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Smeltzer: Not Just Winning, but Dominating, Important for Penn State This November

James Franklin during Penn State practice.

Let’s face it: the Indiana team Penn State mauled 45-14 in Bloomington Saturday isn’t good.

Neither is the Rutgers team it plays in Piscataway Nov. 19 or the Michigan State team it plays in Happy Valley Nov. 26.

Maryland is decent, but that’s all it is.

The best way to explain how Penn State’s 2022 schedule, past and future, is that every team its played is either much better or much worse.

There’s no in between.

The team’s dramatic Week 1 win at Purdue looked impressive at the time. It doesn’t look too impressive now that the Boilers are 5-4 and lost to Iowa 24-3 this past Saturday. Beating Auburn 41-12 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Week 3 looked great, and one could argue it still was to an extent. But I’d say Auburn being 3-6 right now and having to fire Bryan Harsin this past Monday has taken some of the bloom off that rose.

Coach James Franklin’s squad didn’t impress anybody in underwhelming wins over Central Michigan and Northwestern, and certainly didn’t impress in its 41-17 loss at Michigan. Pounding a 7-3 Minnesota team is nothing to sneeze at, but it must be said that the Gophers were playing with a backup QB that had never started a college game before.

Penn State played well in its loss to Ohio State the last Saturday of October, but it was still a loss.

That brings us to Indiana.

Indiana is bad. Fans knew it coming into the game and were more convinced than ever by halftime, when Penn State led 24-7 after scoring 17 unanswered points. Nobody on the outside going to look the win over Indiana— whether it was 45-14, 17-14 of 114-14– and say ‘man, I wasn’t sure about these guys, but now I’m sold.”

Nonetheless, Penn State controlled what it could control and dominated, and that’s what it needs to do to make this a November to remember. Its not the team’s fault that Purdue turned out to be mediocre, or that Auburn turned out to be a dumpster fire. It’s not the team’s fault that Minnesota played it without injured QB Tanner Morgan. It can’t control Indiana being bad Maryland laying an egg at Wisconsin this weekend and, thus, not coming to Happy Valley ranked this coming Saturday. It’s not Penn State’s fault that the two ranked teams it did play, Michigan and Ohio State, are really, really good.

This year’s schedule has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s been a blessing because, well, the more bad/average teams a squad plays, the more wins its likely to rack up. Penn State came into this year needing a bounce-back after going 11-11 over 2020 and ‘21. A 10-2 regular season should be considered a success, and all it needs to do is beat three inferior opponents— two of them at home— to accomplish that. I believe this team is good enough to win 10 games with a tougher schedule, but a weak slate outside of the Big Ten’s two heavyweights hasn’t hurt the team record- wise.

But the downside of a boom-or-bust schedule is that Penn State doesn’t have the chance to prove itself against a team on the same level. A 10-2 regular season would feel better if, say, Michigan State came into Beaver Stadium Nov. 26 with an identical 9-2 record, and Penn State fought off Sparty to win the Land Grant Trophy and hold that trophy knowing they beat a quality opponent.

Instead, Penn State will be facing a team that will be, at best, 6-5. Not quite as sweet, eh? Although, to be fair, winning the wonderful Land Grant Trophy will always make Penn State fans smile.

The key making the most of an underwhelming November slate will be to do replicate Saturday and dominate. Beating Maryland, Rutgers and a mediocre Michigan State will be downplayed by some no matter what. But they’ll be downplayed a lot more if Penn State struggles like it did against Central Michigan and Northwestern or, for that matter, like Ohio State did at Northwestern this past weekend. This isn’t to say that Penn State is a bad team if it only beats Maryland by a touchdown, sleepwalks at Rutgers or ends up in a dogfight with Sparty in a rivalry game. But Penn State wouldn’t be impressing a lot of people with any of the scenarios I just mentioned.

Penn State will end the regular season without a win over a ranked opponent, and there’s no shame in that. A team can’t control who it has on it’s schedule, and certainly can’t control how the teams on its schedule perform in 11 of 12 games. The two ranked opponents Penn State did play are at a national championship-level. Penn State isn’t there yet, and wasn’t expected to get there in 2022.

To some, Penn State going 10-2 won’t be impressive because of who those 10 wins came against, and there isn’t much Penn State can do about that. But the best way to composite for underwhelming competition is to dominate. Penn State did that against Indiana, and doing the same to Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan State would have reasonable fans feeling darn good about how 2022 turned out.

 

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