As November looms, Penn State still perfect
EAST LANSING, Mich. — No lightning bolts this time, and with the obvious difference in the Nittany Lions and Spartans, it would not have mattered.
Two years ago, when Penn State visited Spartans Stadium, a three-plus hour lightning delay stopped the Lions’ momentum and contributed to a come-from-ahead defeat.
Saturday afternoon brought a driving rain but no electricity, and the Spartans needed divine intervention as Penn State started quickly but was never seriously threatened in cruising to a 28-7 victory.
At 8-0, the Lions awaken this morning soon to be ranked No. 5 in the country and clearly are a team on the rise.
“We’re just getting better and better,” star linebacker Micah Parsons said.
In rolling to a convincing win over a troublesome opponent, especially at home, Penn State was equally impressive on offense and defense and is rounding into a complete team.
“We’re playing elite defense, and our offense is making big plays,” Parsons said.
Through the Lions’ success in six seasons under James Franklin, victories have been elusive against the top of the Big Ten East Division as Franklin entered the season a combined 3-12 against Ohio State, Michigan and the Spartans.
To that end, they’ve now beaten Michigan and MSU in consecutive weeks to at least partially exorcise those demons.
Franklin acknowledged as much in the soggy aftermath.
“It’s hard to win week after week consistently in this conference — especially on this side of the conference,” he said.
Parsons called the last two weeks, “retribution” for last year, a blowout in Ann Arbor and Michigan State’s late rally at Beaver Stadium.
“We’re making teams earn it,” he said. “I think this defense is still climbing. I think we’re an elite program.”
Oh, yeah, there’s the “E” word.
You’ll recall Franklin’s unsolicited rant after the Lions squandered a two-touchdown lead against Ohio State last year, saying he “going to make everyone uncomfortable” in the pursuit of Penn State going from what he called “a great program” to one that is elite.
Saturday night, he was asked how far they’ve closed the gap toward that goal.
He didn’t bite.
“We’re 1-0,” he said, forcing a smile, “and I’m very uncomfortable.”
With a bye week looming and the calendar about to flip to November, he then allowed, “I think we’re in a good place.”
And they are.
Whether they’re the fifth-best team in America is still open to debate, but they’ll have a chance to prove themselves starting with a Nov. 9 game at unbeaten Minnesota, the surprise team in the Big Ten, followed by a dangerous home game with Indiana and then, of course, the ultimate measuring stick — a trip to Columbus.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Parsons said. “I think this could be one of the best teams in Penn State history.”
Forgive him his youth as Parsons was not alive when the Lions last contended for a national title (1994), and he may not know of Shane Conlan, much less Mike Reid and Steve Smear.
And while those teams of 1986, 1973 and 1968-69 were unbeaten, they weren’t flawless. This one isn’t, either, evidenced by Saturday’s second half in which the Lions treaded water on offense and lost their poise and committed three personal foul penalties en route to nine flags overall, which drew an earful from Franklin.
“I’m not happy at all with those things,” he said, adding the team received “a direct conversation” afterward. “That’s not who we are or who we will be.”
Their special teams also sprung several leaks, and yet, this was a domination that could well have been much worse had the Lions caught the ball better; they dropped a couple of deep passes and at least two interceptions in Michigan State territory.
The offense keeps showing quick-strike capability — “we’re doing a good job jumping on teams early,” quarterback Sean Clifford said — while the defense has been an anchor.
Franklin’s 1-0 mentality is working. He’s showing off the program’s extraordinary depth and young talent, all the while operating with a maturity that allowed them to emotionally handle the late-night whiteout success against Michigan with a wet victory at an atmosphereless old nemesis.
Though Michigan State obviously has deeper problems than typical for Dantonio’s teams, especially on offense, Penn State has rarely come here and won easily — whether the coach was Dantonio, Nick Saban or George Perles.
Parsons is right. Penn State is trending upward, which has set up the most interesting stretch run in Happy Valley since the Lions entered November unbeaten in 1999.
That team was expected to get there that way and didn’t emerge unscathed.
This one wasn’t expected to be 8-0 at this juncture and is starting to play with house money.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.