Nittany Lions are playing for more than themselves

Commentary

LOS ANGELES — Bowl games are generally viewed as either a cap to a great regular season or a springboard toward next year.

With the gorgeous Rose Bowl as tonight’s backdrop, Penn State actually finds itself in both scenarios.

The No. 5 Nittany Lions’ glamour matchup with No. 9 USC provides an opportunity to put a bow on one of the best seasons in Penn State history — definitely the most unexpected — and represents a chance to stamp the Lions as a top-five or better team entering the 2017 season.

Saturday night, though, added another interesting subplot to all that Penn State is playing for and has to gain.

Ohio State’s 31-0 loss to Clemson in the national semifinals, in which the Buckeyes have never looked worse, followed by one day Michigan’s slow start and 33-32 setback to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

The combination raised the national narrative that the Big Ten is overrated and passed the torch to the Nittany Lions to restore the conference’s credibility on the big stage.

Indeed, if they can do it, the Nits can serve notice that they — and not the Buckeyes or the senior-laden Wolverines — could be the Big Ten’s team to beat next season.

While the conference’s 2-5 record can be evened today by Penn State, Wisconsin (over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl) and Iowa (over Florida in the Outback Bowl), even the Big Ten’s hype machine can’t absorb a body blow of its marquee programs going 0-3 in the brightest of lights and come out unscathed.

Which means the onus, fairly on not, has shifted to the Lions coming up big, or there’s no way that the league runnerup will be granted Final Four consideration next year.

In that regard, the ball preparing to drop on New Year’s Eve in New York City had already been dropped by the Buckeyes, who looked unprepared and were totally exposed by Clemson as a team effectively defensed when J.T. Barrett is kept in the pocket.

Knowing his players watched and wanting to send them a message to focus only on the streaking Trojans, James Franklin quickly took to Twitter with his, “USC, USC, USC” pleas.

And yet, isn’t this the perfect scenario for Penn State and for Franklin, who has long admitted he’s “had a chip on my shoulder” his entire life dating back to his days as East Stroudsburg’s quarterback?

Isn’t Ohio State and Michigan going down and the door swinging open for PSU, with almost everyone back next year, exactly how he’s positioned the Lions as poised underdogs?

USC is a touchdown favorite, and now Franklin, who was passed over by his peers as Big Ten coach of the year (he won the media vote), and Trace McSorley, who came in behind Barrett as the Big Ten’s best quarterback, have a chance to make another statement.

It’s precisely the role Franklin has thrived on.

In his final press conference Saturday to the anticipated lead-up, Franklin did acknowledge the opportunity his team faces for today and beyond, saying, “It’s last time our family will be together … but also there is an awareness that this does give us some momentum going into the spring and also into next season, and the excitement that the foundation that these men have laid for our program for the future.”

The sense of excitement was obvious here Sunday afternoon as Penn State fans converged on a pep rally in estimates of 10,000 strong, turning the Laker purple outside the Staples Center into a sea of blue.

Not surprisingly, when he was introduced Sunday, Franklin drew a huge ovation as the man who went from September hot seat to December national coach of the year finalist has mended a fractured Penn State community by respecting the past and brightening the future.

And, of course, by winning.

Though each step raises expectations, regardless of today’s outcome, this has been a great year, one filled with comebacks, often in entertaining fashion.

The three-week layoff between the regular season and the bowl season often leads to uneven performances. Ohio State and others proved that.

USC is always a tough out. Dating back, ironically, to the 1996 Kickoff Classic, when Curtis Enis & Co. smacked the Trojans, 24-7, Southern Cal had won 13 straight against the Big Ten until Wisconsin snapped that streak in last year’s Holiday Bowl.

The last time these two teams met, in the 2009 Rose Bowl, USC led 31-7 in the second quarter en route to a 38-24 win. Penn State fans can remember Trojan linebacker Rey Maualuga taunting them in the end zone with a four-touchdown lead. Some of them wanted to come out of the stands.

Joe Paterno coached from the press box that day. The Lions’ current players were in elementary school at the time, and Franklin hadn’t even gotten to Vanderbilt yet.

Much has changed in the last eight years — much of it painful — but here the Nittany Lions are again, back in the “granddaddy of them all,” with a chance for everything to come up roses.

Who could have asked for a better way to start 2017?

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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