By this point in the season, the team’s struggles have been well-documented, so I won’t rehash them. I’ll simply posit an idea that has been nagging at me since the season opener against Appalachian State – this Penn State team appears to play to the level of its opponents.
To begin the season, Penn State had Appalachian State on the ropes, and appeared to be coasting to a solid opening-week win. Then the Mountaineers stormed back and forced overtime before succumbing to the Lions.
Week 2, PSU was lucky to get to halftime with a lead, having been fought hard by Pitt, before the superior talent won the day. Similar stories for Weeks 3 and 4 against Kent State and Illinois – worse teams hung around for too long, before the talent gap got Penn State off the hook.
You can see, then, why so many people were surprised when Penn State fought Ohio State hard – after being gashed against the run, the Lions kept the Buckeye ground game bottled up. They appeared to save their best effort for the presumptive Big Ten favorite. Of course, the defense ran out of steam, and OSU got the win. But nonetheless, through five weeks, the team appeared to play to the level of their competition.
This has only been further proved in the loss to Michigan State, and the win over Indiana. By all rights, Penn State should have defeated the Spartans. The Lions suffered some of the worst turnover luck imaginable, and went through some fourth quarter turtling that allowed MSU to get the win. Michigan State was in the game late in the fourth because Penn State let them hang around too long.
The same can be said for the game against Indiana – drops and penalties kept the Hoosiers in the game, when the final score could have been double digits and a sigh of relief.
Penn State is a talented team, but 2018 was almost always going to be a rebuilding year. Too much experience lost on defense, plus the offensive changes were going to cause a struggle. However, this team seems to have a mentality issue as well – rather than run less-talented teams out of the stadium, they appear to be content to do just enough to win. In seven outings, that approach has worked out five times. It probably should have worked six times, to be frank.
Can the team get up over the next few weeks for Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and “play up” to match them?
As Penn State generally wants to match its opponents for 60 minutes, regardless of talent or scheme, I would not be surprised if every game from here on out is decided by a touchdown or less.