Back Home on PSU Soil, James Franklin Lauds the Nittany Lions’ “It Factor”
It was just a few ticks before 3 a.m. on Sunday when the caravan of Penn State buses rolled into the parking lot behind Lasch Building.
James Franklin was riding shotgun in Bus No. 1. Of course.
The journey back from college football’s ultimate road season-opener was nearly complete.
Saturday’s odyssey took the Nittany Lions from the team’s headquarters at Powerscourt Hotel in Wicklow to Croke Park to Dublin Airport to Pittsburgh International Airport to a three-hour bus ride back to State College.
Door to door, coast to coast, it was an 18-hour day. But it was the final 68 seconds of the fourth quarter against Central Florida that really told the tale. About the game. And about Penn State’s 2014 football team, its players and coaches.
Sixty-five seconds is what it took for quarterback Christian Hackenberg to lead Penn State 55 yards down the field, completing 4 of 6 passes for 47 yards, plus a fourth-and-3 scramble for eight yards. The final three seconds belonged to Sam Ficken, who kicked a game-winning 36-yard field goal. And with that, Penn State’s 26-24 victory against a very good UCF squad that was 12-1 last season and returned nine defensive starters was complete.
Now, the Nittany Lions were back home on the campus they left on Tuesday night. As the buses rolled in, a solitary female fan – #60somethinginsomniac – awaited the team. Otherwise the night was still and empty, save for a few random “We Are” cheers emanating from the dorms to the west.
THE LONG WAY HOME
Franklin was the first person in the first bus and the first to step foot back on University Park soil. It may have been a business trip, but the 7,000-mile excursion did reap some benefits – beyond the first victory in the Franklin Era.
“It’s been a long trip back,” said Franklin, holding his garment bag and wearing a well-earned look of weariness. “It was a unique experience, there’s no doubt about that. We did some cool things. It was great bonding time for us as a team.”
The Nittany Lions stuck together through both the thick and thin against Central Florida. The Lions scored first and eventually led 20-10 after three quarters. But UCF rode back-up QB Justin Holman’s arm to second-half scoring drives of 70, 78 and 75 yards to take a 24-23 lead. Then Hackenberg took over.
The Nittany Lions had nine penalties (they were called for just 55 in all of 2013), but the foreign territory and pervasive youth had something to do with that. Hackenberg and freshman Chris Godwin, as poised as any pair of 19-year-olds ran into some trouble -- Hackenberg throwing two picks, and Godwin losing a fumble. Hack also had two interceptions in last season’s opening win against Syracuse at another neutral site (New Jersey’s Meadowlands), his first-ever in a Penn State uniform. On Saturday, that final drive and his 32-of-47 passing day for a school-record 454 yards, and one TD, more than made up for it.
CAN’T SPELL NITTANY WITHOUT IT
“We found a way to win,” said Franklin, who watched the game again while flying home over the Atlantic Ocean. “We did the things you typically can’t do – especially in the early season – with turnovers and penalties, and still managed to find a way to win.”
Dublin or nothing. The bottom-line was getting the win. Franklin liked what he saw and not just on the scoreboard.
“The most important thing is that we have that ingredient, which is that we know how to win,” Franklin said as his plane-tired players quietly flooded off the buses and headed home by foot, bicycle and car. “That’s what showed up today. The guys found a way to win and persevere. We talk about these guys being mentally tough and sticking with each other. And that showed up today.”
That, in this context, actually means it. As in the It Factor. It is attitude, confidence, smoothness – all wrapped up in the ability to get it done. And doing it with a bit of panache, flair and derring-do. Not a surprise. It, it would seem, is the registered trademark of one James Franklin. (In the coiffure category, Franklin's pate, DaeSean Hamilton's hair and Von Walker's beard all have it.)
“When I talk about the ingredient, ‘it’ is what I’m talking about,” said Penn State’s first-year head coach. “That’s what coaches and teams are searching for constantly. It’s being able to find that ingredient and figuring how to win. This team knows how to do that. We need to clean up all the other things.”
A COORDINATED EFFORT
On that laundry list are those lengthy three second-half drives by UCF, when Holman was 9 of 12 for 204 yards. Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop substituted liberally, playing 10 defensive linemen and seven defensive backs. But Shoop should get high marks for a defense that was relentless, playing with aggression with schemes and blitzes and player combinations that were near tsunami-like. In that sense, the defense certainly had it.
Led by linebacker Mike Hull’s team-high 11 tackles and the sheer magnetic force of defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, Penn State totally shut down Central Florida’s ground game, limiting it to 24 yards on 29 carries. That’s all of 28.8 inches per carry. Zettel did everything but hold for Ficken’s four made field goals. (Safety Ryan Keiser, Penn State’s No. 2 tackler with seven stops, did the honors.) Zettel had six tackles, three tackles for a loss, a fumble recovery, a sack and a broken-up pass.
On offense, John Donovan called a near-perfect game, mixing up his pitches like a 39-year-old veteran pitcher rather than an offensive coordinator of the same age forced to call the game from the field after spending the previous 39 games at Vanderbilt doing it -- it! -- in the press box. Donovan was the Bob Shoop of the Penn State offense. Or is it vice versa?
First down was Donovan’s specialty, and he displayed an aggressive approach similar in spirit to Shoop’s. Hackenberg was 17 of 23 for 241 yards in the first quarter alone. (For all his successes, Hack didn’t throw for 241 yards overall in half of his dozen games in 2013.) Fourteen of his 17 completions were for eight yards or more, and were distributed to five different receivers. Same for the first-down ground game. Five of the Nittany Lions’ 10 first-down runs went for five yards or more.
Penn State’s problems came on second and third down when it tried to run behind an inexperienced offensive line. In 14 of those down-and-distance situations, the Lions gained just 15 yards overall. Still, even then Donovan knew how to push the right buttons. Of the seven times Penn State faced third-and-1 or third-and-2, five times they got “it” – meaning a first down.
So, digging a bit deeper into the stats, Donovan made sure his offense made the most of the 57 yards it gained on 28 carries.
No surprise there, at least on Saturday.
Even when it looked like the Nittany Lions didn’t have it, in the end – and especially during the 68 seconds that led to the end – they really did.