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For Penn State Football, Citrus Bowl is the End of Era

by on December 30, 2018 7:00 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. — The ride from Penn State’s team hotel to its Citrus Bowl practice fields here this week has included a procession of seven police motorcycles, a half-dozen vans and SUVs, and five team busses.

Thanks to a police blockade and escort, the Penn State entourage’s 12.6-mile drive southwest along Interstate 4 takes just about 21 minutes. It’s the destination of the daily trip that is apt and worthy of note:

Celebration High School.

Penn State’s Citrus Bowl game against Kentucky on Tuesday is more than a match-up of 9-3 squads or the final showcase for Trace McSorley and Penn State’s seniors or Kentucky’s two stars, 1,300-yard rusher Bennie Snell Jr. and national defensive player of the year, linebacker Josh Allen.

The bowl game is the final hurrah of one of the most exciting, explosive and most redemptive runs in Penn State’s storied 132 years of playing college football. 

It was the era of Saquon and JoeMo. Of a succession of great catches by Mike, DaeSean and Godwin. Of Marcus Allen moving to Lil Uzi Vert and Cardi B in America’s most lit locker room. Of Whiteout records, the Scoop and Score. Of the RPO and of giant comeback wins and big blowouts. Of a Big Ten title.

Of James Franklin, James Franklin, James Franklin going 1-0 a total of 31 times.

The past three years of Penn State football have featured a 16-1 stretch and a 25-3 string, an ascension to No. 2 in the polls and a win over a No. 2 in the polls. Throw in two GameDay guest appearances and accompanying Beaver Stadium attendance records in a 49-week span, and there’s a lot to…um...celebrate. (And we haven’t even talked about the recruiting wins off the field.)

It’s a run that for all intents and purposes began on January 1, 2016, and will end on January 1, 2019.

It began in Florida and now ends in Florida. With daily visits to Celebration High — the high school for a town that was literally created by Disney.

Of course.

96 MILES, 1,096 DAYS

From TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville to Camping World Stadium here in Orlando. It’s a 96-mile journey from one venue to the other that will have taken 1,096 days to complete, from start to finish. 

On New Year’s Day 2016, Penn State was trailing Georgia 24-3 in the TaxSlayer Bowl and quarterback Christian Hackenberg was injured in his 37th and final start as a PSU QB. Then McSorley, who entered the game midway through the second quarter, gave a great glimpse into Penn State’s future.

The redshirt freshman completed 14 of 27 passes for 142 yards, with two touchdowns, and ran seven times for 31 yards. He got the Nittany Lions to the Georgia 39-yard line with eight ticks left off the clock, only to have his Hail Mary attempt get batted down near the goal line when time expired. 

But then, nine months later, Franklin’s prayers were answered. 

In the 40 games since, Penn State has won 31 games and lost just 9. To win the 31 games before that, it took Penn State 55 games.

In that time, Penn State has beaten every Big Ten team at least once and has defeated rival/non-rival Pitt 84-20 in their last two meetings. You can trace much of it back to McSorley.

“You know, we were talking (and) my first real game was actually in Florida,” McSorley said here the other day, “and it’s come full circle. My last one is going to be in the state of Florida. It's just been a great ride.

“I'm extremely grateful and extremely thankful for the opportunity the coaches gave me to even come to a school like Penn State and an opportunity to play on the field and for putting me in good situations to be able to be successful. My teammates have been incredible all the way through.”

Yes, they have.

When it comes to chapters of Penn State football history, this group of Nittany Lions have a great chance to add to their legacy.

With a win over Kentucky — PSU is a 7-point favorite, with an over/under of total points scored at 48 — Penn State would have three consecutive double-digit victory seasons for the first time since 1980 (10-2), 1981 (10-2) and 1982 (11-1, national championship). Back then seasons were a game or two shorter, which made the task tougher. 

Only in 1971 through 1974 — when PSU went 11-21 10-2, 12-0, 10-2 — has Penn State had a greater string of consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins.

WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

You can make the case that the real run for the Nittany Lions was in 2016 -17, when they had records of 11-3 and then 11-2, and went to back-to-back New Year’s 6 Bowls.

But a win against Kentucky will forever tether together the years of 2016 and 2017 and 2018. Then, of course, there’s also the presence of McSorley, as well as Franklin and his top-notch back-shop staff, and a defense that has steadily gotten better under Brent Pry and Sean Spencer, that give this a three-year run feeling.

You can also argue that Franklin has yet to get his true due for the recent ride. He is, after all, the architect of it all. And although some of the groceries came from Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien, Franklin was the master chef. He took all the ingredients, coalesced and ignited the Penn State fan base, put a structure and organization in place, and made it happen.

While it may be true that without Moorhead’s genius — sharpened with a seminal talent like Barkley and an extension of his RPO QB self in McSorley — this three-year run wouldn’t have happened. But then again, Franklin was the guy who hired JoeMo and let him work his magic. And does, in many ways, precisely the same thing with Pry.

Both Moorhead and Pry were new to their positions in 2016. And over the past three years Franklin has hired a total of seven assistant coaches — that’s a pretty high number, especially for a program that likes to pride itself on family and stability.

Stability is one thing. Consistency is another. Meeting high expectations every year is still another.

THE BACKFIELD IS NOT BACK

On January 2, Penn State will no longer have McSorley and a number of other stalwarts that were part of the recent run, very likely including his backfield mate, Miles Sanders.

For now, let’s end there and start the new beginning here. The beginning of a new chapter and a new era.

The one Penn State player on the roster next Wednesday who will have been with Franklin the longest is not with him in Orlando today. Ironic, huh? That would be Tommy Stevens, who enrolled early at Penn State in January 2015, and will soon have the longest tenure on the Penn State roster.

But his status has to be uncertain, as is the No. 1 quarterback spot. Yes, there’s also Sean Clifford, who has an insane passer rating of 559.60 (McSorley’s is 124.29). But he’s far from battle tested. In reality, neither is Stevens, who in his four-year PSU career has been more of a runner than a passer, with 76 rushes for 506 yards and 41 passes for 304 yards. 

The last time Stevens played more than a quarter at quarterback in a real game was in the fall of 2014. And that was at Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis — and that was as a wishbone quarterback.  Come the 2019 season opener on Aug. 31 in Beaver Stadium vs. Idaho, it will have been five years since Stevens was The Man.

And it will be the first time in 78 games that the Penn State quarterback will not be not named Hackenberg or McSorley.

MILES TO GO

Assuming Sanders departs for the NFL, that leaves the Nittany Lions’ running back room filled with prospects and potential and great promise.

But no Saquon or Sanders. Between them, at Penn State No. 26 and No. 24 had a combined total of 1,222 runs, receptions and kickoff returns for a total of 8,086 yards and 66 touchdowns. (But who’s counting?)

Sans Stevens, Penn State’s fleet of returning running backs — namely, Ricky Slade and Journey Brown — have a combined 291 yards rushing and receiving in the blue and white.

New chapter? Make that a new era.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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