And I intend that to be a compliment.
The Nittany Lions will battle Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday (8 p.m.). If they beat the Badgers, there will be discussion of whether the Nittany Lions should receive a berth in the national championship playoffs.
That’s a lofty accomplishment for a team that probably is the third best in its own division. Michigan and Ohio State are better teams than Penn State, but the Nittany Lions are the East Division representatives in the Big Ten title game.
The Nittany Lions have overachieved in order to reach the Big Ten Championship Game. They have reached their full potential, equaling or surpassing teams with superior talent.
Qualifying for the Big Ten title game is a tribute to head coach James Franklin, his staff and all of the Penn State players. With no disrespect intended, if you look up and down the Penn State roster, you won’t find many superstars. On offense, only running back Saquon Barkley, named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year on Wednesday, could be accurately described as a star. There are some very good defensive players on Penn State, but nobody is seriously in the All-America first team conversation.
The Nittany Lions (10-2) weren’t in the Big Ten title conversation earlier this season, let alone the national playoff conversation. In its Big Ten opener, Penn State absorbed a 49-10 shellacking from Michigan. Yes, the Nittany Lions were missing starting linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda, but they weren’t going to make up for a 39-point margin.
Following the devastating defeat at the hands of the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions were 2-2, with losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan. Their victories were over Kent State and Temple, although that win over Temple looks a lot better today than it did at the time.
Overcoming a 2-2 start and an embarrassing loss to Michigan doesn’t seem that daunting, though, to a team that’s been where the Nittany Lions have been.
There’s no need to recount the entire Jerry Sandusky scandal here. There are so many layers to this horrific situation – and we should never forget Sandusky’s victims – but the impact of the NCAA sanctions on the football team is undeniable.
After barely escaping the “death penalty,” Penn State was decimated by a significant reduction in the number of scholarship it could offer. To make matters worse, the NCAA allowed players to transfer from Penn State to other schools without sitting out the customary one year.
Into the middle of this mess stepped Franklin. Bill O’Brien packed up and left after two seasons as head coach to take over the Houston Texans. The full impact of the loss of scholarships had yet to hit Penn State when O’Brien departed.
Aside from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and some fine defensive linemen, the cupboard was pretty bare by the time Franklin arrived.
The situation didn’t get better with Franklin at the helm. His first two seasons ended with identical 7-6 records. Although the first season ended with an emotional 31-30 triumph over Boston College at the Pinstripe Bowl – it’s incredible that the Nittany Lions haven’t had a losing record since the NCAA sanctions were imposed – this season appeared to be a third straight year of mediocrity.
But then the unexpected happened. Penn State got better. A lot better.
The transformation didn’t happen overnight. The Nittany Lions squeezed out a 29-26 overtime win over Minnesota at home. They followed up that up with a 38-14 victory over visiting Maryland.
The expectation was that the Nittany Lions would get blown out by Ohio State in their next game. The Buckeyes dominated the early portion of the game, but couldn’t put Penn State away. A blocked punt returned for a touchdown by Grant Haley turned around that game – and possibly the season. The Nittany Lions upset the Buckeyes, 24-21.
The Nittany Lions have won five more games since beating Ohio State, extending their winning streak to eight games entering Saturday conference title game with Wisconsin.
Penn State’s pattern during its winning streak has been to struggle during the first half, and then blow past their opponent during the second half.
No matter how bad the first half, the Nittany Lions believe they are going to win. That’s how they scored 17 unanswered second-half points against Ohio State. It’s why they beat Minnesota in overtime. It’s why they outscored Michigan State by a 35-0 margin during the second half of last weekend’s 45-12 victory.
Franklin deserves a lot of credit for Penn State’s turnaround. The Nittany Lions obviously make excellent adjustments at halftime. You can give that credit to offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and defensive coordinator Brent Pry, but, if you do, you must give Franklin credit for hiring them. Most of all, though, Franklin deserves credit for keeping his team believing they will win.
Quarterback Trace McSorley and Barkley also deserve credit for keeping the team on a positive track. Barkley leads by example. His teammates know they always have a chance to score when Barkley’s on the field. McSorely throws a terrific deep passes, but his best asset as quarterback seems to be his leadership.
As Penn State takes aim at its first Big Ten football championship, it’s clear that Franklin has moved off the hot seat. In fact, he was named Big Ten Coach of the Year this week.
The Nittany Lions are taking it one game at a time, so they’re not looking ahead to the national championship playoffs. In the current standings, Penn State ranks behind Ohio State and Michigan. In terms of ability, that’s probably accurate. In terms of achievement, however, if Penn State wins the Big Ten title, it will have quite an argument that it belongs in the national championship picture.
That’s not too bad for a team that’s not that good.