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Bowl gives Lions chance to start 2015

NEW?YORK – Is a bowl game the end of one season or the beginning of another?

It depends on the season.

Penn State’s storied history includes a number of years – nine to be exact, including the 1948 Cotton Bowl – in which the Nittany Lions arrived at a bowl site intent on clinching a perfect season, national championship or both.

This, of course, is not one of those seasons.

At 6-6, the Lions are merely hoping to avoid a sub-.500 record with a victory over 7-5 Boston College in today’s Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

James Franklin summed it up during the final pre-Pinstripe Bowl press conference Friday afternoon when he said, “You want to end on a real positive note and lay the foundation for the expectation going forward.”

No doubt the seniors who helped keep the Penn State program together – underclassmen following the lead of Michael Mauti and Mike Zordich’s determined pledge to stay in July of 2012 – deserve to exit with a win.

Still, though, this game has more of a feel of the start of 2015 than it does washing away the bad taste of games (Maryland, Illinois) that got away last month.

Looking ahead, rather than back, is typically the mindset when a team will take an experienced quarterback into the following season.

That’s the case with Christian Hackenberg, who will attempt to put a nightmare sophomore year behind him starting at 4:30 p.m. and begin to whet the appetite of the Nittany Nation eager to see the Hackenberg of 2013.

Starting anew, even in December, also makes sense when a first-year coaching staff is completing its honeymoon transition. That may be the most interesting backdrop of today’s game.

Penn State fans are used to bowls and bowl success. There’s a novelty factor this year because the NCAA sanctions were lifted, and PSU was granted postseason eligibility.

The fact that it’s an easy trip to New York City, compared with other bowl venues, adds to the fan-friendly experience and should make for a decidedly pro-PSU crowd.

The last time Penn State played in the city, its basketball team literally shook Madison Square Garden en route to the 2009 NIT title.

To encourage its following, can the Lions find the offensive rhythm that they apparently left in Ireland? Will a retooled offensive line take pressure off the defense? Will Hackenberg, presuming healthier than he’s been since August, play without a twitch brought about by 40-plus sacks?

Most of all, what can we expect from Franklin and his offensive staff that have been largely underwhelming?

Joe Paterno had the bowl formula down pat, sometimes spending nearly two weeks off campus in preparation, and Bill O’Brien didn’t get a chance, which worked in his favor as he was able to interview with the NFL the last two Decembers. (Had BOB not taken the Houston job, we’d likely be enduring the same process again right now.)

Franklin, though, figures to be around longer, and he had success at Vanderbilt, going 2-0 in the postseason, so he has a bowl template.

Today will give us a better idea of that preparation, whether there are new wrinkles or just bubble screens, how he addressed and perhaps fixed 2014’s issues and how much of a building block this game will be.

Or whether more than a month is needed to start making the kind of progress people can feel good about.

For a program that has competed for and won national titles, 7-6 and 6-7 are no really different, especially during a period wrecked by sanctions.

But 1-0 as the 2015 ball prepares to drop in the Big Apple? That may not call for a toast, but it would be reason for moderate optimism of what James Franklin’s second year may bring.

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