INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State is the Big Ten champion.
And while historically, that might not be the most surprising phrase in the world, recent history makes that accomplishment almost absolutely unbelievable.
James Franklin arrived in State College less than three years ago, succeeding Bill O'Brien and taking over a program that was entangled in the after effects of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, with sanctions imposed by the NCAA that included severe scholarship limits and a bowl ban, among other things. Meanwhile, there were plenty of after effects that weren’t being imposed by the NCAA but by a large number of Penn State fans, mostly criticisms of the university’s attitude toward longtime coach Joe Paterno and why the crippling results of the scandal hadn’t been quickly overcome.
There was a lot working against Franklin’s team, both inside and outside the Penn State community, and while also competing in a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, it seemed winning — at least winning big — was a long way off. Franklin’s first two seasons ended in 7-6 finishes and trips to low-level bowl games. And that looked like success, given the circumstances.
But fast forward to Saturday night in Indy, where Franklin got to hoist the Big Ten championship trophy. Perhaps a trip to the College Football Playoff could follow Sunday.
Nobody could’ve predicted this. Nobody did.
It’s amazing, really, this 11-2 season that’s featured a win over second-ranked Ohio State and a conference championship. What's more amazing is the timeline, that this journey has reached this point this fast.
“You know, it's hard for me to think about it as just this season,” Franklin said. “It's been a challenging three years. I’ve learned a lot about myself. Learned a lot about my family. I've learned a lot about this community and the men in that locker room, the coaches, the players, the doctors, the trainers, everybody. So for me it's not just the season. It's all the hard work and all the positive steps that we've been taking for three years. It didn't always seem that way maybe to others, but we felt that way. It wasn't easy. Those steps weren't downhill. Those steps were up Mount Nittany. And that's kind of how I look at it.”
Franklin was under a great deal of pressure as recently as early on this season, when after a 2-2 start his athletics director had to provide a vote of confidence in the face of questions about his job status. Restless fans who perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the challenges that came with digging the program out from under the weight of the scandal were demanding winning football.
Well, how’s this for winning football?
Franklin’s been the focal point because he’s the head coach, but the players have had to deal with these challenges, as well. Franklin’s decisions to redshirt guys who could’ve helped the team earlier in his tenure with the hope of future success meant hovering around .500 in each of the past two seasons. That also meant decreased depth in practice and on the roster in general. It meant a lot of players having to learn on the fly. Now that work has paid off. In the form of a championship.
“It’s a great culmination of all the hard work and effort we’ve put in over the past five years as a family,” center Brian Gaia said. “(We’ve been) through two different coaches. It doesn’t matter, we play for each other. And then we start buying in, start playing for everyone in the program. It’s just a culmination of that today, a championship.”
And now maybe that division within the fan base can cease, too. Instead of worrying about how the university should treat the legacy of Paterno, those fans can start recognizing the legacy Franklin is building.
But most of all, Saturday's win is a gargantuan accomplishment for this team and this group of players to block out the noise and all the extra stuff that comes with being Penn State, stuff other programs don’t have to deal with, and win.
They’ve won nine games in a row. And now they’re the kings of the Big Ten.
“It means a lot. For this community, for Penn Staters past, present and in the future. It really is transforming this university, and it’s bringing a sense of happiness to this school,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “All the things that we’ve been through and all the things that we’re still kind of going through, we were able to overcome all of that. And for us to still be a family after all of that and seeing guys really care so much about each other and so much about this team, it is obviously why we’re in the situation we’re in right now.”
INDIANAPOLIS — A star was born Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
While he was good enough this season to earn All-Big Ten Second Team honors, the world finally got to meet Trace McSorley, Penn State’s sophomore quarterback who led an incredible comeback effort as the Nittany Lions were crowned Big Ten champions. He was sensational, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns as one big throw after another dug Penn State out of a three-touchdown hole against one of the best defenses in college football.
“The numbers and the performance speak for itself,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said of his quarterback. “He did amazing today. He did a great job leading our team. He did a great job of not getting too high, not getting too low, staying even-keeled and knowing exactly what we had to get done, and that’s exactly what we did.”
McSorley was hounded early by the Wisconsin defense, a unit boasting a terrific linebacking corps starring pass-rusher supreme T.J. Watt. Watt constantly pressured McSorley in the first half, hitting him on the first play of the game even after he handed the ball off and crunching him on a sack that turned into a fumble forced and recovered by Watt.
But McSorley didn’t waver, not when Watt took the ball away from him and not when a bad snap over his head resulted in a defensive touchdown for the Badgers. Instead, McSorley did what he’s done best all season long: hit home runs.
The celebration might irk some opponents, but McSorley’s mimed baseball swing and admiration is perfectly applicable to the way he gets this offense to explode. He pitched four touchdown passes Saturday night, the first three coming from 33, 40 and 70 yards away from the end zone. His home-run balls turned the game completely around against one of the best secondaries in the land.
The 33-yard bomb to Mike Gesicki turned a 14-0 game into a 14-7 game in the first quarter. In the second quarter, a missed tackled helped spring Saeed Blacknall on the 40-yard score. But his third touchdown pass of the day was perhaps the biggest, a 70-yard strike to Blacknall on the Lions’ first offensive play of the second half, a play Hamilton said broke the Badgers’ defense.
“I think it was after the first touchdown of the second half, the 60-yarder by Saeed. You sensed a shift in their defense,” Hamilton said. “They were hanging their heads, they were blaming other people, things like that. You kind of realized we just brought this down to 14 points, now it’s seven points, now we’ve got ‘em. We scored on the next drive, they were completely shot after that. We just had to keep going out there and worrying about ourselves, and that’s exactly what we did.”
The next drive featured a picture-perfect throw from McSorley to running back Saquon Barkley for a 18-yard touchdown, which tied the game. The next drive featured some more chunk passing plays and ended in a go-ahead touchdown run by Barkley, which gave Penn State the lead for good.
Another second-half comeback for the Lions. This one against one of the best defenses around.
“We started going a little more tempo. We felt in the last two-minute drive (in the second quarter), they didn’t handle our tempo too well. So we came out second half really wanting to push that and go as fast as we could, get them on their heels a little bit,” McSorley said. “And just felt that we had some matchups outside that we really liked and wanted to take advantage of it. They were playing a lot of man coverage, single high safeties. We just wanted to let our guys work. That was kind of our second-half game plan.”
McSorley got the award and he’ll get the headlines and the hype, but this sensational offensive performance was just as much the work of the guys McSorley was throwing to. Gesicki, Blacknall and Hamilton turned in one remarkable catch after another. Yes, McSorley was good, but it didn’t even seem to matter how well he threw it because those guys were catching everything.
“It did kind of feel like that,” McSorley said. “Even if they were covered, I felt like I could throw it up and they’d make the catch, they’d come down with it.
“It was impressive seeing those guys work 1-on-1. You’ve got complete trust in them. The biggest thing is it gave our offense confidence that we had guys on the outside that were going to go up and make those plays. I think that was a big part of why we came out in the second half and decided to throw it deep a little bit and try to take advantage of our matchups outside because of how those guys were playing. We had tremendous confidence in them. They had tremendous confidence in themselves. So I think that was a big part of it for our offense, those guys were making those kind of plays, just to trust them and let them be playmakers.”
And this is all before even really mentioning Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and star running back who made plenty of impact Saturday night, too, totaling 103 yards and two touchdowns rushing and receiving.
But it was perhaps Barkley who put it best in referencing Hamilton’s pregame mantra, a perfect expression of how far this offense has come.
In the last two seasons, with McSorley’s predecessor Christian Hackenberg under center, the Penn State offense couldn’t do a darn thing. This year, after the hiring of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and the insertion of the more mobile McSorley — and the all-around dominance of Barkley — the Lions are an offensive juggernaut with more weapons than any defense can handle.
“DaeSean Hamilton says it before every game: If one of us eats, we all eat. If one of us balls, we all ball out. We’re playmakers, and we’ve got to step up and make plays,” Barkley said. “I think those guys made some crazy plays. Saeed two touchdowns, (Hamilton) going over people’s heads catching everything, Mike made a big play for us, sparked us, and Trace has been doing an unbelievable job getting the ball to them and trusting them.
“The wide receivers are just playing tremendous for us. In my opinion, best wide-receiver corps in the Big Ten. Might even be the best wide-receiver corps in the country.”