Let me preface this piece by getting a few things out of the way. I attended Penn State University. I graduated from there in May. I had football season tickets when I went to school there. I loved the time I spent there and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world. It’s one of those things where you can really only relate if you’ve attended the school or have someone close to you who has.
I am not a Penn State homer, a “cult member” or a diehard Paterno fan. In fact, the Paterno faction there is something that I still believe holds the university back from getting past the Jerry Sandusky fallout. I won’t defend Paterno or anyone involved with or had knowledge of what went on. Moreover, during my time at the school, I didn’t root for the football team. I had a strong dislike for the quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who I thought was a selfish and stubborn player, plus, I wasn’t completely sold on coach James Franklin.
There are people who hate Penn State for a number of reasons, and I’m not here to try to sway anyone’s opinion of the school because it’s more than likely a lost cause. Frankly, I don’t care either. But I will say that whether you like them or not, what this football program has been able to do this year has been nothing short of astonishing.
If you haven’t heard, the Nittany Lions capped a magical season with a 45-12 drubbing of Michigan State at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, capturing the Big Ten East title and setting up a date with West champ Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship this Saturday in Indianapolis. The winner of the game has a outside chance to get into the college football playoff.
That in itself is more than Penn State fans could have hoped for.
Coming off two 7-6 seasons, James Franklin entered 2016 on the hot seat — no matter if anyone surrounding the Penn State program might have said otherwise. At Penn State, winning is expected, and Franklin hadn’t done enough of it in his first two seasons in Happy Valley. But with the Sandusky scandal sanctions a thing of the past, the Nits could finally just focus on football.
Things didn’t start off great, and that might be and understatement. After handling Kent State in the first week of the season, the Lions lost a heartbreaker to Pitt after rallying from a 21-point deficit to lose 42-39 in the two schools’ first matchup since 2000. It wasn’t a good look for Franklin, who had promised to “dominate the state” in his introductory press conference in 2014. At that time, it was a rallying cry, but after being defeated by the rivals to the west, that statement looked to be rather foolish.
The next week, Franklin’s Lions beat Temple by just a touchdown. And while a win is a win, it was much closer than it should have been.
A 49-19 thrashing by Michigan came next week at the Big House in Ann Arbor, a loss that showed just how far (at that time) the Lions were from being able to compete with the Big Ten’s best. Additionally, a 2-2 record had escalated the rumors that Franklin could be fired at the end of the season, rumors that were quickly shot down by Penn State AD Sandy Barbour.
What has happened since that game Michigan game on September 24 has been a renewed focus and complete transformation from the Nits.
Eight straight victories have followed to end the season — highlighted by a thrilling 24-21 victory over No. 2 Ohio State in late October which finally put the program back on the national map and into the Top 25 polls.
Along the way, quarterback Trace McSorely has developed into an effective game manager and even better leader. There may not be another quarterback in college football who plays with as much heart and toughness as this kid, and it’d be hard to say the Lions would be where they are without him. In Saturday’s win vs. MSU, the redshirt sophomore set the Penn State record for total yards in a season, with 3,348.
Sophomore phenom running back Saquon Barkley — a Doak Walker finalist, has been the team’s MVP and most talented player. He’s played himself into Heisman trophy consideration by rushing for 1,219 yards and 15 TDs — and could one day find himself as Penn State’s all-time leading rusher.
Not to be overlooked has been the decision to bring on offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, hired away by Franklin from Fordham last offseason. Moorhead has paid huge dividends for the Lions, as they’ve averaged 36.1 points and 430 yards per game. He’s been a huge reason for both McSorely and Barkley’s success, as well as the rise of tight end Mike Gesicki.
Defensively, linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda have become the vocal leaders for one of the most dominant units in the NCAA. Bell was just named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week thanks to his 18 tackle performance against the Spartans.
The loss of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee has proved to be not much of a loss at all. Brent Pry has stepped in to lead a defense that has allowed just 346.8 total yards and 22.8 points per game. You can’t say enough about the job he’s been able to do, especially after losing seniors Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel, Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas to graduation.
Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan have stepped up admirably in Nassib and Zettel’s places, leading a menacing Lions’ front four. Redshirt senior Malik Golden and junior Marcus Allen have guided a secondary that has been particularly exceptional, giving up only 200.5 yards through the air, which is 30th best in all of Division I-A college football.
So here the Nittany Lions sit, awaiting the Badgers in the B1G championship game, one win from extending what has been one of the most unexpected seasons from a college football team in recent memory — and that’s despite all the BS, all the things this team had going against them. Don’t remember? I’ll remind you.
- $60 million fine
- Four-year postseason ban (later reduced)
- Loss of 20 scholarships
- Five years of probation
- Vacating of all wins from 1998-2011 (later restored)
What’s more is that they are one of the youngest teams in the nation, returning just 40 letterman from the 2015 squad and honored just 17 seniors on Saturday, yet here they are, about to play in what may be the most meaningful game for the program in the last 20 years. Crazy stuff. Unreal stuff.
Franklin took over a program in shambles in January 2014 and less than three years later has them on the precipice of becoming champions of arguably the best conference of the Power 5. And with that, he’s erased any doubt that he might not be the right guy for the job. Most importantly, he’s quieted the Paterno faction that criticized his hiring.
That dark November day five years ago when Sandusky was indicted on child molestation charges still stings this university. It always will. By no means are we past that, and by no means will the victims of Jerry Sandusky ever get past that. I’m not here to act like Penn State students, alumni, fans or even the players are victims or owed anything because of it. But sports has a way of bringing people together, and that’s what James Franklin and this Lions team has been able to do this year.
For maybe the first time in the past five years, Penn State football fans have something to be excited about. Perhaps the best part is that this isn’t the end of this Cinderella story, there’s still much to be written.
Win or lose, this season has been one for the books.
Written by Tyler DiSalle
Image Source: GoPSUSports.com