In yesterday's Big Ten power rankings, we left undefeated Ohio State atop the list with Penn State clocking in at No. 2. That's going to remain the case unless/until Penn State beats Ohio State, and wouldn't you know it, the two teams meet at Beaver Stadium this Saturday.
And yet, even before this week's game, you could absolutely make the case that Penn State is the best team in the Big Ten right now.
It's easy to overreact to one game, and we don't want to come across as diminishing Ohio State's strength on the basis of one overtime win against Purdue (although that game had "train wreck" written all over it before Kenny Guiton became an unlikely hero). Bad games happen to great teams.
It's just that great games rarely happen to not-great teams, and what Penn State put on Iowa last Saturday was a truly great game. From the very first drive until the backups started wandering in, Penn State absolutely stuck it to the Hawkeyes on offense, defense and special teams. Bill O'Brien was scheming circles around the Big Ten's longest-tenured head coach, right there under the lights in front of 70,000 stunned Iowa fans.
That Penn State win, which was a deceptively close 38-14, was the best game Penn State has played this year. It's possibly the best game any Big Ten team has played this year. It's definitely a better game than Ohio State has played this year.
Ever since the Virginia loss, a 17-16 heartbreaker in which PSU kicker Sam Ficken left 16 points off the board with five missed field goals and a missed extra point, Penn State has ripped off five wins in a row—all with double-digit victory margins. The competition hasn't been especially fierce in that spree, but everyone else in the Big Ten has been struggling with similar competition all year.
One key to the Penn State resurgence is a stout defense, and that defense has been keyed by the leadership (on and off the field) of senior linebacker Michael Mauti. Mauti leads the team in tackles with over nine per game, and he's got 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks to his name. He's also the team leader in interceptions with three.
Sure, Mauti's only fifth in the Big Ten in tackles. He's a full three tackles per game behind Iowa's Anthony Hitchens for the Big Ten lead, that's true, but there's a reason why Hitchens has so many more tackles—Penn State's defense can actually get off the field. Alabama has the best defense in college football this year in every conceivable category, and it has one tackler in the top 100: C.J. Mosely, tied for 75th in the nation at 8.29 tackles. Same deal.
Where Penn State has really excelled, however, is the passing game—and that didn't look to be a strength coming into the season. Matt McGloin—he of two very rough seasons throwing the ball under Joe Paterno—was named the starter coming into the season, and he lost receivers Justin Brown and Devon Smith over the offseason...then lost WR Shawney Kersey in Week 3.
So an experienced but ineffective quarterback throwing to quite possibly the thinnest WR corps in the nation and a somewhat deep but inexperienced TE corps? That's a recipe for disaster, right? Or at least a below-average passing attack by Big Ten standards?
Nay, friends. Penn State trails only pass-wacky Indiana for the most passing yards in the Big Ten, and even the team efficiency is in the top half of the Big Ten at fifth. Overall, Penn State averages over 400 yards per game (good for fourth best in the conference) and that's with a ragtag running back crew behind McGloin.
Guess what? That running back corps is healthy now for essentially the first time all year. Bill Belton turned his potential into production against a stout Iowa rushing defense, gouging the Hawkeyes for 103 yards and three TDs on just 16 carries.
As a whole, Penn State rushed 52 times for 218 yards in that game, and only two of those were for negative yards: a one-yard loss on a dive by FB Michael Zordich and Penn State's final kneel-down of the game. That's it out of 52 rushes.
The depth issues are still there for Penn State. Here's a brief list of star players that Penn State can't easily replace: WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, RB Bill Belton, DT Jordan Hill, LB Mike Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges and CB Adrian Amos. Does that look like basically all of Penn State's star players? It should, because Penn State's not deep with starting-quality players at any of those positions.
But all those guys are healthy now, and when they're all on the field, Penn State is talented enough to take out anyone in the Big Ten—up to and including Ohio State.
So who's the best team in the Big Ten? We're about to find out this weekend.