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Penn State puts bow on year, ‘trending up’

DALLAS — After the Gatorade dousing of James Franklin and all the colorful confetti had fallen to celebrate Penn State’s 53-39 Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis, the Nittany Lions staged a mini-dance party in their locker room.

Yes, they regretted the two losses this season, especially at Minnesota, but it was clear that, to a man, the satisfaction of finishing 11-2 overshadowed any lingering disappointment.

“We had some hiccups, some tough losses, and sometimes coming out flat,” defensive end Shaka Toney said, “but I don’t think anybody can be mad about an 11-2 team that just won a bowl game.”

Fair enough.

The Lions dominated Memphis up front and rushed for 396 yards, which set a Penn State bowl record, and while they didn’t put the pesky Tigers away until the fourth quarter, they managed to end the season with enough of an exclamation point to carry plenty of momentum into 2020.

“I think we’re trending up,” graduating senior Garrett Taylor, whose 15-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed Saturday’s win.

There’s no question.

When you consider the body of work — two 11-win seasons, three appearances in New Year’s Six games with two victories and a combined 42 wins in four seasons — even the most diehard of fans can’t be dissatisfied.

Though he wanted to savor Saturday’s win without looking too far ahead, returning center and team leader Michal Menet acknowledged, “The standard keeps growing.”

And to the credit of James Franklin, the program is embracing that. When Franklin launched into his “we’re going to be elite” pledge/rant after the 2018 loss to Ohio State, he did it without responding to a question.

He did it unsolicited, wanting to get the message out on his terms. Whether it was ill-timed after such a gut-wrenching loss to a team the Lions haven’t been able to beat consistently or whether in fact Franklin will ever achieve the elite bar is questionable, but chasing it is admirable.

And the players are enjoying the ambitious journey.

“My first year, we went to the Rose Bowl and lost,” Toney said. “We’re in a better place.”

Penn State blew away expectations this season as the consensus preseason pick was 8-4. Optimistic prognostications were 9-3.

As Franklin said Saturday, “If you go back before the season started, nobody was really talking about Penn State.”

College rosters are fluid, and certainly there are issues to address — some that surfaced or resurfaced against Memphis.

The passing game did not succeed and, in fact, raises some flags. Sean Clifford did not play well for most of the second half of the season. He does not appear healthy, and Will Levis, even in running situations, surprisingly didn’t get a single snap Saturday.

The receiving corps, with K.J. Hamler’s expected departure to the NFL, needs significantly retooled.

Graduating punter Blake Gillikin will leave a large void, but Jake Pinegar and Jordan Stout return, and the coverage units played well all season.

Now, about the defense.

It started Saturday almost as poorly as it did at Minnesota, when Memphis receivers were running around in their own zip codes.

You can’t give up 39 points and feel good about it.

“I know people aren’t happy with the score,” Toney said. “They want to see iron-curtain Penn State defense.”

Then he added: “But we won.”

Penn State stuffed Memphis’ run but was gouged for 454 yards through the air.

The silver lining shows Taylor’s interception that came courtesy of a Micah Parsons pressure, along with six sacks and enough red-zone stops to force Memphis into six field goals.

“That was big,” Toney said. “Bend, don’t break. If you’re going to give up yards, you can’t give up scores. We buckled up, locked our jaws.”

Parsons played so much like a man possessed that virtually every defensive player was asked to comment on him.

Taylor predicted the Harrisburg stud linebacker will be “a top 10 pick (in 2021)” who has the potential to someday be fitted for “a gold jacket,” reserved only for NFL Hall of Famers.

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry wasn’t celebrating afterward but was smiling.

“Man, that was work,” he said. “When you’re playing explosive offenses, you’re not going to shut them down, but you have to make plays and stop drives. The sudden change of forcing a field goal matters. And then the score on defense, we’ve been looking for that all year — and it’s nice to turn it in when it counted most.”

Pry has time to make sure the Lions, especially their secondary, is consistently in better position and plays more evenly going forward.

“We’re all looking for that – that 10 percent to get us over the hump,” he said. “We’re so close. You go back to the Minnesota game and where we were and how close we were to being 11-1. We have to develop these guys and keep recruiting, which I think we’ve done a really good job of. We have a really good group of young defensive players. The culture’s in place, and that’s a big part of it. We’ve got great leadership, (and) a new OC (offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca) I’ve got a lot of respect for.”

But there’s way less margin for error when attempting to join LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and, yes, Alabama, despite its two losses this year.

“We’ve got to win all our games,” Toney, who may bypass his final season for the NFL, said. “We got to come out 1-0 every week. We can’t get too high and too low, and that’s something I think we did this year.”

When this year’s final Associated Press poll is released, the Lions will probably be no lower than eighth, and their returning nucleus, led by Parsons, will likely be ranked on the edge of the top five in 2020.

“We talk about championships a lot,” Taylor said. “Whether it’s Big Ten or College Football Playoff, I think we’ve earned the right to be in the (2020) discussion. We’re still a couple plays and a couple games away. Hopefully next year we can take that step.”

They at least took a step toward that goal Saturday.

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

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