Lions progressing to lofty heights
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — After Penn State completed yet another second-half comeback en route to its sixth-straight Big Ten victory and headed for the 2016 regular-season finish line at a spiffy 8-2, the Nittany Lions’ extraordinary progress and improvement was not lost on the man who sits in the front seat of the team bus.
James Franklin noted the win streak is the program’s longest since the 1994 season — already 22 years ago — and he couldn’t help but take a moment to deservedly bask in the Lions’ success.
“I’m proud of that,” he said, PSU’s 45-31 win over Indiana on Saturday in the bag. “There’s been a lot of good football played here.”
Franklin’s young team is definitely playing good football, too.
It has now come back from double-digit deficits three times this season — when defeat against Minnesota, Ohio State and Indiana, which led 24-14 in the second half, seemed likely.
“Nobody panicked,” Franklin said, calling his team “gutsy” and “resilient.”
Penn State has proven it can win with a big-play offense and a swarming defense. Its special teams are vastly improved.
And when it sees its own blood, it becomes even more dangerous.
The Lions have outscored their opponents 215-105 in the second half this year, which includes a 31-17 overcoming of the Hoosiers that was punctuated by a 24-7 fourth quarter.
The win streak is even more pronounced as the Lions are carrying post-intermission 150-53 — 175-67 if you add Pitt.
Clearly, Penn State is not only outplaying its opponents, it’s outcoaching them, too.
“If you look at our wins, every one is different,” Franklin said, “and with a young, developing, growing team, that’s an important trait.”
Tight end Mike Gesicki, who is playing like he has an NFL future, noted that teams of the past would have “put their heads down” when in-game problems occurred.
“That’s not who we are anymore,” he said. “We learned from our experience, and we’re able to move forward and use our adversity from the past and put it to use now. We all saw what we’re capable of in the fourth quarter.”
Franklin has been emphasizing positive “leadership and body language,” and the results are obvious.
Even with Indiana committed to stopping Saquon Barkley, the Lions didn’t abandon plays for their best player, and they eventually burned the Hoosiers with a 54-yard flea flicker from Trace McSorley to DaeSean Hamilton, made possible after Barkley flipped the ball back to McSorley.
“What you can’t do when you’re struggling with the run game is abort it,” Franklin said.
Penn State managed to rally back against the Hoosiers despite a rash of injuries that has practically depleted the offensive line, but as was the case with the linebacking corps earlier in the season, backups rallied to the cause.
“We’ve built a lot of depth on our team,” Gesicki, whose five catches for 78 yards led Saturday’s effort, said.
“We have a number of guys who are stepping up,” McSorley, who in less than one season has already proven to be one of the gutsiest quarterbacks in school history, said. “The perseverance and the toughness … everyone expects the next guy to come in and not have any kind of dropoff.”
Franklin has avoided bowl and poll talk, as well he should, but the players admit they’re conscious of the possibilities they’ve created for themselves.
They also know, with the entire roster stocked with underclassmen, they’re building something beyond this season.
“A lot of players are getting experience,” Franklin said, “and that’s going to help us down the road.”
The Lions’ current ranking of No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings is the highest Penn State has enjoyed since the 2005 season, when it finished No. 3, and the 2008-09 stretch, when it was ranked as high as No. 3.
Not to overreact to a win over an Indiana team that coughed up five fumbles and committed eight penalties — which constitutes shooting yourself in the foot not with a gun but a howitzer — but this is the best shape the Nittany Lions’ program has been since the last six-game streak was crafted.
For this reason: All through the 2000s, even the Orange and Capital One Bowl success of 2005 and ’09 and the Rose Bowl trip in ’08, the lingering uncertainly of Joe Paterno’s status and his successor hung over the program.
Clearly, now, the future is defined, and it’s very much trending upward.
“We’re taking one game at a time and that kind of mentality,” McSorley said. “But big picture, we’re trying to reinstate that old Penn State, that hard-nosed mentality, that blue-collar mentality that’s always been with Penn State.”
“(And) the more we keep going, we’re trying to get back to the Penn State of old.”
Few can argue that these Nittany Lions, after all they’ve been through and put in their rear-view mirror over the last five years, are getting there.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.