Nittany Lions’ progress hits historic proportions

STATE COLLEGE – There are 16 unbeaten or championship Penn State football teams that are recognized by year, in large blue numbers, across the west side of Beaver Stadium.

They span from 1894, through the early 1900s (1909, 1911, 1912) to the juggernauts of Hugo Bezdek in 1920-21 to the great defensive teams of 1947, ’68, ’69 and ’73 to the height of the Joe Paterno era in the 1980s (’82 and ’86) and, of course, to the offensive machine in 1994.

They added Big Ten titles in 2005 and ’08, accorded the 2012 team championship status — which it deserved — and now the Nittany Lions, in the midst of a new era, are banging on Big Ten door again, a mere one win away from a 2016 conference crown.

Saturday’s 45-12 thrashing of a Michigan State team that started strong and progressively wilted added another chapter to a season that no one saw unfolding this way when the Nittany Lions stood on the eve of October at a shaky 2-2.

Instead, after eight-straight victories that started with Minnesota, crescendoed with Ohio State and included one-sided whippings of Iowa and the Spartans, the bulk of the announced crowd of 97,418 found itself hanging around to celebrate a 10-2 record and the presentation of the Big Ten East Division trophy.

The biggest ovation was reserved for James Franklin, who told the adoring throng just what they wanted to hear:

“This,” he hailed, “is just the beginning.”

The bow on the regular season finale followed a familiar template — with the Lions starting slow, making solid adjustments at halftime, using liberal substitution to wear down their opponent and finishing like a prize fighter who could go another five rounds.

So impressive is this stretch that it’s sometimes difficult to choose the better unit — a defense that has been aggressively blitzing, stuffing the run and playing bump-and-run coverage or an entertaining offense that has unveiled one of the nation’s most dangerous weapons in quarterback Trace McSorley and his up-the-field passing game.

Despite a rash of injuries that had to be overcome and subsequently contributed to Penn State building unprecedented depth, the Lions keep getting stronger and frankly put a physical beating on the Spartans, knocking out their top running back and quarterback for large portions of the game and sending several others to the sidelines.

It’s not always pretty, and it doesn’t have to be.

Even if the Lions beat Wisconsin in Indianapolis on Saturday night, barring two more wins and a national championship, this team won’t go down as the best in Penn State history.

But there’s never been a Lion squad that has improved from September through November more than this one.

“Every game we’ve grown,” center Brian Gaia said.

“We improved every week,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said, “and now we have an opportunity to finish this thing.”

Saturday presented an interesting challenge in that the Lions needed Ohio State to beat Michigan, and yet they didn’t know the result until the crowd erupted in the first quarter.

“I assumed that’s what it was,” Franklin said.

He thought the Lions handled that distraction, and while he knows his “let’s just go 1-0 this week” sounds like a cliché, he’s correct that it’s obviously working.

“I believe routine is very important,” he said. “We try to stick to it. It’s not really a show. It’s something we believe in and keep the message consistent.”

Franklin said the Lions “have overachieved,” but he also said his team is right on schedule.

“If you look at our track record, we’ve gotten better as the seasons have gone on,” he said. “This is really who we’ve been.”

By track record, he means his previous stop at Vanderbilt, which went 9-4 in his second and third year. In his last 20 games at Vandy, the Commodores posted a 16-4 record, the SEC’s second-best mark only to Alabama’s 17-3.

“It’s been a process for us all,” tight end Mike Gesicki, who caught two passes, including a 45-yard touchdown, Saturday. “We’ve all trusted in it the entire time, and that’s what got us to where we are today.”

Everyone knows the detours Penn State has endured over the past five years, but these players and a coaching staff Franklin called “the best in the country” are blazing their own road.

“For a long time when people talked about Penn State, they talked about what Penn State used to be,” Gesicki said. “This is getting us back to what we are. Being Big Ten East champions is something this team and this school deserves, but we’re not satisfied. We have a lot left to accomplish. You look back at the last two years, and you don’t want to take this moment for granted.”

Because, as history has taught us, they don’t come around too often.

Rudel can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @neilrudel.

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