It’s a time for jubilation for Penn State, which has had precious little to celebrate in recent years. The 24th-ranked Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) are ranked for the first time since December 2011. They vaulted back into the national spotlight thanks to Saturday’s 24-21 somewhat upset of then No. 2 Ohio State. The game was decided by a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown late in the game.
Lucky play, yes. Program-changer? possibly.
All of a sudden, Penn State is a serious contender in the Big Ten race thanks to a favorable schedule. Its five remaining games are at Purdue, home versus Iowa, at Indiana, at Rutgers and the regular-season finale at home against Michigan State. Those opponents have a combined five Big Ten victories and only Iowa has an overall winning record. The Nittany Lions are one game behind Michigan (7-0, 4-0) in the East Division.
That blocked kick might turn out to be a pivotal landmark in the direction of the program. This is James Franklin’s third year. After a pair of 7-6 seasons, he finally has a tangible result to appease fans.
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) October 23, 2016
“To be honest with you, I don’t really want to spend a lot of time thinking about the big picture,” Franklin said to reporters following the game, including PennLive’s David Jones. “I just want to soak this in.”
He added: “I know I’m biased. But I believe football has the ability to bring a community together like nothing else.”
This is what Penn State is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be challenging Michigan and Ohio State for the Big Ten crown regularly. Not be an 18-point underdog at home.
People have always cared, but this is the most tangible buzz I can remember around Penn State football since 2010
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) October 24, 2016
My brother texted me that Penn State won and I honestly thought he didn't know football teams because there was no way that could be true
— Adam Jacobi (@Adam_Jacobi) October 23, 2016
“It was a pretty electric atmosphere,” Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith said. “We hope that we impacted one or two recruits for the future, but all we can do is try to take care of business on the football field.”
Re-establishing Penn State was going to be tough. But Smith’s boss knows tough jobs.
Franklin accomplished Mission: Impossible by turning Vanderbilt into a viable program during his stint there from 2011 to 2013. The Commodores enjoyed back-to-back 9-4 season with a pair of bowl victories in his final two seasons before taking over Penn State.
It’s one thing to win at Vanderbilt which has relatively low expectations as compared to the rest of the football-crazy Southeastern Conference. It’s another thing to steer Penn State back into prominence. This is a pivotal season for Franklin, his third.
After LSU fired Les Miles in September, some Penn State fans lobbied for Miles to replace Franklin. The noise grew louder earlier this month as fans booed Franklin when the Nittany Lions trailed Minnesota 13-3 at halftime. The team rallied for a 29-26 overtime victory.
penn state needs to fire franklin and go after les miles if they wanna be good again in the big10
— shea mccormick (@sheamccormick) October 1, 2016
— Rod (@RodneyPhillyon) October 6, 2016
Les miles will end up at penn state next year
— Aaron Tiller 94 (@SitBakN_WatchME) October 6, 2016
Franklin needed a morale-boosting and program-changing victory. He got one last Saturday. The win was Penn State’s first over a top-two team since defeating No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990 and was the program’s first win as an unranked team over a top-two opponent since defeating the second-ranked Buckeyes in 1964.
Grant Haley’s 60-yard return of a blocked field goal might have repercussions that will last long after he has left the school.
“I know this means a great deal to the program, the alumni and the past and current Penn Staters,” the junior cornerback said. “It’s a game that put Penn State back on the map.
Added Smith: “Obviously, the play on Saturday was a huge play for Penn State football this year and maybe one of the biggest plays in the history of Penn State football.”
It’s the most significant win for the embattled former college football power since… well, you know. The specter of Joe Paterno haunts the campus like Jacob Marley’s ghost. You can almost hear the chains of judgment rattling every time Penn State is on television. The echoes of the worst scandal in college sports history echoes in the distance: a serial pedophile was on campus, a legendary coach – Paterno – was fired as a result of what he should have known and/or turned a blind eye to.
The Paterno statue might be gone – hidden in some secure location or destroyed. But the scars lingers and reminders remain. Earlier this season, Penn State honored the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s first game as head coach. That prompted the expected eyebrow-raising, but that community still sees the good. Paterno gave them an identity and provided them with joy. To people outside Happy Valley, his name is synonymous with the horror that went on under his watch.
Even as Penn State relishes its most significant victory since the Paterno days, a central figure in the scandal is in court. Mike McQueary’s civil case against Penn State is going on just 12 miles away from campus. McQueary was an eyewitness to an apparent sexual assault by Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach who is now a convicted felon.
This, of course, has nothing to do with the current team. But it’s something that Franklin and his team and other Penn State squad will have to deal with. On the field, the future looks bright. The Nittany Lions have only 12 seniors – tied for second-fewest in the nation with Baylor. (Kentucky has 11).
They have 51 freshmen and 26 sophomores. Sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley is fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (227.1) and total yards per game (262.7). Sophomore tailback Saquon Barkley is fifth in the league in rushing (97.3) and has been described as a future first-round NFL draft pick by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
Exactly how good is Penn State? Its losses have come on the road: 42-39 at Pittsburgh and 49-10 at Michigan. For the season, its points differential is just +15, which suggests this team has been quite fortunate. Three of the Nittany Lions’ victories have by one-score games. Footballoutsiders.com, ranks them as the 20th best team in the country.
Given the schedule, Penn State is capable of finishing the regular-season 9-3 or 10-2. That would be a clearest sign that the Nittany Lions are indeed back.
It’s amazing what a blocked kick could potentially do for a program.
“No one believed in us,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “Literally nobody cared about us. All we cared about was the guys in the blue and white.”