STATE COLLEGE – Iowa loss notwithstanding, No. 7 Penn State remains in contention for a shot at the Big Ten East crown.

The Nittany Lions are 5-1 overall and 2-1 as they head into their mid-season idle week.  The first half of the season saw Penn State play three teams ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time. They’ve been rewarded by ascending 12 spots to their current ranking in the AP poll.

Penn State has remaining games against the AP’s No. 6- (Ohio State), No. 8- (Michigan) and No. 10- (Michigan State) ranked teams. The trio has gone 17-1 this season, as both Michigan and Michigan State boast undefeated records.

Penn State hosts Michigan (Nov. 13) and travels to Ohio State (Oct. 30) and Michigan State (Nov. 27).

Additionally, Maryland (Nov. 2) and Rutgers (Nov. 20) round out the Nittany Lions’ remaining regular-season opponents. Rutgers and Maryland enjoy hot starts to the season, but they’ve since cooled off to 3-3 and 4-2 records, respectively.

The Scarlet Knights have dropped their last three games, while the Terrapins are on a two-game losing streak. 

As it stands, the Nittany Lions’ four ranked remaining opponents make for the nation’s second-toughest schedule among AP top-10 ranked teams according to ESPN’s Chris Fallica.

Penn State’s outlook for its final six games of the regular season undoubtedly hinge on the status of quarterback Sean Clifford. The Nittany Lions’ third-year starter exited the team’s Oct. 9 contest against Iowa with an undisclosed injury.

Penn State coach James Franklin on Wednesday didn’t offer specifics as to a timetable for Clifford’s return, but he did say Clifford is “doing everything he possibly can to get back as soon as he possibly can.”

The Nittany Lions have relied on their Big Ten second-ranked scoring defense (13.8 points per game) during its successful first-half stretch of the season, but its offense will look for more from its run game if that’s to continue on the back end.

Penn State through the first half of the season has outscored opponents 170 to 83.

The Nittany Lions rank seventh in the Big Ten in scoring offense behind 28.3 points per game. The team’s ground game, however, ranks 11th in the conference after averaging 128.3 yards per game through the first six contests.

Penn State peaked at No. 4 in the AP poll before last week’s road loss in Iowa City dropped it to No. 7, but with an even somewhat healthy Clifford coupled with the Nittany Lions’ formidable defense, Penn State can close out the regular season in contention for the East. 

Penn State is idle this week, and the timing couldn’t have been better for the ailing team. In addition to Clifford, Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, running backs Devyn Ford and John Lovett, and safety Jonathan Sutherland sustained injuries against the Hawkeyes. Mustipher, a starter and team captain, will miss the rest of the season.

 The real fun begins next week when Penn State hosts Illinois to kick off the second half of its 2021 season.

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