STATE COLLEGE – Indiana-Penn State in mid-November.
With no title implications on the line or polls to watch, there’s little buzz about a game that’s essentially a footnote on the Big Ten schedule.
Just don’t tell that to Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien.
Thanksgiving break has arrived at Penn State, but the first-year coach is hoping students and fans already thinking about the holidays can alter their travel plans slightly to cheer on a team playing its final two home games of an unparalleled season. The Hoosiers (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten) visit Penn State (6-4, 4-2) today.
“I’m not going to beg anybody to come to the game but I’m going to tell them this: This is a team that has been through unprecedented situations,” O’Brien said. “So as fans, as students, can we not choose to support them in their last two games, eight quarters of football?
“I think this is a team that’s poured its heart and soul into this season.”
As they have all season, the Nittany Lions are playing for pride and a senior class that mostly held the program together in the face of unprecedented sanctions from the NCAA for the school’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. They would have been a lock for a bowl game this season if the penalties didn’t include a four-year postseason ban.
But if any more motivation is needed, O’Brien’s crew can use this nugget: a win today would prevent the Hoosiers from getting the six victories needed to be eligible for a bowl game.
Actually, just getting to this point is quite a step forward for an Indiana program that’s a perennial Big Ten doormat. Last year, the Hoosiers didn’t win a conference game.
Indiana didn’t help its cause after getting throttled 62-14 last week by Wisconsin in its home finale. Now the Hoosiers must close out 2012 with two road games, at Penn State and Purdue.
By the time next week comes along, those postseason hopes might have already been blown away like a cold wind gusting through the central Pennsylvania mountains. The Hoosiers have never beaten the Nittany Lions in 15 tries.
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson regrouped his seniors this week for Penn State.
“We just asked our guys, ‘Are we strong enough to continue to be what we want to be and go back and keep building,”’ Wilson said. “We didn’t point a bunch of fingers.”
To have any chance, the Hoosiers defense will have to look more like the unit that held Iowa to 96 rushing yards and one touchdown on 30 carries two weeks ago in a 24-21 win than the one that allowed a whopping 564 yards and seven scores on the ground on 64 carries to the Badgers.
Indiana does have a pair of good defensive tackles in Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr., who are tied for the team lead in sacks with four apiece. Replogle is expected to make his 46th start for the Hoosiers today, which would set a school record.
For all the attention over the upgrades in the Penn State passing game under O’Brien, the Nittany Lions’ running game has quietly gained traction behind sophomore Zack Zwinak, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound bruiser. Zwinak has rushed for at least 100 yards four times in his last six games.
“If we’re building our program, this is a good week to see what we’ve got,” Wilson said. “I’m looking forward to seeing it. It’s going to be a tough challenge.”
At least Indiana can move the ball, averaging 31 points and 431 yards per game, good for third in the conference in each category.
After struggling the last couple seasons, Penn State’s offense has blossomed under O’Brien. Young, once-unheralded players like sophomores Zwinak and receiver Allen Robinson have taken over lead roles, making many fans forget about the offseason defections of tailback Silas Redd (Southern California) and receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) following the NCAA sanctions.
Robinson, who leads the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns (eight) and yards (786), is also on the brink of setting a school record. His next reception will be his 64th of the year, breaking a tie with O.J. McDuffie (1992) and Bobby Engram (1995) for most in a Penn State single season.
Helping the offense of late, too, has been sophomore kicker Sam Ficken, who was maligned by some Penn State followers on social media after missing four field goals in a 17-16 loss at Virginia in Week 2. Of late, he’s made 8 of 9, including all three attempts in last week’s 32-23 loss at Nebraska. The Indiana native is rolling just in time for the visit from his home-state Hoosiers.
The collective goal of Penn State’s underclassmen is to send the senior leaders including linebacker Michael Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich out on a winning note in their final two collegiate games. And they’re hoping fans join them in the Beaver Stadium stands.
A visit from Wisconsin rounds out the campaign next week.
“We don’t have a bowl game,” Robinson said, “but we’d still love the support.”