Showing pride in their football program, Penn State fans rushed the field after defeating No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 22.
Matt Millen isn’t sold yet on Penn State being major force in college football again. But the idea is like a chocolate-coated pill—it’s going down easier with time.
First, his alma mater pulled off a dramatic 24-21 victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State two weeks ago. Then the school backed it up with last Saturday’s 62-24 win at Purdue. Now the buzz has been that the Nittany Lions are finally back.
Not quite, says the analyst for the Big Ten Network.
“You ever see the movie The Princess Bride?” Millen asked, specifically referring to the scene in which Billy Crystal’s character Miracle Max calls the hero “only mostly dead” before reviving him.
“Penn State is mostly back. They’re not all the way back.”
That might be inconceivable to some fans, especially after the College Football Playoff committee placed Penn State 12th in its initial rankings this week. But Happy Valley is again just that when it comes to the football program.
It’s been five years since news of the horrific Jerry Sundusky scandal broke, the former assistant coach casting a dark shadow that will linger for a long, long time. Gone but not forgotten are the actions of the convicted serial child molester, nor should they be. But at the same time, it’s understandable why both the program and community would want to move on as quickly as possible.
For football, it boils down to one thing in particular: winning.
During those five years, the once-storied program has gone though investigations, NCAA sanctions, scholarship limits, the bowl ban and more. The stigma still hovers with regular reminders. Thursday, the federal government fined Penn State $2.4 million for failure to report criminal activity on campus. Such news contributes to the struggles.”
The head coach Penn State hired to replace Joe Paterno, Bill O’Brien, left after just two years for the National Football League. James Franklin replaced O’Brien, and his first two years resulted in back-to-back 7-6 records. Last year, his team lost to Temple for the first time since 1941. It was 0-6 against Big Ten rivals Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State during 2014 and 2015.
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Things continued to look bleak early on this season, as injury after injury mounted. The linebacker position alone lost seven players to injury. Penn State lost to in-state rival Pitt and lost to Michigan 49-10. Things appeared to be on the brink of falling apart, and chants of “Fire Franklin!” echoed at Beaver Stadium.
On top of all that, Franklin’s brother-in-law died of cancer days before the Ohio State game, leaving behind two young children. That made the coach emotional during his postgame press conference.
“This community’s been through so much in the last five years. This is a big step in the right direction. A healing,” Franklin said, minutes after fans stormed the field in celebration. “I couldn’t be more proud.
“This is for everyone.”
Only in that context can one appreciate what the Nittany Lions have accomplished. Some programs might have never seen such a revival. At a lot of other places, it would have taken decades. Instead, Penn State is just one game off the East Division lead.
The program might have a shot at the Rose Bowl if it can finish strong this month against Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan State, which are a combined 13-19.
What bowl game will Penn State play in?
Music City Bowl0%
What bowl game will Penn State play in?
“It’s massive on a lot of fronts,” Millen said about the Ohio State victory. ”I think it was a huge confidence-builder for the entire program. Players, coaches, fans, everybody. It’s one of those wins in which you go, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ Until you do it, you continue to question it. Always.
“Well the answer now has been given. ‘Yes we can.’”
Getting to that point, though, still took time.
For one, the offensive line was a mess when Franklin arrived, lacking enough scholarship players to have a full two-sided scrimmage. While the numbers slowly climbed back, the unit surrendered 83 sacks the past two seasons.
He also made two coaching hires that now look to be successful, bringing in Matt Limegrover to head the offensive line and former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator.
Moorhead didn’t just plug the players into a system. He did the opposite—building the offense to suit what was on the roster. That included making Trace McSorley the starting quarterback. He doesn’t have the strongest arm arm but won teammates over with his fierce competitive nature.
The process remains ongoing.
“That’s good coaching,” Millen said about the approach. “The best move that he’s made so far is hire Joe Moorhead, and then he’s been strong enough as a head coach to let him have his room and let him operate. And that wasn’t going on the first couple of years there, from what I’m told.”
That all coincided with the development of one player in particular, running back Saquon Barkley, whom Franklin called a “difference-maker.” Even Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh referred to Barkley as being a “real stud.”
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Last year, he set the Penn State rushing record with 1,076 rushing yards (topping D.J. Dozier’s mark of 1,002 set in 1983). This season, he already has 888 to lead the Big Ten.
Against Purdue, he had a career-high 207 rushing yards and 277 all-purpose yards to help lead the blowout—after the game had been tied at 17 at halftime. According to College Football Focus, he leads the nation in the percent of runs that are of 15 or more yards with a 59.2 mark. He’s also averaging 3.81 yards after contact, which is tied for seventh in FBS.
“I don’t want to say he’s the best back out there, but if he’s not, he’s pretty darn close,” Millen said.
Meanwhile, the injured players on defense have started to come back. After losing Jason Cabinda (hand) in the opener, fellow outside linebacker Brandon Bell (undisclosed) a week later, they combined to make 31 tackles against Ohio State.
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Penn State is still 47th nationally in total defense, tied for 61st in scoring defense and 81st against the run, but it’s improving. That, in addition to having a young roster, is possibly the primary cause for optimism with this team.
“Probably the biggest change has been external, not internal,” Franklin said, but even that’s significant.
Instead of the talk surrounding the program being about the past, the focus has finally become about the future. Recruiting is the next step in the recovery process and requires a much-needed turnaround. Scout.com ranked last year’s class 21st in the nation, down from 13th in 2015. Penn State is currently ranked 26th.
According to Franklin, Penn State had nearly 180 recruits on hand for the Ohio State game, of which approximately 70 had scholarship offers.
“If you get one kid out of that, it’s a success,” assistant head coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith said.
Because one good recruit can lead to another—and then another. Recruits soon could again consider Penn State an attractive destination and one of the crown jewels of college football.
It’ll take more than its first win against a top-two team since 1990 (No. 1 Notre Dame, 24-21) to recapture its past glory. But Penn State appeared in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2011—No. 24 last week and now 20th.
After five long years, optimism again abounds. As Smith noted, the buy-in is now greater with the team. The buzz is growing, and Franklin has a foundation on which to build for the rest of this season and beyond.
But it still won’t be easy.
What an insane closing shot from Happy Valley. #PennState pic.twitter.com/GUlDCtjfRA
— Justin Raub (@Justin_Raub) October 23, 2016
“They’re going to be favored these last four games, and three of the four games could be coin flips,” Millen said. “This could be a coin-flip game coming up with Iowa. It’s a coin-flip game against Indiana—and even the Michigan State game. That could be a coin-flip game if Michigan State plays its best game.
“I don’t think they’re out of the woods yet.”
But at 6-2, the Nittany Lions are on their way.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.