Lions can win in multiple ways
Penn State’s 17-12 win at Iowa — the best road win of James Franklin’s six-year tenure — was most impressive in that the Nittany Lions beat the Hawkeyes at their own game.
Iowa is not a great team because it doesn’t have enough offense and/or Kirk Ferentz can’t get more out of the offense he has, but winning in Iowa City at night does qualify as a great win.
And while Saturday night did not have the last-second drama of the 2017 walkoff 21-19 victory on the game’s final play when Trace McSorley hit Juwan Johnson for a touchdown, it was just as satisfying.
No one coaching college football today is more comfortable while losing 10-6 in the fourth quarter than Ferentz, whose on-the-field patience and reliance on defense and special teams is in the Joe Paterno mold.
That’s why although Penn State was outplaying the Hawkeyes — and somehow surviving the officials — victory remained in doubt until the light bulb finally went off to keep Noah Cain in the game, and the gifted true freshman’s touchdown with 5:17 left pretty well sealed it because Iowa can’t come back from two scores down.
Which it proved.
But Penn State also proved something. After Iowa cut the lead to 17-12, the Lions needed to melt the game’s final two minutes, which has not been their strength under Franklin.
Dating back to 2014, his first season, against Maryland — granted, PSU was coming out of the sanctions, but we are talking about Maryland — time and again the Lions have not been strong enough up front to put games away.
We’ve seen it against Ohio State the last two years and other come-from-ahead losses.
Not this time.
In what was clearly the offensive line and Matt Limegrover’s finest hour, Penn State made first downs, milked the clock and took a knee to end it.
Franklin duly noted the achievement afterward.
“We grinded it out at the end, and we haven’t been able to do that — end the game on our terms, to run the ball, make them burn their timeouts and manage the clock,” he said. “There have been growing pains over the years and this season, but we’re getting better.”
Franklin also acknowledged that Cain’s ability has added a needed dimension to the running game.
“Noah’s downhill running compliments the line,” he said. “We’re more diverse in our running game, which (helps) us in four-minute (offense).”
While media covering the Lions, myself included, along with the Nittany Nation, has gotten hoarse calling for Cain to be the starting tailback – and maybe now he will be, we’ll see – Franklin has been proven right so far in that his four-back system would work itself out.
When he was needed most, Cain was the man, and he wound up with a career-high 22 carries and second-straight 100-yard game.
Maybe Franklin knows what he’s doing in keeping his young stud fresh while still creating competition and keeping his other backs, particularly Journey Brown and Devyn Ford, engaged.
A case can be made that Cain would have scored (to make it 14-6) when Brown was stopped at the 1, and that Ricky Slade’s carries in the third quarter produced little, but it’s wise not to have Cain carry 30 times at this juncture in his career.
While PSU has generally fielded an explosive offense under Franklin, it is also proving it can win in multiple ways. The Lions showed up with the better defense against a program known for it, and punter Blake Gillikin had his best game of the season and one of the best in his fine career.
Iowa’s average field position — on 11 possessions — was its 18. It’s tough to win that way.
So at 6-0, the stage is now set for the second half of the season, starting with Michigan on Saturday night.
Though Penn State should win this game — Michigan has been recklessly inconsistent, getting rocked at Wisconsin, scoring just one touchdown against Iowa and allowing Illinois to cut a deficit from 28-0 to 28-25 on Saturday — it is still Michigan.
The Wolverines routed the Lions 42-7 last year so Penn State has plenty of ground to make up.
Post-game in Iowa City, Franklin was quickly beating the drums for this week and imploring Penn State fans to “rock Beaver Stadium like it’s never rocked before.”
He may need reminded that Nittany Lion football wasn’t just born, and the crowd will do its part. It has seen greatness before, and it knows Penn State’s best teams had a common thread of being successful on the road.
Saturday marked only step one as significant tests remain at Michigan State (despite its recent struggles), improved Minnesota and, of course, the looming Nov. 23 date in Columbus.
And if the Lions are equal to all those challenges, they would have a big one left with Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s better to subscribe to Franklin’s theory and just worry about going 1-0. It worked pretty well last week.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.