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Neil Rudel on PSU football: Nittany Lions can’t get too high after opening win over Wisconsin

From my set of binoculars, Penn State’s win at Wisconsin ranks as the Nittany Lions’ third-best under James Franklin.

The first was Ohio State in 2016 followed by the Big Ten championship win over the Badgers later that year.

You can argue the thumping of Michigan in 2017 — when Saquon Barkley scored on the Lions’ second play — but I favor the win at Camp Randall because it was on the road and because Penn State needed a confidence boost early this season following 2020’s troubles.

Which brings us to today’s home opener vs. Ball State (3:30 p.m. FS1).

With Auburn in town next week for a whiteout game, coupled with the Lions’ still coming down after Wisconsin, it didn’t take long for Franklin to be asked about the proverbial “trap” game.

Franklin’s answer impressed me. Whereas he once would have dismissed such a question with “Ball State, Ball State, Ball State,” he actually lent some thoughtful insight into what goes into the construction of a letdown.

“I believe in teams playing inconsistent because they either look forward, look back, get caught up in some praise or criticism, or they don’t have the correct amount of respect for the opponent or the process,” he said. “So that’s why — almost to a point where it’s a little crazy, our routine and our process throughout the week is really important to me, and we don’t talk about anything except the game at hand.”

Further, while there’s no doubt beating Wisconsin was a great win, the fine line between winning and losing is so small that too many back slaps will be counter-productive for the Lions.

For example, though Penn State’s defense came up extremely big in the clutch, defending the red zone tenaciously, let’s not dismiss the fact that the Badgers contributed mightily to their own demise.

In the first half, they were first-and-goal at the Penn State 2 and false-started. Pre-snap penalties in general are brutal — let alone at the other guy’s 2 in a scoreless game.

It led to a missed chip-shot field goal, but the Badgers weren’t done. In fact, they got worse.

With three minutes left, down 16-10 thanks to Jordan Stout’s missed extra point, Wisconsin drove to a first-and-goal at the Penn State 1, and on the first play there, quarterback Graham Mertz fumbled for a 6-yard loss without being hit.

That led to Jaquan Brisker’s interception, meaning Wisconsin managed to get zero points out of two trips inside the Penn State 2. That’s actually hard to do.

And when they dissect the film, it ought to help keep the Nittany Lions from getting too overconfident.

Nitpicking

• One factor that should help negate a letdown is the fact that Penn State has not played in front of a typical Beaver Stadium crowd since November of 2019.

• Stout’s punting performance (7-53.9) was one of the Lions’ best single-game efforts of all time. Ralph Giacomarro averaged 54.9 on four punts at Syracuse in 1981. (NOTE: Stout deserves an edge because Syracuse plays indoors.) The placekicking was another matter. Franklin said Stout beat out Jake Pinegar for the field-goal duties during camp, and you have to wonder how many demerits Stout will be charged for his missed extra point and shanked 23-yard field goal last week. Franklin said Pinegar will be needed “this season,” which may translate to today.

• Given that backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson has only attempted one pass in his PSU career (vs. Rutgers in 2019, it was incomplete), you’d think today and the Sept. 25 game with Villanova would be the most ideal opportunities.

• Will Levis, last year’s backup who transferred to Kentucky and is now starting, threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns in his Wildcat debut, a one-sided win over Louisiana-Monroe. Levis, who was used almost exclusively as a running QB at Penn State, only attempted four runs. Kentucky hosts Missouri today.

• Time of possession is now perceived as an overrated statistic as Penn State proved you can win despite having the ball less than 18 minutes at Wisconsin (the Badgers had it 42). Yes, big plays can mask (lack of) time of possession. At the same time, Penn State’s trumpeted running back “room” was limited to 12 carries.

Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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