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Penn State Football: Two Years Since The Catch, Nittany Lions Once Again Face Road Test

by on September 23, 2019 2:00 PM

"Events, dear boy, events." -Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when asked what would determine his government's course

It has been two years to the day since Juwan Johnson lifted a finger to his mouth, silencing an Iowa City crowd that had roared all night.

For Penn State the win avoided an early season stumble for a team with playoff hopes and legitimate title aspirations. A Heisman-caliber performance by Saquon Barkley furthered his place in the nation's consciousness and a brilliant drive by Trace McSorley continued to build on a legacy of clutch moments. It was not a sexy game, but it confirmed the Nittany Lions' preseason hype and staying power on the road in the face of a daunting opponent and a formidable atmosphere.

In the weeks beyond Penn State reached as high as No.2 in the nation, a thrashing of Michigan in front of what was -at the time- the largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history perhaps the pinnacle of the James Franklin era so far. The Big Ten championship will continue to be the high-water mark of tangible accomplishments, but on that night Penn State flexed its muscles. Fireworks in the sky and on the field, the Nittany Lions were a force to be reckoned with in more ways than one, and a commanding victory proved that 2016's magical season was not simply good fortune.

Of course in its own way the 2017 season lived up to the hype while falling short of it at the same time. Losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, both winnable and late in their conclusions, would be the death blow to playoff hopes. A Fiesta Bowl victory gave a roster still bruised by a Rose Bowl defeat a sense of closure and a way to have one final moment together. Ultimately though even with a Big Ten trophy the Nittany Lions' best title hopes in nearly a decade felt a few steps short of what they could have been. And if not for a bit of overtime help from Ohio State in 2016, James Franklin's biggest accomplishment so far would have been rendered a thing -almost- obtained.

Penn State has gone 19-6 since its win over Iowa compared to a 26-2 mark by Ohio State and a bit better than a 16-9 record by Michigan. More pointedly the Nittany Lions have gone 1-5 against the the East's power trio since that night, the only real blot on Franklin's time in State College.

All the same, Penn State appears to still be the Big Ten East's second or third-best team in 2019 and among the best in the conference if only by the virtue of being the least incompetent among a Big Ten that looks a bit more discombobulated than in years past.

24 months and a seven-yard touchdown pass later the Nittany Lions sit at a comfortable 3-0 but with lingering uncertainty surrounding their identity. If Penn State goes the way of 2016: young and inexperienced but unbreakable in spirit and never out of the fight, then the natural maturation process may see the Nittany Lions finding themselves in time for the biggest marquee moments on the schedule.

But first they once against must survive a Week 4 test against a Maryland team looking for a fight and a crowd ready to upend a regional rival. This time there won't be a Trace McSorley to orchestrate a drive or a Saquon Barkley to turn heads. And Johnson? He has yet to record a catch with his new team in Oregon, a lingering calf issue holding him out of action so far this season.

So who will the Nittany Lions turn to and who will step up to block the season's first punch on the road? Friday night will provide the answer to that question.

It will also begin to answer the larger existential one: Is Penn State's 70th game under James Franklin going to mark the opening chapter of another season of dominance against the conference's lower two thirds, the merits of a season determined by a few games, or are the Nittany Lions a program forced to reload, redevelop and recycle in time for their next legitimate run? A team that will trip over its own feet on the way towards something better.

One can only speculate for so long, thankfully we won't have to much longer.

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