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Penn State Enters Iowa City Brimming with an Elite Level of Confidence

by on October 10, 2019 7:00 PM

James Franklin & Co. have to feel good about where they are at. Great, even.

Now, is Penn State elite? Saturday night will certainly provide some clues, but no final answers.

Regardless, the past week has already been an extraordinary one for the Nittany Lions.

And they’ve yet to set foot in Iowa, Iowa, Iowa.

There was the racist letter received by co-captain Jonathan Sutherland that was exposed on Twitter by teammate Antonio Shelton and whose sender was excoriated — rightfully so — across America.

Then the Nittany Lions and, especially, coach James Franklin were featured for 60 brand-building minutes Wednesday night on HBO. On the show the hugs far outweighed the F-bombs, but not by as much you would have f-ing thought going in.

Sandwiched in-between was a heartfelt 176-word address by Franklin, who sniffled more than a little bit as he read it, as his eyes reddened and he fought to keep his composure. (Deputy director of athletics Scott Sidwell snuck out of the news conference to grab some toilet paper, then slyly slipped it to Franklin in the aftermath of his comments.)

Franklin said he wrote down his thoughts late Monday night lying in bed next to wife Fumi. Not quite the level of Lincoln penning the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address while traveling south on a train from the nation’s capitol — historians say the president wrote it long before the trip — but it was historical and meaningful in its own way. (And four score? Well, Penn State did hang 79 on Idaho.)

All in all, it wasn’t the kind of laser-focus that Franklin pledges to bring each week of the regular season.

It all could be a distraction for a program that is built on being 1-0 every week.

More likely, though, the previous five days will serve as a rallying point, a furtherance of Franklin’s message of family and unity. This is a free-spirited team that takes to social media to spar with critics over their chains, Tweet from the locker room during games, goes bare-shirted during warm-ups and equally values disco balls and balls-to-the-wall blitzes.

(Memo to retro-lovin’ James: Next post-game celebration, think 1979 Pirates and Sister Sledge. Here’s a link.)

Offensive tackle Will Fries explained it this way on Tuesday: “I think that any time we hit some adversity, such as things like this, it brings us closer together. You know, although those remarks were negative, I think that as a team, we realize we've always got each other's backs.”


Not that the Nittany Lions are set to arrive in Iowa City — 777.1 miles away from their home field, three times the distance and tenfold the hostile crowd compared to their only previous roadtrip of the season, Maryland— with a planeful of doubts.

Au contraire. Penn State was already a confident team. For good reasons.

The Nittany Lions are 5-0, ranked as high as ninth, and are No. 2 in least points allowed and No. 5 in most points scored. They are one of only 16 undefeated teams, and their five-game winning streak is already the eighth-longest in the nation. Of their last seven losses, only one was by more than four points.

And hey, you know they have to be thinking, Didn’t you just see us on HBO?

Shelton, who takes to social media through good times and bad in keeping with his @_groovy55 brand that he hopes will propel him to network TV, Tweeted exactly that:

Dawg I’m on HBO! (Followed by a pair of laughing emojis.)

The Nittany Lions are feeling it. Their coach is, too. Franklin was asked this week about the foundation of Iowa’s brand, to which he replied with a nearly three-minute disertation that focused on consistency, stability, appreciation and commitment. Then, shortly thereafter, he was quizzed about whether his offense — averaging 47 points, fifth in the nation — had established its own identity.

Franklin bristled. His answer was short and not sweet. With a stone face he got to the point, as he bared his self-confident soul:

“You don't get to the point where you're in the Top 5 in the country in scoring defense and scoring offense without an identity,” he replied. “I think the numbers back that up clearly.”

That was it. For a guy who can and will elongate his answers to three, sometimes four minutes, it was downright monosyllabic. It was as if Franklin dropped one of the F-bombs — followed by a “you” — that were commonplace on HBO later in the week.

Add in the coach’s proclamation post-game Purdue that his squad was playing “championship defense,” and you get a good sense about how great — maybe even how elite — Franklin thinks his team is playing. 


Same goes for his quarterback, Sean Clifford.

I asked him on Wednesday, “Is there anything about your team now that you are hopeful you will find out Saturday night?”

His answer was, basically, Nope, we’re good.

Clifford’s actual reply focused on what Iowa might do, not about any inefficiencies or holes in Penn State’s swing. Which is what I was wondering about. Like his coach, a former QB himself, Clifford didn’t give an inch.

“No, I know what we got, obviously,” Clifford answered. “Iowa could come out with some different things that we haven’t seen. We just have to be able to adjust and make corrections throughout the game and adjust to whatever is going on. I think our team has done a good job of that already. Just overall keep growing, that’s the biggest going.”

After defeating Purdue 35-7, linebacker Jesse Luketa said the Nittany Lions were a tight-knit group. And that was pre-letter, pre-HBO.

“As a team, with the work we put in,” said Luketa, “we feel like we’re in a good spot. We’re hungry, playing together. As tight as we are, I feel we can do anything.”

That’s surely a great feeling.


Of course, there are still reasons for Penn State to be a bit cautious — and that extends beyond the obvious and very real trappings of Iowa, whose quarterback Stanley-tooled away a sure victory last year in Beaver Stadium.

Under Franklin, Penn State has yet to win a regular-season road game against a Top 25 foe (going 0-6); looked more than mediocre in the first half vs. Buffalo; and had their problems against tough-minded Pitt and its knuckled-headed coach. Penn State is a scant 3.5-point favorite (I gave them 7.5 on the bonus question in this week’s quiz in my Sports Industry class), which means the smart guys aren’t totally sold on PSU, despite being burned by predicting a close one against the Terps.

Penn State’s players seemingly pay that no mind, part of being young, undefeated and on HBO. According to a few of the players after the Purdue game, the Nittany Lions think they are currently playing at an elusive level — elite.

“I think we’re pretty elite,” said linebacker Micah Parsons, “though people may have different perspectives. I think we’re an elite program and we’re headed to great things.”

A veteran on the other side of the ball, guard Steve Gonzalez — who has the most career starts of any Nittany Lion (34, as the only player who has earned starts in each of the past four seasons) — agrees.

“I’d say we’re elite,” said Gonzalez. “We’ve been elite the past couple of years. All three phases of the game we’re playing well. We feel like we’re really coming together collectively. That’s a big thing for us.”

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