool.”
Cabinda tried to play along at first.
“I mean, I think it’s cool kind of playing for a trophy,” he said. “Adding a little something to the game, maybe a little more of an incentive to win.”
Feel the excitement.
Perhaps sensing that no one was buying it, he shifted gears.
“For me, it’s all about getting a (win),” Cabinda said. “I could care less about getting the trophy. Winning is all I care about, to be completely honest.”