Penn State is back on the brightest stage of college football. To many fans of the team the success has come as a complete surprise, or at least ahead of schedule for what was thought to be the timeline required to repair the wounded program.
At the start of the game with Michigan State many fans, and some players as well, had one eye on the game in Happy Valley and one on the double-overtime game in Columbus. As Penn State struggled to stop Michigan State from working its way up and down the field in the early-going of the game, the Ohio State Buckeyes were fighting for both their own, and also the Lions’, post-season chances.
Inside Beaver Stadium the atmosphere was initially complacent. A late-arriving crowd combined with the tension of the game unfolding between two of the top three teams in the country, sapped some of the energy out of the stadium. The enthusiasm returned in full force when it was made public that Ohio State had defeated Michigan and in turn cleared a path for Penn State to qualify for the Big Ten Championship game, and possibly the NCAA Playoffs.
And at the same time, the Lions were trailing 9-3 early in the second quarter, after allowing MSU a great deal of yardage but only the payoff of field goals at the end of long, methodical drives. Penn State answered with a late first-half touchdown that was good for a brief 10-9 lead, but would allow the Spartans to tack on a field goal just before time expired.
In the second half, as has been the case for most of this season, the Lions dominated on the field and on the scoreboard. The tenacious defense forced two Spartan punts and then a fumble in the first three possessions while the offense scored three consecutive touchdowns to bring the Penn State lead to 31-12 with just over two minutes to play in the third quarter.
The stage was set and the final quarter of the game was a victory lap for the players and their fans, who have waited years to see the team playing for such high stakes. Penn State added two very late touchdowns, turning the tables on the Spartans from a year ago. In 2015 Michigan State was dominating the over-matched Penn State squad 41-16 in the fourth quarter when it tacked on two additional scores, one a 9-yard touchdown run by its center Jack Allen, who was given the chance to play tailback.
The game ended with a national audience watching as Penn State scored 35 second-half points and shut out the Spartans after halftime. Around the country Nittany Lion fans scrambled to make arrangements for travel to Indianapolis next Saturday, as the team will continue its miraculous run at the Big Ten Championship, facing the Wisconsin Badgers.
There Is Much To Be Thankful For
Had Ohio State lost as the Penn State game was just getting underway, it would have been a type of disappointment. While there would have been plenty for the team to play for; a ten-win regular season and a prestigious bowl game, part of the luster would have been taken off the afternoon.
It would have felt as though the president came into your house just prior to Thanksgiving dinner and pardoned the turkey while it was right there in front of you, prepped and ready to devour. Sure there would be a lot more to feast on other than the turkey, but the big prize would have been taken off the table. The Lions played the game knowing that if they won they would have a chance at the whole enchilada. The Big Ten Champion may very well be rewarded with a spot in the College Football Playoffs. There’s a lot of meat remaining on the bone for this hungry Penn State team. If the game goes well in Indianapolis, the team could find itself at another fiesta, the semi-final location of the College Football Playoffs. Peaches and fiestas may be in the future for the Lions, but first it must dispatch of the gritty Badgers.
Coach Franklin spent Thanksgiving, and the press conference after the win, with his family. It was clear that the coach can not only handle his x’s and o’s but also facilitate the sharing of a Gatorade while talking football. As he began to answer a question regarding his team’s tendency to finish stronger than it starts the game, he popped open a bottle and the festivities began. As Franklin explained the finer points of coaching a young offense, and a young quarterback, he demonstrated that he also knows how to coach up his daughters as well.
If you notice in the video, around the 56-second mark, coach Franklin is able to keep his eyes up-field toward the press while taking the hand-off. There was confusion initially at the mesh point, but with a slight nudge the transfer was completed, and without taking his eyes off the coverage, the Gatorade was transferred from one Franklin daughter to the next without turning the bottle over.
At the end of the response that Franklin gave he said that it has been fun watching quarterback Trace McSorley grow up in front of our eyes. It has been an amazing year, watching so many young Penn State players step into leadership roles. The team is indeed growing up in front of our eyes. Also the head coach, and the staff, are growing up in front of our eyes. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry took a large step up in responsibility this year and he has proven to be up to the task. Joe Moorhead and his offensive system has proven to be sufficient to compete with any team in the nation.
And coach Franklin has taken a step forward from an up-and-coming coach, one with potential but yet to prove he is worthy of being considered a top challenger, to one who has a team in the hunt for a Big Ten and National Championship. It was once thought that it could take years for Penn State to oust the Buckeyes and Wolverines from atop the Big Ten East division standings, not to mention the Spartans. It’s amazing to see Penn State, in just Franklin’s third season, win a division title with such stout competition.
The team is growing up in front of our eyes. So too is the head bald coach and also his young family. The resurgence of the Penn State football program is coming of age as well. Many fans of the team, who have been around long enough to have seen the peaks and valleys of the past, are well served to appreciate the heights that this team has achieved thus far.
Look around at the landscape of college football this season. There are many great teams that do not have a chance to win their way into the College Football Playoffs. It takes a special blend of skill, circumstance, and timing to get a shot at a Big Ten or National championship. Penn State has just that, with a roster full of talent that will return next season and for the most part, the year after that.
Let’s take the time to appreciate the little treasures that come with this success. There is no certainty that the team will return to the Big Ten Championship next year, or any time soon after that. Take in the peripheral joys, like coach Franklin’s daughters sharing the stage with their triumphant father as he basks in the glow of his team’s success.
While it is reasonable to expect the team to keep a laser-beam focus on Wisconsin, we fans can afford to take note of the additional treasures that come with the success on the field.
Renewing Our Vows
For many people this new version of Penn State football success has come by surprise. That doesn’t make it any less sweet. Some people involved in this resurgence and return to the greatest stage of college football deserve more than just the acknowledgement of success, or the hugs that the rest of us share.
At the beginning of the season James Franklin was supposed to be on the proverbial ‘hot seat.’ His job was to be kept only if he produced on the field, some thought. Others believed that he would have this and one more season to prove that he can take the program to higher levels of play. Even the harshest of critics can concede that Franklin has proven himself worthy of a lengthy, and lucrative, contract extension. There was a great deal of talk about a ‘ten year war’ during The Other Game, a war that would feature Urban Meyer versus Jim Harbaugh for the coming decade. Penn State would do well to ensure that Franklin is given a contract that would allow him to see the Lions through this ten-year stretch as well.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead deserves to be paid as one of the top coaches-in-waiting in all of college football. Christian Hackenberg doesn’t tweet often, but when he does, he often mentions Penn State football. This is what he had to say following the game.
Indeed. Pay Joe Moorhead as though he is a head coach. He will be a head coach once again some day based on his offensive prowess. Every effort should be made to retain this coaching staff. And if a coach or two should move on to greener pastures, let’s remember that at the start of the season it was thought that our team would miss former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who left for Tennessee. Brent Pry, an unproven internal-hire, stepped into the coordinator job and didn’t miss a beat. As sad as it will be when Joe Moorhead moves on in the coming years, no single piece of this program is irreplaceable.