In hindsight, Penn State was set up for a letdown last week.
According to their coach, the Nittany Lions struggled to bounce back from a 39-38 loss to Ohio State and then fell short again the following game, falling 27-24 at Michigan State.
“I don’t think we got over the Ohio State game quick enough,” James Franklin said on his weekly radio show. “I don’t think our guys responded as well, and that’s all of us. This week, the energy is back the way I expect it to be.”
Penn State certainly hopes so.
In past seasons, even a lackluster effort might be enough to beat Rutgers, Saturday’s opponent at Beaver Stadium. But in coach Chris Ash’s second season, the Scarlet Knights have found a pulse and are even still alive for a bowl game if they can win two of their final three.
Very difficult, considering two of those games are against Penn State and Michigan State. But just being in this position is a huge sign of progress for a program that went 0-9 in Big Ten play last fall and didn’t score a single point against the Lions or the Spartans.
Or against Ohio State. Or against Michigan.
“You know, we’re getting closer. We’re getting better,” Ash said. “But we’re still so far away from what we want to be and where we would like to be as we go through the season. But again, we’re pleased with the progress that we’re making.”
At 3-3 in conference play, the Knights are actually just one game behind Penn State in the East Division standings.
And despite another disparaging start — Rutgers lost at home to Eastern Michigan in September — Ash’s squad has regrouped after a bye week and has won three of its past four games, beating Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.
A big reason has been an improved offense, bolstered by the offseason arrival of Jerry Kill, the highly respected former Minnesota head coach, as offensive coordinator.
Rutgers has used three different quarterbacks at times, but hasn’t asked them to do too much, relying on a steady run game led by Miami transfer Gus Edwards.
“They’re going to run the ball. They’re going to play-action pass. They’re going to throw a quick game,” Franklin said. “I lived that world for a number of years as an offensive coordinator, when you’re calling the game to help manage some of those situations. And Jerry is a very experienced coach and has done a good job of that.”
As for the Lions, though their national title hopes are almost certainly gone, they can still have a shot at a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl berth by winning their final three games.
First, however, they need to put a pair of tough losses behind them.
“The fact that we’ve lost a total of four points in the last two games just doesn’t really mean much to us,” wideout DeAndre Thompkins said. “The games are in the past. Losses are in the past. Wins are in the past. What matters now is Rutgers.”
THREE AND OUT
Penn State is preparing to again play without injured starters Ryan Bates and Ryan Buchholz, both of whom went down two weeks ago in Columbus.
If they can’t go, Will Fries and Chasz Wright would be in line to play the tackle spots with Kevin Givens again starting in Buchholz’s place at defensive end.
“Kevin has played well at defensive end, but there’s some small details of the position that he just doesn’t have the cumulative reps that other guys have,” Franklin said. “So him spending more time at defensive end will help us. It will allow (defensive coordinator Brent Pry) to call the game the way he needs to call it.
“Sometimes play-callers are affected how they call the game by (injuries). Can the guys execute everything? The more time (Givens) has at end, the more confidence we have calling the game the way we want to call it.”
Reid on the mend
Another player who has been on the shelf this season is cornerback John Reid, who suffered a serious knee injury in the spring.
Penn State never announced that he would miss the season. And that’s because he’s healing well enough to play, though the coaches aren’t considering it.
“I actually think if we really needed to, we could probably play him this year toward the end of the year,” Franklin said. “We won’t do that because he has a redshirt available.”
Reid will still have two years of eligibility remaining and join the core of a 2018 cornerback group that will still include Big Ten interception leader Amani Oruwariye as well as developing true freshmen Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade.
Saluting service members
Coinciding with Veterans Day on Saturday, Penn State will be hosting its annual Military Appreciation Day.
According to the university, a pregame tailgate will be held at the Bryce Jordan Center, where more than 7,500 active duty military, veterans and their families will participate and then have tickets to the Rutgers game provided for them through Penn State’s “Seats for Service Members” program.
F/A-18 Super Hornets are scheduled to conduct a pregame flyover, with two of the pilots being Penn State graduates.
The honorary captain for the game will be former Penn State football letterman Jim Harding, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force who earned three Silver Stars and four Purple Hearts during his career.
“Just an amazing story,” said Franklin, who met Harding on Thursday. “I want to make sure our players understand and appreciate that all the privileges we have are based on the sacrifice that others make.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse