Five years ago, the once-proud legacy and storied tradition of the Penn State University football program was in tatters. The fallout of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal ruined the school’s reputation, destroyed the legacy of its once-revered late coach, Joe Paterno, and left program a mere shell of its former self.
But head coach James Franklin’s 2016 Nittany Lions squad, led by the exceptional and gritty play of quarterback Trace McSorley, have the program surprisingly back among the nation’s elite after their 38-31 come-from-behind victory over No. 6 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
Many are upset that Penn State was left out of the playoff semi-finals, but for them to even be in consideration is a minor miracle in and of itself. They have a legitimate gripe as owners of the Big Ten title, a league that was head and shoulders above all others, and a head-to-head win against Ohio State.
But just as Franklin accentuated the positive when he took over the program, he’s not dwelling on the negative right now.
After their second loss of the season, a 39-point drubbing against Michigan in late September, Penn State has been on a roll, giving the No. 2 Buckeyes their only loss of the year and they culminated their outstanding play over the final two months by coming back from a 21-point first-half deficit in the conference championship game against the Badgers.
After today’s College Football Playoff selection show, Franklin made it clear that he was not about to fret over things that he, and his team, can’t control.
“Our guys would have obviously loved to have been in the playoff, but they’re also excited about the opportunity to play in a big bowl game,” he said after the final rankings were released. “We’ve had a great year — I’m really proud of our guys. Yeah, they would have loved to have been in the playoffs, but we’re still very, very appreciative and honored for the opportunities that we have.”
That opportunity will be in this year’s Rose Bowl against another team that started slow but finished up looking like one of the best teams in the country, USC.
Outside of the playoff games, the Nittany Lions vs the Trojans will be one of the best matchups of the bowl season, with both squads riding a nine and eight-game winning streak, respectively.
Against Wisconsin, McSorley passed for 384 yards with four touchdowns, setting title game records in both categories. The sophomore quarterback from Ashburn, Virginia also owns Penn State’s single-season marks with 3,360 passing yards and 25 TD passes.
The Nittany Lions receivers teamed up with their QB to show the country that speed and athleticism is not the sole province of the elite Pac-12, SEC and ACC programs. Saeed Blacknall caught six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns while DaeSean Hamilton caught eight more balls for 118 yards. Wisconsin’s normally stingy defense looked over-matched after halftime as Penn State’s offense caught fire.
Franklin never blinked when down early, and his confidence never wavered after opening the year 2-2 with losses to Pitt and Michigan. It was emblematic of how he took over a program in shambles a few years ago and engineered one of the most incredible regeneration projects we’ve seen in quite some time.
Five years after the Sandusky scandal, he’s scrubbed the program clean of any remaining stench. The NCAA sanctions were supposed to cripple the program for years to come and Penn State was seen as a place that would never rebound, but Franklin and his coaching staff had other plans.
To the shock and amazement of many, one of college football’s slumbering giants has been awakened. With a young team returning next year and recruiting on the upswing, Penn State is a national championship contender again. And with Franklin at the helm, they look to be in that elite mix for many years to come.