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Ben State Football: Penn State Seems To Have Found Itself Again

by on November 07, 2016 2:46 PM

There isn't really a correct time to find yourself. It just happens, maybe you ease into it, maybe you just decide to change and become who you want to be. It's everyone's favorite existential crisis, who they are and what they're doing with their life.

Fortunately, football isn't nearly as serious.  

But the idea is the same.

For the better part of the past five weeks Penn State football has looked exactly like the kind of team James Franklin has preached about for years. Maybe not perfect, far from it, but the structure is there. A big play offense, a stout defense, limited mistakes and few if any turnovers. The quarterback is mobile, the skill players are talented and everyone is -as Franklin likes to say so often- "pulling the rope in the same direction."

And that is a large shift from where Penn State has been the past few years. It was survival, it was simply getting to the next week, the next game and the next season. Years later stories from inside the Lasch building on those key days in 2012 when the sanctions were handed down paint a much darker picture. It is fun for some fans to flaunt Penn State's success in the face of enormous odds, but that razor edge between surviving and dying was far thinner than the defiant wins may lead you to believe. Something the result of as much luck as hard work.

The funny thing about Penn State this season though is how much it has taken everyone by surprise. Even internally there is this feeling that the switch has flipped so very quickly since Week 1. Talking about "some day down the road" has suddenly turned into talking about next week. In the span of a month James Franklin has gone from votes of confidence to a potential Top 10 ranking and a very real shot at a 10-2 season.

But why? How?

"We're getting better, I know that," Franklin said after Penn State's win on Saturday. "What does getting better equate to on Saturdays, I can't predict that, but we're getting better. We're getting better every single day and every single practice. Our approach, our mentality, our trust and belief in one another, our confidence translates into getting better and we're creating depth."

"We will never be satisfied, we will never be satisfied, ever. That's not just coach speak, I mean that. We'll always be looking at things that we need to get better in, areas that we can improve, depth that we need to create...The most important thing is that we're playing hard right now. Our guys are playing really hard. One play at a time. The championship standard and we tell our guys that the average play lasts six seconds. So don't think about 60 minutes, think about six seconds. Can you give us your best for six seconds at a time from an effort and focus standpoint and right now we're doing that."

Ask players like Chris Godwin, who have seen just about everything in their time at Penn State, and even they don't really know. More importantly they don't even really know what the problem was before. There have always been glimpses -- that's what keeps so many people in the seats. You can tell Penn State is going to get back to something familiar, but it's hard to say when. And then suddenly a 25-yard run by Saquon Barkley started a winning streak that may very well be the ignition switch to an engine that has been trying to start for a while now.

"I'm not sure what exactly the wall was," Godwin said of the past few years' struggles. "But I think we've done a great job since Coach Moorhead has been here. We have a mindset that he wanted to instill in us and we're going to earn everything we get. So that has kind of been our mindset that we're going to outwork teams and it has built all throughout the offseason up until now and we're showing it on the field."

And Penn State is showing it. The offense is operating at a fairly high level, scoring almost at will. The defense is finally healthy and playing a physical brand of football. Even Penn State's once maligned special teams unit has become a strength, flipping the field and giving opponents long yardages to work with in order to score.

It just clicks. 

"Everybody is singing the same song and everybody is singing it in the same tune right now," Franklin added. "There's consistency in our behavior, there's consistency in our actions and everybody's on the same page. That's the trainers, that's the doctors, that's the administrators, that's the secretaries, that's everybody, players, coaches and that's when you have a chance to be successful."

"Again, I've been saying it for three years. I feel like we have been taking steps, positive steps, for three years. Did it year one, did it year two, did it year three. It just kind of keeps progressing...For us to build the program that we want to build, it's got to be everybody. It's President Barron, it's Sandy, it's the board, it's our coaches and players, the fans, the media. It's everybody, it really is. It's the community. It's all those things. I don't think it's one moment or one thing or one game. It's just been kind of the process, sticking to our plan, believing in one another, building trust and relationships, and identity, which I think is really what we've created in year three is an identity."

The question now is where things go from here. It's hard to imagine a Penn State team under Franklin looking different than it has the past few games, and in that sense Penn State has 
arrived at its destination with Franklin. The work as it pertains to building the structure itself has been completed. Now it's a matter of sustaining and upgrading. A left tackle here, a linebacker there, but Penn State has seemingly broken free of simply surviving and has gotten back to playing.

Perhaps then that means Penn State football is back. Maybe not back to where it wants to be just yet, but back to a place where the playing field is once again even and once again easier to navigate. 

But like all of us, finding yourself is only half the battle. It's what you do next that really matters.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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