Bowl spirit buoyed; 10-win year alive
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State got more than just a W on Saturday.
In blowing out Maryland, 38-3, the Nittany Lions accomplished several things that will carry them for the next five weeks.
They sent their seniors, particularly quarterback Trace McSorley, out with a deserved curtain call.
They bolstered their stock for a bowl game at a warm-weather venue where their fans can leave Saturday’s layered blue and white garb at home.
And they improved to 9-3, keeping alive their chances for a third consecutive 10-win season.
All were rallying points as the Lions moved one step further away from the crushing midseason come-from-ahead home losses to Ohio State and Michigan State and the 35-point shellacking at Michigan, the best team in the Big Ten until the Wolverines pulled into Columbus.
James Franklin acknowledged the peaks and valleys of this year — OK, the valleys — but was buoyed that the Lions closed with three straight wins in which they allowed a total of 20 points.
“Winning convincingly always helps,” Franklin said. “We’re going into bowl preparation with mojo. The energy is much better with the coaches and the players.”
Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, the Lions have never managed three straight 10-win seasons. Franklin motivated his team with that history lesson all week.
“You think about this three-year run,” he said. “I know there were some ups and downs this year, but this is one of the best three-year stretches in program history when you’re talking about the Big Ten era.”
His players bought in.
“Coach told us we’ve got a lot to play for,” running back Miles Sanders said. “That’s the goal — to get 10 wins and create history.”
Twice previously the Lions could claim consecutive 10-win seasons — in 1993-94, their first two years in the Big Ten when they were 10-2 and 12-0 — and ringing up a pair of 11-2s in 2008-09.
Teams did not start playing 12 games annually until 2006, and almost all of those games include an extra home game of the rent-a-win variety, so comparisons are difficult.
Pre-Big Ten, the 1980-82 era still may be the greatest three-year stretch in school history as the Lions went 10-2, 10-2 and 11-1 that culminated with the first national championship.
Led by Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner, Kenny Jackson and an offensive line that was cloning high-round NFL draft picks, that stretch produced some of the greatest players and the greatest games.
It beat Nebraska and Notre Dame twice, Pitt twice with Dan Marino (including 48-14) and Miami. Its bowl victories came over Ohio State, Southern Cal with Marcus Allen and Georgia with Herschel Walker.
So that era obviously stands out as special.
But Franklin is right about the Big Ten, and the recent track record has produced Big Ten and Fiesta Bowl titles and some memorable games, especially in 2016-17.
Despite the 2018 midseason disappointments, getting to 10 wins generally means you’re beating the teams you should beat and that you can feel good about where the program stands.
“We’re going to play a really good opponent (in a bowl),” Franklin said.
Some teams are indifferent about bowl games as potential draftees can be lukewarm and an underclassmen-laden team may lack the necessary leadership.
That isn’t the case for Penn State right now because of McSorley, who will be eager to end his career on a positive note and whose teammates will be eager to do it for him and the fellow seniors.
“We’ll be fine without Trace, but we’re going to miss him,” redshirt freshman receiver KJ Hamler said. “When Trace’s time is up, Tommy (Stevens) is up for the challenge.”
The transition may not be that simple. As Franklin acknowledged, “It’s going to be different next year. We’ll have to start all over.”
Which is why 10-3 would be a good cap for the close of McSorley’s tenure.
It would also be a good building block into 2019, certainly better than 9-4 in a season still seeking a signature victory. Right now, the candidates are Iowa, Pitt and Wisconsin, and the Panthers and Badgers laid eggs Saturday.
Franklin was encouraged by a defensive effort he called “fantastic,” and it was clear McSorley’s knee injury recovered well enough to restore his September quickness.
Without prompting, no doubt a reference to the games lost, Franklin offered, “The next step for us is to play well on the O-line and D-lines against whoever we play.”
A better challenge awaits at a site and date to be determined, probably next Sunday, and it will go a long way in determining the success level of 2018.
And whether the Lions can stake a claim to some history.
“We’re going to get 10 wins,” Hamler said. “We have to keep this rolling.”
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.