Big Ten East Notebook: Expectations cutting different ways at different places

Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio (left) shakes hands with Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (right) following the completion of their game at Beaver Stadium last season. 

Matthew OHaren/Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

One of the four coaches expected to make the Big Ten East one of the toughest divisions in college football is riding a wave of good feelings thanks to exceeding early expectations. The other three have had to deal with essentially the opposite phenomenon so far this season.

That single coach would be Jim Harbaugh, whose Michigan football team is 4-1 and rejoined the top 25 in both national polls earlier than most projected this year.

The other three are Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Mark Dantonio at Michigan State and James Franklin at Penn State.

Their teams are a combined 14-1 so far this season, but collectively they may have faced more questions about what is wrong than what’s gone well.

Of course for teams ranked in the top five — like Ohio State and Michigan State — and teams that have historically won more games than all but a handful of programs — like Ohio State and Penn State — coaches know that is part of the deal. All three have done their best to put a positive spin on recent outings even as the natives might be getting restless.

"I tell you, look across the country and every day you better play," Meyer told reporters Saturday after his top-ranked Buckeyes needed a pass breakup on the final play to escape Indiana with a 34-27 victory. "You better play. They have Division-I scholarship athletes, too, and that’s a team that will be going to a bowl game."

Meyer has been answering questions most of the season about why his offense hasn’t been as high-powered or efficient as it was last season despite the return and addition of a bevy of talent. But he also likely knew what was coming because he has gone through attempts to repeat as national champion before.

Meanwhile, Dantonio has his team coming off the best two-year stretch the Spartans have enjoyed in roughly 50 years. He and his team are trying to balance their desire to "reach higher" (the team’s motto for this season) without being knocked from their perch.

Not long ago, Michigan State was a team that was content to win any way possible. Dantonio repeated after the Spartans’ 24-21 win over Purdue on Saturday that should still be good enough even though the program’s profile has risen to new heights.

"The bottom line is just win," Dantonio said Saturday. "You’re the No. 2 team in the nation, you’re going to get everyone’s best shot. They’re going to come in, they’re going to play as hard as they can possibly play. Things happen. I can’t predict that we’re going to drop the ball on a punt.

"What I can say, is afterwards I can tell them it’s OK, line up, you got to go again, handle adversity. That’s what I can do, but I can’t predict that that is what is going to happen. It’s 21-0 at that point, we’re at midfield, there’s six minutes to go in the third quarter. We’re on track. We’re on track to do what we need to do. Things change. It’s like the weather around here."

Multiple injuries have Spartans shifting offensive line

As for Franklin, he is caught somewhere in between what Meyer and Dantonio are dealing with. As the coach of a program that has historically had more success than Michigan State but hasn’t recently been at the level of Ohio State, he is working to establish his program while maintaining the Nittany Lions’ winning tradition.

Penn State has won four in a row since starting the season with a disappointing 27-10 loss to Temple, but a Nittany Lions offense led by highly touted quarterback Christian Hackenberg has yet to find its stride. The team ranks 95th nationally in scoring (24.4 points per game), No. 116 in total yards (329.2 per game) and No. 102 in passing yards (171.2).

"I’m going to come in here every single week and be positive, even if it kills you guys and you want me to be negative," Franklin said Saturday after Penn State beat Army 20-14. "I love our players, I love our school, I love our colors, I love Penn State, I love Happy Valley, I love the community, but do we need to get better? Yes, but you guys can ask me every question in the book and try to get me to be negative, but I’m not going to do it. We have to get better. I know it, you know it, the fans know it."

Wolverines Still Doing it With ‘D’

While many of the questions at Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State last weekend revolved around the offense failing to meet expectations, the Wolverines kept dominating with their defense.

They posted their second shutout in a row, and in beating Maryland 28-0 the Wolverines continued climbing the national statistical rankings.

Michigan ranks No. 2 in scoring defense (7.6 points per game) and total defense (184.0 yards per game), and the Wolverines are No. 5 against the run, No. 3 in passing yards allowed and No. 2 in pass efficiency.