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Sports. Along the way to the confetti and tears after the championship games, things aren’t always what they seem. Which is fun, too.
Take Saturday’s Penn State-Iowa football game. It figures to be as anticipated as any Big Ten opener the Hawkeyes have played in a long time.
The Nittany Lions are the defending Big Ten champs and a top-five team. They have clubbed their first three opponents. It was 52-0 over Akron, 33-14 over Pittsburgh, 56-0 over Georgia State.
But Akron and Georgia State are Akron and Georgia State, and Pitt trailed Oklahoma State 49-7 at home Saturday … in the first half.
Yes, Penn State has magnificent talents in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley. But what happens when that offensive unit gets serious blowback from a defense for the first time this year, in their first game away from Happy Valley?
Uh, did you see last year’s game between Iowa and Penn State, you could quickly reply. Uh, yes, I was there. It was savage. The score was 41-14, in favor of the Lions. The yardage was PSU 599, Iowa 234. There was no gray area in the immediate aftermath of that.
We had written off the Hawkeyes for the rest of 2016. But one week later against a 9-0 Michigan team, at home, as a 21-point underdog, Iowa held the Wolverines to 201 yards and beat them, 14-13.
As the season bounces from week to week, the pointy ball takes unpredictable hops. What we think about this stuff rents a lot more space in our head than what we actually know.
Popular opinion in these parts said the Hawkeyes’ defense might be as salty as seawater following its season-opening 24-3 silencing of Wyoming.
But the same Cowboys mustered just 183 yards Saturday in a 49-13 home loss to an Oregon club not known for defense. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes’ defense looked looser than a goose in Iowa’s overtime win at Iowa State, and in the first half of their 31-14 victory over North Texas Saturday.
Will it be a total sieve against Penn State, again? Possibly, but unlikely. Will it be as suffocating as it was against Michigan last November? Possibly, but unlikely.
While asking what we really know about things, what do we really know about Penn State Coach James Franklin? From afar, he has recently come across as a bit of a bully and a boor.
In his press conference after the win over Pittsburgh, Franklin said “I know last year for their win it was like the Super Bowl, but for us this was just like beating Akron.”
But he also added “I’ve been saying for two years — so you can interpret it however you want — I‘ve been saying for two years that each win is like the Super Bowl for us.”
Was it a shot at Pitt? I vote yes, a passive-aggressive shot. But do I know that? Nope.
Saturday night, with 11 seconds left in the game, Franklin called a timeout before Georgia State kicker Brandon Wright attempted a 31-yard field goal. Icing the kicker is a common coaching move. But not when you’re ahead 56-0.
Wow, many said. This dude’s bloodthirsty.
“It had to do with we had our fourth team on the field, and we didn’t have a fourth-team field goal block,” Franklin explained after the game. “They didn’t even really know how to get lined up with the mix-and-match guys that we had in there. So, we called timeout to get the second-team field goal block in there. And that’s just kinda how it played out, to be honest with you.”
Was it a reasonable answer? Yeah. You’re coaching everyone on your team to do things right.
Was it the full answer? I don’t know. It certainly was more polite than “We really wanted that shutout, and I wanted to get in that kid’s head so he might mess up the kick.”
Wright missed the kick, and Penn State’s players and fans seemed quite pleased about it.
This will be a fun week, a big September game. It will feature things none of us saw coming. Then we’ll readjust our convictions, and move on to the next game.