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Penn State Football: Going to the Bank a Little Early

by on September 01, 2018 10:20 PM

James Franklin, after Penn State’s walk-off 21-19 victory over Iowa in Week 4 of the 2017 season:

“I told the guys in the locker room, ‘If you look at any really good season, there's always one game where the team has to gut it out and find a way to win, and we were able to do that tonight.’ ”  

Franklin again, after Penn State’s come-from-behind 45-38 OT win over Appalachian in the season-opener on Saturday evening:

 “I mentioned to the team — ‘You look at any really good season, there’s always a win like that, where you had to overcome adversity in a gritty win. You had to fight it out and stick together.’ ”

              •   •.  •

If Franklin’s right — and he very well may be — you hate to cash in that one game in the very first contest of the season against an unranked team.

Especially on Sept. 1, with dates remaining against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. To say nothing of Pitt.

And especially in a contest where you:

— Didn’t turn the ball over (PSU never had possession on App State’s successful onside kick).

— Had a huge #105.232-fan advantage.

— Committed just two penalties for 10 yards vs. the shoot-yourself-the-foot Mountaineers, who had 10 penalties for 100 yards, which continuously took them out of drives and extended Penn State’s initial drive that resulted in a TD.

And you do those things against App State, with its history of upsets and near-upsets.

It’s like being permitted to drop your lowest grade, and you blow off the first test. Or you get one unexcused absence and you used it during Syllabus Week.

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Franklin was right in Iowa City that night 49 weeks ago. The Nittany Lions in 2017 only really went to that bank once, as they couldn’t quite grit out tight games against tough foes in challenging situations, in the persons of Ohio State and Michigan State. And that 2017 squad was a very veteran group.

AN APP STATE(MENT)

On Saturday, this was not the App State that beat Michigan 11 years ago to the day or almost beat Tennessee two years ago or lost to Wake Forest on a blocked field goal last year.

College football historians aside, no one saw this coming. Penn State was ranked No. 10 and a 24-point favorite. App State’s quarterback, Zac Thomas, had thrown all of 10 passes in his first two seasons.

This was a Penn State squad that Herbie picked to make the playoffs and Trace McSorley to win the Heisman.

McSorley, in the end, was the difference, along with breakout wide receiver KJ Hamler and Amani Oruwariye, who was truly the difference in the very end — thanks to his pick to end overtime, his third straight season-opener with an interception.

“Obviously,” Franklin said, “having Trace McSorley as your quarterback with the game on the line always helps.

No one anticipated the Mountaineers to score on a 100-yard TD return (by Darrynton Evans) or come back from being down 31-17 to lead 38-31 with 107 seconds left in regulation or to take the Nittany Lions into overtime.

OK, maybe Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson did. A little bit.

“I knew what they could do,” said Johnson, who led Penn State with 11 tackles in his first career start. “I watched the Tennessee game” — which the Vols won in OT, after trailing App State by 10 — “like three times.” 

Safety Garett Taylor, making his first start just like Johnson, gave App State its due.

“It’s hard to win in this league — not even the Big Ten, but in college football in general,” said Taylor, the Nittany Lions’ third-leading tackler, with eight stops. 

Taylor had six solo stops, while secondary mate Nick Scott had five solos (and nine overall) and corner Oruwariye had seven tackles, all of them solo, as those three went 2-3-4 in tackles and made a combined 18 solo stops, not always a good look for your secondary.

“I don’t think anyone expected a 38-38 overtime,” Taylor said. “But obviously we knew App State has that reputation. We knew coming in they weren’t going to fold over. They had a little bit more fight than we expected.”

Franklin hammered home that point with a PowerPoint to the team this week that listed App State's past successes and near-upsets.

“Through our film study, I watched the Wake Forest game and I watched the Tennessee game,” Taylor said. “We took it for what it was worth, but when it came time to play we did a good job of zooming in.”

MAYBE THE BANK IS STILL OPEN

Maybe Franklin is wrong about that one-game stuff. Maybe the Nittany Lions will have a couple more of down-to-the-wire victories.

I covered the 1985 Penn State team, which went undefeated in the regular season. They won seven of their first eight games by a total of 28 points — and not all against stellar competition: they had two-point wins over Maryland and Temple, eeked by Syracuse and BC by four each, and beat both East Carolina and Rutgers by a TD. Mixed in that group was a four-point win over Alabama. And don’t forget the Nittany Lions that year finished the regular season 11-0 and ranked No. 1 after pounding Notre Dame and Pitt by a combined 67-6.

Some folks say that Penn State will be a 10-2 or 11-1 team in 2018. If so, Franklin may have to go to Nittany Bank again (and again?) for more of those gritty, once-in-a-season victories.

Franklin, now 4-1 in season openers at Penn State and 37-17 overall, said on Saturday there’s a lot of work to be done. One of his predecessors, a guy by the name of Joe Paterno, used to preach that a team improves the most between its first and second games.

“We’ll critique the heck out of this tomorrow,” Franklin said after that first game, with a night road game at rival Pitt the second game next Saturday. “But I want to make sure our coaches, before going into the locker room, make sure we’re emphasizing that we just won a great football game against a tough opponent.

“Sometimes after games like that and wins like that — where maybe you had a picture in your mind of how the game was going to go — you handle it the right way with the players afterwards. We’ll come back in tomorrow (Sunday) and we have a lot of things that we have to get cleaned up and corrected before our next game.”

The Nittany Lions are a young team, with a lot to learn. Eight different players had the first start of their career — Hamler, Taylor, Johnson, Oruwariye, TE Jonathan Holland, C Michael Menet, DT Fred Hansard and DE Yetur Gross-Matos — and eight true freshman also played.

Needing to go to overtime to beat App State should make an impact, beginning when they show up for film study on Sunday.

“It will get our attention,” Taylor admitted.

“You never want to go through that. It was a wake-up call of sorts, I guess.”



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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