Lions’ performance matches atmosphere
UNIVERSITY PARK — James Franklin’s tenure hasn’t completed four years yet, but it’s already produced some memorable games.
Ohio State last year. The Big Ten championship comeback against Wisconsin. The current collective stretch — 16 wins in the last 17 games with the lone loss an impressive performance in the Rose Bowl.
Saturday night added another solid pillar to the foundation that is clearly being built here as the Nittany Lions turned in their most complete big-game performance under Franklin by dominating Michigan, 42-13, at Beaver Stadium.
Via its GameDay appearance, ESPN beat the drums all week long, and sometimes the pre-game hype can make the event too big for the home team.
That’s happened to Penn State before as the Lions were 2-3 when GameDay came calling.
They beat Arizona (1999) and had the magical night against Ohio State in 2005, but they were also completely blown out against Michigan (1997) and Ohio State (2007) and laid an egg against Iowa in 2009, GameDay’s last visit.
This night would be much, much different.
“The environment was unreal,” Franklin said.
Penn State was equal to it and in fact fueled it.
Before a Beaver Stadium whiteout and record crowd of 110,823, the Nittany Lions started fast and finished strong, all the while serving notice they are worthy of their current distinction as the nation’s best football team not named Alabama.
At 7-0, Penn State now rolls into Columbus next week with a full head of steam.
The Lions’ big-play offense opened with Heisman Trophy frontrunner Saquon Barkley busting a 69-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat formation on the game’s second play. Take a bow, Joe Moorhead.
And even when they hit a second-quarter lull after their 14-0 lead was placed in jeopardy, Trace McSorley showed he has a competitive heart as big as anyone who has ever played here.
McSorley accounted for 358 yards and four touchdowns — three by rush and one through the air — and the Lion receivers again came up huge, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki in particular.
The offense easily was the best it has been all year while the defense remained a suffocating constant, racking up seven sacks and limiting Michigan’s running game to an average of 2.5 yards per rush (the Lions averaged 6.4).
“All week long, everybody was talking about their defense,” Franklin said. “We got a pretty good defense around here, too.”
The victory totally flipped the 49-10 drubbing the Lions absorbed last year in Ann Arbor and underscored the head-turning improvement Franklin has made since taking the job in 2014.
To the point that there should be no mistaking this: Penn State has become an extremely well coached football team.
In carrying the first quarter, 14-0, the Lions have outscored their opponents by an astounding 90-0 this season. They are the nation’s only team not to give up a single point in the first quarter.
It was a point of emphasis in the offseason because Penn State too often started slowly last year. That’s obviously been corrected.
So, too, is this staff adept at making adjustments, scheming and coming out of the gate quickly.
The Nits are not only dominating the first quarter, they’re outscoring the other guy 72-3 in third quarter.
That adds up to 162-3 in the quarters after the team emerges from its locker room, which is amazing.
OK, people will nitpick the schedule and say the Big Ten isn’t loaded with great offenses. Maybe so, but the Lions will run into one this week in Columbus, and what a matchup this promises to be.
Late Saturday night, Franklin refused to mention Ohio State by name, calling the Buckeyes only “our next opponent.”
He looked at somebody’s cell phone, which read 11:23, and said he and his players would only celebrate beating Michigan for another 37 minutes.
Maybe Franklin was in the Halloween spirit, and he has every right to be.
But as the clock ticked away and midnight approached, it sure didn’t look like this Nittany Lion chariot was in danger of turning into a pumpkin anytime soon.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.