After a rocky 2-2 start to the season that included road losses at Pittsburgh and Michigan, Penn State coach James Franklin was rumored to be on the hot seat and even garnered the dreaded vote of confidence from athletic director Sandy Barbour.
Five games later — all wins, including a memorable 24-21 upset of then No. 2-ranked Ohio State — and Franklin is now being mentioned as a national coach of the year candidate while the No. 10 Nittany Lions (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) are in the hunt for a major bowl game as they begin a two-game road trip at Indiana (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday afternoon.
A win over the Hoosiers and Penn State, which closes conference play with games at Rutgers (2-7, 0-6) and at home against Michigan State (2-7, 0-6), could end the regular season with 10 wins.
Penn State is coming off an impressive 41-14 win over Iowa and sits second in the Big Ten’s East Division with a 5-1 record.
"I’m really proud of how our team is playing," Franklin said. "The confidence that they’re building and really playing well in all three phases."
Penn State has eclipsed 500 yards of total offense in three of its last four games. A victory formation kneel-down reduced its total to 599 against an Iowa defense some thought could slow the Nittany Lions.
That wasn’t the case and Penn State players are confident no team can stop them.
"Our design is always to take what they give us, so that’s part of it, but through our running game we were confident what we could do running the ball," quarterback Trace McSorley said. "We were able to find a couple things that we were able to get good chunk plays, get five, six yards a pop every time. So we were able to kind of go back to those and we knew we needed to get into manageable third downs or to cut the chains in half.
"I think we did a really good job with that — utilizing those with our (run-pass options) and our play-action pass game, everything really complemented each other (against Iowa)."
Penn State’s defense has bounced back nicely after early-season thrashings by Pittsburgh and Michigan. Regularly rotating eight defensive linemen, boosted by the return of starting linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda and backed by a playmaking, veteran secondary, the Nittany Lions are plus-6 in turnover margin during their winning streak.
Despite the impressive turnaround, don’t look for the Nittany Lions to head into Saturday’s contest cocky and overconfident.
"We understand that as fast as we are able to climb in the rankings, it could be taken away just as fast," McSorley said. "So we have to come to work every single day and prepare like we’re not ranked anywhere in the Top 25, just prepare like a hard-nosed, blue-collar team that we’re trying to be."
Indiana (5-4, 3-3), which is coming off back-to-back wins over Maryland and Rutgers, needs to win one of its final three games against the Nittany Lions, No. 2 Michigan and rival Purdue to earn a second straight bowl bid. The Hoosiers overcame four turnovers and two blocked kicks to squeak past Rutgers 33-27 last Saturday.
"We’re not going to win with that type of play this week or any week moving forward," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "We’ve got a lot to clean up. Still good to clean up after a win, but a lot of things to address. We’re on to what is a really good team."
Indiana has gained 1,217 yards offensively in the last two games, which probably has something to do with the return of guard Dan Feeney, ranked as the No. 1 guard prospect and a likely first-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com. Feeney was credited with six knockdowns.
Quarterback Richard Lagow shrugged off his 12th and 13th interceptions in the last seven games to throw for a season-high 394 yards against Rutgers on 28-of-40 accuracy. Lagow connected on 14 of his first 16 attempts while averaging just over 14 yards per completion. But he will have to eliminate the mistakes and make quick decisions against a Penn State defense that has 18 sacks over the last three games for Indiana to pull the upset Saturday.