Nittany Lions’ focus gets final test

UNIVERSITY PARK — While Penn State’s 9-2 record this season was definitely unpredictable, the same cannot be said for James Franklin’s weekly approach.

Franklin’s focus has been such that many questions throughout this seven-game win streak that even inched toward the bigger picture have typically been met with broken-record responses, “Indiana, Indiana, Indiana, Indiana” or “Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers.”

It’s difficult to argue with Franklin’s methods or his success as the Nittany Lions — stunningly — are within a couple of steps today of landing in their first Big Ten championship game.

But it was also mildly surprising Tuesday when a inquiry concerning all the distractions today and how they’ll be handled brought an appropriate breath of candor.

Penn State finds itself in a unique situation as part of its fate will be determined by an Ohio State-Michigan game that starts at noon and will not be over when the Lions are preparing to end their regular season against Michigan State.

Franklin was asked what the approach will be. Instead of launching into “Michigan State, Michigan State, Michigan State,” he refreshingly addressed the issue.

“We’ve discussed it as a staff. We’re going to talk about it with the team,” he said. “How that game plays out, who wins, who loses, how people look at that and how that impacts our future. There’s no doubt that’s going to be a factor. So we’re going to discuss it ahead of time.”

Interestingly, Penn State has made a conscious effort this year to get fans into Beaver Stadium earlier to build the pre-game atmosphere and to avoid the last-minute rush from the parking lots that congest the entrances, especially in the student sections.

That incentive has included, for the first time, airing other games live on the jumbo scoreboards.

Internal discussions on whether to show the Buckeyes-Wolverines took place this week, and Franklin was involved.

“It’s not like we just put our head in the sand and act like these things aren’t going on,” he said. “We discuss them as a program, we discuss them as a staff, with the players, let people get off their chest what they need to get off their chest, make sure we’re approaching things the right way, the way the players want to approach it as well as the coaches.”

Thus, Michigan-Ohio State is not expected to be shown on the video board but will be available in the suites and concourses prior to the Senior Day introductions.

Which makes sense.

The last thing Franklin wants or needs is his players getting overly caught up in the emotions of a scenario in which they have no control.

If the Buckeyes-Wolverines game goes final before the Lions’ 3:30 (probably 3:45) kickoff, Franklin will frame his message prior to taking the field.

“Once again, I’m going to go back to my approach,” he said. “None of that matters if we don’t handle our business against Michigan State.”

That approach is especially significant regardless of whether Ohio State beats the Wolverines, as expected, and opens the Lions’ door to Indianapolis or if Michigan springs the upset.

If the Wolverines win, the Lions might have to deal with a mental letdown that they can’t afford.

No one expected Penn State to be in this position, and it sure could end one of its most remarkable seasons ever — and certainly its best under Franklin — the wrong way by not being ready for a 3-8 Spartan team that has woefully underachieved but is still quite dangerous. Witness its one-point loss last week to Ohio State.

With moving parts and some potential iffy weather — though surely better than last week at Rutgers — today is an excellent test of the Nittany Lions’ mental toughness as they attempt to send their small senior class out on a high note and finish the 2016 home regular season unbeaten.

If that happens, no matter who wins the game at the Horseshoe, Penn State’s glass won’t be half empty or half full.

It will runneth over.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or