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Penn State Football: How and Why the 2019 Season Exceeded Expectations

by on December 29, 2019 6:35 PM

DALLAS — No one expected Penn State to be here 17 weeks ago, on the cusp of a 2019 season that many projected to finish 8-4.

Let alone owning its third 11-victory season in four years.

A few minutes into his post-game presser at AT&T Stadium on Saturday, James Franklin wore those low expectations — and, very soon, his Cotton Bowl winner’s ring — as a blue and white badge of courage. 

To say nothing of a slight in-your-face told-you-so.

“I think when you go all the way back to before the season started, nobody was really talking about Penn State — even within our own conference,” Franklin said. “Those other teams were getting most of the publicity.

“And, here we are in another New Year’s Six game and opportunity to win.”

Which they did, as Franklin & Co. defied expectations and finished the year with a flourish of confetti and nearly 400 rushing yards, beating Memphis 53-39 in the Cotton Bowl to finish 11-2.

It was Penn State’s second NY6 bowl victory in three seasons (complementing its 2017 Fiesta Bowl win over Washington) and its third NY6 in four seasons (the other being the 2017 Rose Bowl, won 52-49 by USC).

You’d have to go back to the inaugural Big Ten years of 1993-96 — with a composite record of 42-7 (.857), with seasons of 10-2, 12-0, 9-3 and 11-2 — to find a better stretch than Penn State’s 42-11 record (.792) from 2016-2019.

Penn State’s third 11-win campaign in four seasons was as unexpected as the one in 2016 and definitely more satisfying than the one in 2017, when an uber-talented Nittany Lions squad came within four points over two games of a perfect regular-season mark. Both were losses that year were of the come-from-ahead variety, maddeningly repeated again in 2018 against the same two teams: elite Ohio State and barely good Michigan State.

“It started from last year. We had a chip on our shoulder,” Micah Parsons said after his superstar performance against Memphis, which included 14 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, two break-ups and a quarterback hit that translated into Garrett Taylor’s game-sealing pick-six.

“We didn’t like how it ended (a Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky). We got it in our minds earlier that we were going to go 100 percent in everything, whether it was workouts whether it was practice. And in games, it just translated throughout the season.”

A GREAT QUESTION

Then, as now, we are left with the question — amazingly, despite another 11-win campaign — is Penn State great?

Ironically, the 2019 Nittany Lions were supposed to be merely good. But their record was great and for one shining five-day moment — beginning with the College Football Playoff rankings released at 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, November 5 — 9-0 Penn State was in Franklin’s promised land of “the elite.”

Here’s the irony:

While the 2016 team likely deserved a spot in the CFP that season, and the 2017 squad clearly had the talent to be in it, it was this year’s edition of Penn State that became the first to earn a coveted (albeit temporary) top-four slot in the weekly CFP rankings, instituted in 2014. Yes, that No. 4 CFP glory lasted all of 92 hours — before being outcoached and outplayed at Minnesota.

But, even in that, Franklin emerged a winner. 

In a variation of “if you can’t beat ’em, get ’em to join you,” Franklin hired the offensive mastermind behind the Gophers’ 18-of-20, 339-yard and three TD passing dismantling of a porous Penn State secondary.

Beating Minnesota would’ve been great for PSU, but the in-person beating by/discovery of the Nittany Lions’ eventual new offensive coordinator/QB coach Kirk Ciarrocca was a nice parting gift.

It was the silver lining of a potentially dark cloud. Same goes for the departure of Ricky Rahne to the head coach opening at Old Dominion. Whether he was pushed by CJF or took the job freely — Rahne always steadfastly professed he didn’t want to be a head coach — the timing was fortuitous.

It was that kind of season.

HOW VICTORY TASTED

The Nittany Lions won, but oftentimes victory — at least to a fan base with hopes that Franklin’s program would soon turn elite, to use his own word — didn’t taste that sweet. 

The season had a different feel to it. That happens when your team scores 200 points in its first four games and then 212 in its next eight. Or when one goes to No. 4, then loses two of its next three. The math doesn’t quite add up. 

Even the Penn State defense, which finished the regular season ranked seventh nationally in fewest points allowed (14.1 ppg), felt the brunt of increased expectations — as thoughts of 8-4 turned to the College Football Playoffs then the Rose Bowl then elsewhere.

Two losses in three weeks, to Minnesota and then Ohio State, came in the midst of a decidedly arduous six-week run against five ranked teams and included road trips to challenging Big Ten outposts like Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus.

“We had some tough losses,” defensive end Shaka Toney said on Saturday. “Sometimes coming out flat and sometimes not doing what we need to do. You live and learn. We probably didn’t close out Rutgers (a 27-6 PSU win that was 13-6 with 13 minutes to play) the way we should have. I think we came out here and responded the way we were supposed to.

“Some people aren’t happy with our school — they want to see the Iron Curtain Penn State defense. But I’m happy. I won. We won. It was the most fun we had all season.”

ALMOST BUFFALOED

The season opened with the 79-7 and 45-13 poundings of Idaho and Buffalo, but the latter was a cautionary tale, as Buffalo led the Nittany Lions 10-7 at the half in Beaver Stadium before the Nittany Lions unleashed a 28-point third quarter.

A Nardoozy of a goofy call succeeded (but not successful) by a clonked 19-yard field goal attempt deep in the fourth of the Pitt game saved Penn State in Week 3. A 59-0 pounding of Maryland was followed by a surprisingly easy 35-7 win over Purdue, which lacked its anticipated punch after its star quarterback and receiver both went down on the same play the week prior to coming to Happy Valley.

Already, this had the look of a Penn State team with luck on its side. Then, it hit the stretch where skill against top-notch talent would count as well.

That meant Iowa, which was even less adept at scoring than Penn State, a 17-12 winner in Kinnick. The next week, it took former Franklin assistant Gattis and his Michigan offense awhile to get untracked in a Beaver Stadium Whiteout. But, trailing 21-0 at the half, they scored 21 of the game’s final 28 points, and came within a dropped pass in the end zone of sending the game into overtime with momentum clearly on the Wolverines’ side.

Penn State then traveled to Michigan State, jumping to a 28-0 lead, then coasting in the final 20 minutes to win 28-7. For that, the Nittany Lions were rewarded by the CFP Committee with the No. 4 spot in that week’s rankings.

It all ended in Minneapolis. P.J. Fleck and his staff and his team ended the Penn State parade with a 31-26 victory that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. A narrow seven-point win over Indiana was followed by a 28-17 loss in The Horseshoe, where three Buckeye fumbles kept the game close. Rutgers capped the regular season, and as Toney said, even the players weren’t impressed by that win.

Fans were thinking Roses, hoped for maybe a trip to the Orange Bowl, and stayed away in droves when the Nittany Lions “ended up” in the Big D, against Group of Five representative Memphis of the American Athletic Conference, a 12-1 two-time winner over Cincinnati.

The wildly entertaining 53-39 shootout in the Cotton Bowl — the only such score in FBS history — ensued.

If anything, determination and focus and the team’s buy-in of Franklin’s 1-0 mentality were the core characteristics of a Penn State team that in 2019 was short on seniors and long on drive. What was the hallmark of the 2019 team, Parsons was asked after the Cotton Bowl victory.

“I would say the grit of this team,” he replied. “There were a lot of times when we gave up touchdowns and we were going back and forth all season — turnovers, things like that. You know, every time we faced adversity, most of the time we overcame it. That’s what I hope we remember: That the team always battled back, no matter what was thrown at them.”

2020 VISION

The 8-4 season that became 11-2 did another thing:

It created even higher expectations for 2020. In fact, as merely good as folks expected the Nittany Lions to be in 2019, the advance notices for next year’s team are focused on the notion of elite.

And that includes Franklin, who constantly says he “gets” the high expectations of the Penn State fan base.

“Obviously,” Franklin said in the minutes following the Cotton Bowl victory, “whenever you can meet and exceed expectations, that’s always a good thing — especially at a place like Penn State, where the expectations and standards are so high.

“I think as young as we are, what people are expecting for this year, we’ve got a lot of work to do in a lot of different directions. But I think most people would agree that the program is headed in the right direction.”

One wonders if 11 wins again in 2020 will be enough, as crazy as that might sound.

The 2020 opener against Kent State in Beaver Stadium is nine months away. It’s followed a week later by a road game at Virginia Tech. There are visits to the Big House and Nebraska, and home games against Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State.

The Big Ten Championship Game on December 5, 2020 is also listed on the “Future Schedules” column on page 20 of the Penn State’s bowl media guide.

Getting there would be elite.

“I’m going to enjoy this win tonight,” Franklin said after defeating Memphis in Jerry’s World, “but I do think this game and this win and these 11 wins and these young players that are going to be returning are going to give us momentum going into next season.

“Which we’re going to need,” said Franklin, repeating it again, for emphasis: “Which we’re going to need.”



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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