Hoosiers seek breakthrough win against red-hot Penn State

Hoosiers linebacker Marcus Oliver (44) is a fumble-causing machine.

Marc Lebryk / USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson expects his team to remain focused.

He's instructing players to avoid the trap of getting caught in the countdown to bowl eligibility. He's content to let others debate whether beating a top 15 team might be the next logical step for an improving program. And he'd rather they concentrate on cleaning up the mistakes that plagued them last weekend.

Anything else, Wilson believes, will be problematic when the Hoosiers host red-hot No. 12 Penn State on Saturday.

"You approach each game and do what you can to win each game, and you don't look at the (win) total, you don't look at what's to come," Wilson said. "It's just, here's today and here's the plan for this week, and you start it over."

Of course, that's easier said than done for two schools fighting to regain their national image.

Penn State (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten, No. 10 CFP) jumped back into the picture after upsetting No. 2 Ohio State. Five straight wins have led to their highest ranking in five years and put the Nittany Lions on the cusp of re-entering the top 10 .

"We've still got a long ways to go," coach James Franklin said. "I've been saying for three years that we've been getting better. We've been getting better every day, we've been getting better every week. It hasn't always showed up in the statistics column, it hasn't always showed up in wins and losses. But we've been getting better."

The Hoosiers (5-4, 3-3) are still trying to end a 22-year absence from the rankings, the longest active drought of any Power Five team. After upsetting defending conference champ Michigan State and seriously challenging Ohio State and Nebraska in October, a third straight win just might do the trick.

But that's not what the Hoosiers are contemplating this week. Instead, they're more concerned about correcting mistakes and winning games than delivering a statement to fans.

"They're going to read, listen, everybody has got Twitter, everybody follows whatever, so they're going to hear comments," Wilson conceded. "You just can't make sure that the comments distract you from you doing your job, and our job is we've got to prepare and play well because if we don't play better than last week, we're not going to have a good outing Saturday."

Here are some other things to watch Saturday:

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View from the sidelines: College football cheerleaders 2016.

Sam Riche / AP

ROLLING ALONG: Since upsetting the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions' offense has been virtually untouchable. Two weeks ago, Penn State routed Purdue 62-24 in West Lafayette, and last week they blew out Iowa 41-14. It's the first time Penn State has scored 103 points in back-to-back games since 2001. Indiana's much-improved defense will be tested.

TAG-TEAM TANDEM: Penn State may be Linebacker U. But the Hoosiers' tandem of Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver has been pretty darn good this season. Scales already has seven games with at least 10 tackles and is tied for No. 2 in the Big Ten (85). Oliver leads the conference in forced fumbles (four) and is the nation's active leader in that category with a school-record 11.

ONE-TWO PUNCH: Penn State QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley have been impressive co-stars all season. Barkley goes into the weekend as the Big Ten's rushing leader and only 1,000-yard runner. He also leads the league in all-purpose yards (1,329) and is second in touchdowns (13). McSorley, meanwhile, is throwing for 228.7 yards per game and has 14 TD passes, enough to make defenses play honest.

GRINDING IT OUT: Wilson has spent the last month trying to get his ground game started. Despite having a huge day against Maryland out of the wildcat formation, the Hoosiers are still looking for consistency. And they'll need a more balanced attack to have a chance against Penn State.

TURNOVERS: Early this season, the Hoosiers were among the nation's best in turnover margin. But one reason they've been up-and-down during the conference season has been their inability to play clean football. QB Richard Lagow has thrown 13 interceptions, tied for most in the league, and the Hoosiers have slipped to minus-3 in margin. That must improve this weekend.