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Lion Tales: UMass

The two teams will meet for just the second time on Saturday

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

A current folk rock favorite of mine is a band out of California named Dawes.

Never heard of them? Doesn’t really matter, but I’ll happily bore you with the details in the comment section.

Anyway, on their 2011 release “Nothing is Wrong”, lead singer (and husband of Mandy Moore) Taylor Goldsmith croons these words: “The only point of clocks and maps, the only point of looking back, is to see how far we’ve come.”

Facing UMass in the 2023 season does exactly that. It’s the first time the two teams have met since James Franklin’s first season - 2014. A lot has changed since that 48-7 Penn State victory. So, let’s see how far we’ve come.

When Penn State and UMass last met, the Nittany Lions were 3-0 and the vibe was generally good in Happy Valley. Sam Ficken made a walkoff field goal in Ireland to beat UCF. Penn State’s stagnant offense came to the life in the closing quarter at Rutgers. There was also an easy win against Akron mixed in.

However, every Penn State fan had to have been holding their breath knowing the clear limitations of that 2014 squad even as UMass came to town ahead of five straight Big Ten games.

Penn State, specifically on the lines, was decimated in terms of depth. So, the late September game against the Minutemen proved to be the last empty-the-bench game of Franklin’s first season.

It wasn’t easy from the start as Penn State’s offense struggled to finish drives in the first quarter, settling for a pair of Ficken field goals. But, the Lions exploded for 28 second quarter points and built a 48-0 nothing lead after three quarters.

UMass had just three rushing yards for the game and scored only on a long pass play in the fourth quarter.

Earlier this week, Franklin spoke about how balanced his 2023 team is proving to be. Well, on this day statistically at least, the Lions had some balance. Though Christian Hackenberg was just 12-of-23 for 179 yards, Penn State finished with 236 yards passing.

D.J. Crook (remember that name?) appeared in his only game ever for the Lions, completing a nice 6-of-9 passes and the game’s lone touchdown throw to Brent Wilkerson. Speaking of Crook, check out this interesting story that came after he transferred to Albany.

Geno Lewis led the Lions with five catches for 82 yards.

Meanwhile, the rushing game chewed up 228 yards. Both Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak scored a pair of touchdowns, while Akeel Lynch had a game-high 81 yards and a score. Lastly, Cole Chiappialle had a game-high 16 carries for a Penn State rushing attack that wouldn’t do much else the rest of the season.

Fewer than 100,000 were at Beaver Stadium as Penn State moved to 4-0 for the first time since 2008. A larger crowd was there a week later when the Lions were blown out 29-6 by Northwestern to start a four-game losing streak.

Overall, Penn State would drop six of its final eight regular season games after UMass. But, the NCAA did lift the bowl ban and thanks to a 13-7 win at Indiana and a November win against Temple, the Lions would go back bowling for the first time since the “please, let it be forgotten” Ticket City Bowl in 2011.

Now, 10 seasons later, the hope of James Franklin’s hire has come to fruition. Penn State is ranked No. 5 and a monumental showdown with Ohio State waits in a week. But back in 2014, the hope was still simply a competant and competitive team.

So, I’ll turn back to that band I mentioned in the opening, paraphrasing them to that “in fact, nothing is wrong” with how this has all played out.