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Penn State’s Journey to Elite Began After 2016 Michigan Loss

by on October 17, 2019 7:00 PM

“That game,” Cam Brown was saying the other day, “will forever stick in my mind.”

That game, for Brown — now a senior linebacker, a respected Nittany Lion co-captain and a likely high NFL Draft choice — was Penn State at Michigan in 2016.

That game was Brown’s first real taste of action at Penn State as a raw 210-pound true freshman from The Bullis School in Maryland, when he recorded 10 tackles against the Wolverines after filling a void when five linebackers — five! — ahead of him didn’t play due to injuries or were forced from the game.

That game tested Linebacker U in a way it had never been before.

Season-opening starters Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White (out for the year after three games) missed the game with injuries. That left a starting trio of Jake Cooper, Brandon Smith and Manny Bowen — who entered the road contest in the Big House with three career starts. Combined.

Smith, a walk-on, was disqualified on the first play of the second quarter for targeting. His replacement, fellow walk-on Jan Johnson, a cross-over from the PSU wrestling team, suffered a season-ending injury after that quarter. (He has since returned and emerged as a two-year starter.)

James Franklin, who rarely likes to look back, vividly recalled that game a few days ago — 160 weeks after the fact.

“Jan was a walk-on scout team tight end and ended up going in that game to play middle linebacker after we were down like five linebackers,” Franklin recalled. “We had an ejection, then he tears his ACL in that game. Just one thing after another. We were just coming off of sanctions and scholarship numbers, and just a lot of challenges and a lot of adversity.”

That game may have been the nadir of Penn State football under Franklin. It was the lowest and last valley before winning truly returned to Happy Valley.

That game ended Michigan 49, Penn State 10, on Sept. 24, 2016.

This Saturday, when No. 16 Michigan (5-1) comes to town for a Whiteout against No. 7 Penn State (6-0), that game will be 1,120 days and a program renaissance ago.

“You think about how much has changed from then,” Franklin said this week, “how far we’ve come.”


Measured in pure numbers, Penn State’s rise since then has been stunning. Since that game, here’s a look at the records of major college football’s powers. Penn State ranks No. 5. That’s elite.

1. Alabama — 43-3, .935

2. Clemson — 43-3, .935

3. Oklahoma — 40-4, .909

4. Ohio State — 37-6, .860

5. PENN STATE — 35-7, .833

In the Big Ten Conference since that game, Wisconsin has been 34-9 (.790), Michigan 29-12 (.707) and Michigan State 22-20 (.525).

Nationally, LSU has been 31-8 (.795), Georgia 34-10 (.773), Notre Dame 30-10 (.750), Washington 33-11 (.750), Auburn 29-13 (.690) and USC 28-12 (.700). A pair of usual college football stalwarts has fared much worse: Texas has been 24-15 (.615), while Florida State has been 22-18 (.550). For now, “has been” seems apt.

(It would not be surprising in the next year or even the next few months, for the latter three schools — USC, Texas and Florida State — to express strong interest in Franklin, especially when you pair his turnaround at Penn State with what he did at Vanderbilt. Franklin has a home Florida, the bright lights of L.A. suit him well and the Texas job has always intrigued him.)

You know the rest of the story: Twenty-eight days after the Wolverines pounded PSU in 2016, the Nittany Lions rose from the ashes and upset No. 2 Ohio State, 24-21, on Grant Haley’s scoop-and-score in a Whiteout in Beaver Stadium. An unexpected Big Ten title followed.

Of Penn State’s seven losses since then, six have come by the narrowest of margins — by 3 points to USC; by 1 and 1 vs. Ohio State; by 3 and 1 to Michigan; and by 3 to Kentucky. Penn State’s 42-7 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor last fall was the only non-competitive effort by the Nittany Lions in that stretch. 

For Brown, the journey since that game has been fast and furious. “It just doesn’t seem that long ago,” said Brown, now a solid 230 pounds and perhaps the most mature of the Penn State leaders.

Winning does that.


In that regard, Brown’s memory is an anomaly on the 2019 Nittany Lion squad. Franklin said so himself.

The Penn State head coach lamented a bit that his current Nittany Lions don’t quite understand the climb it’s been to this Saturday’s Whiteout, the Penn State campus’ third GameDay in as many years and Penn State’s second prime-time appearance in as many weeks. Call it the trappings of success.

First, Franklin gave a shout-out to the 2016 squad that persevered, running off nine consecutive victories after losing to Michigan, including the Big Ten championship game.

“Those guys that stuck with us then, that committed under those circumstances, that battled through the adversity that we had as a program,” Franklin said, “I think those guys really are the backbone of what we’re doing right now. They’ve seen the highs and the lows and the adversity and the ups and downs, and they’re battle-tested, mentally tough, physically tough guys.”

Then, he shared that the younger players who form the core of this year’s undefeated team don’t quite get how tough it was in Ann Arbor, for that game — and the 29 others before it, when Penn State was barely .500 in Franklin’s first 30 games at Penn State, going 16-14.

“It’s hard, because it’s funny,” Franklin shared. “Sometimes you get upset with the young players because they show up and they think they’re almost entitled to the success. You get mad at them because they’re like, you have no idea what we went through.

“But it’s not their fault. They just don’t know. But I do think there’s an importance to that, of those guys that have been through that adversity and built it. It’s amazing, it’s very similar to what we do with the facility, even with the staff. Whenever we get something new done and show the team and do an unveiling, I always do a ‘before and after.’ I show them what the facility, what the locker room, used to look like and what it looks like now. It’s amazing the reaction of the players. Most of the recruits, the ones now — like the guys who just signed this past year — they never saw any of that stuff and they’re shocked by it. The (new) staff, Joe Lorig and (Gerad) Parker, they’re like, ‘That's what it was when you guys got here?’ ”


For Franklin, the placement of Michigan on the schedule provided a rare moment to reflect a bit in mid-season, to look at the Nittany Lions’ 42-game run since the 2016 game, with just two losses — in bowl games, in three-point defeats at the hands of USC and Kentucky — to teams not named Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State.

“I am very proud,” he said. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a rather short period of time under very, very difficult circumstances. There’s been a lot of people that have been a part of that.

“But like I’ve said and like I continue to say, the thing we can’t do is take a deep breath and feel like we’re back. The programs that we’re competing with, they haven’t taken a deep breath or pushed the pause button in 50 years.”

“…We’ve got to push, and we’ve got to keep fighting and climbing and scratching and clawing for every little inch we can, because the margin of error is so small where we’re at and everything matters. Everything matters. We’ve got to compete in every aspect.”

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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