The first half of the season has gone quite well for Penn State as the Nittany Lions reach the midway point of the season. A clean 6-0 record has been built on the strength of a dominant defense and a running game that continues to gain confidence in young options. And now that Penn State has a road win in a tough environment against a top 25 team under their belt, the Nittany Lions have played themselves into a position to have some very meaningful games on the horizon.
It is fair to say some of Penn State's best challenges are still to come, and they are, but the team has certainly taken care of business up to this point. The Nittany Lions are one of 12 undefeated FBS teams left standing, and the Big Ten East, Big Ten, and College Football Playoff hunt is officially underway with Penn State stamping their place on the radar.
Offensive MVP: WR KJ Hamler
After turning heads in 2018, Hamler is already doing his part to be one of the top offensive weapons Penn State has. Hamler leads the Nittany Lions with 455 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions. Hamler leads the team with an average of 75.8 receiving yards per game. Hamler also has been called upon for special teams returns. He hasn't broken loose for a special teams score yet, but it may just be a matter of time if he keeps getting those calls.
Defensive MVP: DL Yetur Gross-Matos
Tied for the team lead in sacks (5.5, tied with Shake Toney), Gross-Matos has lived up to the billing as one of the top defensive linemen on the roster. Gross-Matos also leads the team with 8.5 tackles for a loss with an average of 1.42 per game.
Best Moment of the First Half: Defeating Pitt in Last Scheduled Meeting in Series
Say what you will about the rivalry between Penn State and Pitt, whether you are in favor of the game being played or not, it would be hard to find any Penn State player, coach, or fan who doesn't take a little bit of extra pride in seeing this series go on the shelf having won the last three meetings. Penn State got some extra joy in the 17-10 win thanks to a questionable coaching decision by Pat Narduzzi to kick a field goal late in the game, only to have the field goal attempt backfire on the Panthers.
Best Newcomer: RB Noah Cain
Penn State’s running back by committee may be transitioning into a ground attack led by Cain. The true freshman leads the team with 310 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Cain has rushed for 100-plus yards in each of Penn State's last two games with 105 yards and a touchdown against Purdue and 102 against Iowa with a touchdown that proved to be the game-winning score.
Biggest Surprise: Holding Every Opponent to 13 Points or Fewer
Penn State's defense was supposed to be a strength this season, and that has panned out. And while the schedule may not have been the most difficult out there, holding all six opponents so far to fewer than two touchdowns is a remarkable feat. Wisconsin may have four shutouts already, but the feat accomplished by the Nittany Lions is a rarity as well.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Who will lead on the ground?
As mentioned, Noah Cain appears to be developing into the top running back threat for the Nittany Lions. Will that truly be the case, or will Penn State continue to thrive on the ground using multiple backs and get others more involved? Ricky Slade hasn’t really gotten going yet but could be ready to break out at any time. But this may just be the Noah Cain show on the ground for the most part in the second half of the season.
2 Can Penn State find a way to start a game quickly on offense?
Penn State has had some slow starts this season. Fortunately, the Nittany Lions have been able to recover and find some scoring drives to win every game so far. Last week against Iowa may have been the toughest test yet, and Penn State prevailed with a 17-12 victory. With Michigan and Michigan State on deck, the offense will be challenged to get off to some fast starts in big games.
3 Is this really a championship defense?
Head coach James Franklin has said his team is playing championship defense, and the numbers certainly back that up. Bu if it is truly a championship defense, will it be able to shut down Michigan and Ohio State on a quest to play for a Big Ten title?
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 23 at Ohio State
This is an easy one. Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten and the game is being played in Ohio Stadium. With the way the Buckeyes are cruising, there's nothing easy about this game even with Penn State's defense playing this well. The next-to-last game of the regular season could carry the fate of the Big Ten East.
2. Oct. 19 vs. Michigan
Michigan's offense may be struggling, but Jim Harbaugh has held the upper hand on James Franklin the last four seasons with a 3-1 lead in the series. Besides Ohio State, Michigan may have the best defense left for Penn State to figure out.
3. Oct. 26 at Michigan State
The Spartans remain a bit of a pain for Penn State. Michigan State has had its offensive issues each of the past couple of seasons, including this fall, but always seems to make enough big plays to clip Penn State. A trip to East Lansing is never easy, and Penn State cannot afford to drop this game.
4. Nov. 9 at Minnesota
Don't look now, but Minnesota is probably going to be 8-0 when Penn State heads to Minneapolis in November. The Gophers have won close games for much of the season and they get Rutgers and Maryland before hosting the Nittany Lions. P.J. Fleck has something cooking, and Penn State may be on upset alert in this one.
5. Nov. 16 vs. Indiana
A home game against the Hoosiers should lead to a good amount of points for the Nittany Lions. This should be a favorable matchup of Penn State, who has lost just once to Indiana since joining the Big Ten in 1993.
6. Nov. 30 vs. Rutgers
Rutgers is a mess, and won't be any better in the regular-season finale in Beaver Stadium. Already having fired their head coach and seeing a handful of players choose to redshirt the remainder of the season, the Scarlet Knights should be a dead team walking at the end of November when Penn State could be looking to secure a spot in a New Year's Six bowl game.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.