Huge upset major turning point for PSU, Franklin
By Cory Giger
It wasn’t just one game. It was a game changer for the Penn State football program.
Years from now, we all could be looking back on Saturday night as the turning point to Penn State’s return as a major player on the national stage.
The Nittany Lions’ 24-21 win over No. 2 Ohio State was stunning in so many ways, and the effects of it could be widespread, including:
n First and foremost, James Franklin didn’t just earn a much-needed signature win, he notched one of the most important wins any coach in the country will have this season. Franklin’s first win over a ranked opponent at PSU was of the spectacular variety, silencing any and all critics and buying him a great deal more time to continue what he’s building in the program. Forget about anymore hot seat talk — which was foolish this season to begin with — and start wondering if AD Sandy Barbour already has a contract extension she’s working on for the third-year coach.
n Just about everyone thought Penn State was at least a year away — maybe even 2-3 years — from this kind of groundbreaking win over a national power. Now the Lions already proved they have the horses in the program to compete with the biggest of boys in the Big Ten neighborhood, sending a message to the rest of the league that Franklin and his staff are ahead of schedule.
n The national respect earned by the Lions on Saturday is enormous, as they went from not even receiving votes in the polls all the way up to a No. 24 ranking in the AP poll. It’s the first time PSU (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) has been ranked since it was No. 24 heading into the 2011 TicketCity Bowl loss to Houston. The Lions still are not ranked in the coaches poll, coming in at 27th overall.
n Most thought this would be a 7-5 type of season, then next year would be the key one for Franklin. Now, 10-2 looks like a good possibility, since the rest of the schedule isn’t strong and PSU probably will be favored in every remaining game. Iowa (at home) and Indiana (on the road) are the biggest obstacles remaining.
n Believe it or not, Penn State has a decent chance to win the Big Ten East and get into the conference championship game. The Lions would have to win out, first of all, and finish 8-1 in the league. Michigan (4-0 in Big Ten) would have to lose a game before it plays Ohio State, then also lose to the Buckeyes. The Wolverines’ remaining games are at Michigan State, home against Maryland, at Iowa and home against Indiana. Those all look like wins, but if the Wolverines slip up …
In that scenario, Penn State and Ohio State would be 8-1, Michigan 7-2, and the Lions would get the tiebreaker over the Buckeyes by virtue of the head-to-head win. If all three teams finish tied at 8-1, PSU would lose any tiebreaker because it has two losses overall to one apiece for the others. Ohio State, by beating Michigan, likely would be ranked ahead of the Wolverines and therefore would advance to the title game.
n The present now looks a lot better, and with such a high-profile win, it could have a huge impact on recruiting. There were more than 150 recruits present for Saturday’s whiteout at Beaver Stadium, and you can bet a lot of them were blown away by what they saw and the atmosphere.
Already a good recruiter, Franklin now has perhaps the single best recruiting tool of his career to boast of when it comes to luring top talent to PSU. Franklin can tell a 17-year-old kid, ‘Hey, we were 20-point underdogs, and we still found a way to beat Ohio State. If you come here, you can help us take the next step to becoming a top-five team and national title contender.”
OK, now to take a step back for a moment.
Everything I laid out previously might happen for the program, but there are no guarantees, obviously. Sports are crazy, as Saturday’s upset proved once again, and Franklin and Penn State have to keep building on what they accomplished.
One thing that definitely changed Saturday is expectations. And with higher expectations comes not just a desire but a demand to live up to them.
Any team that’s good enough to do what Penn State did to Ohio State will be expected to keep doing that the rest of this season, especially against the caliber of competition the Lions have left. It will be up to Franklin and his staff to keep everyone focused on continuing the progress, not merely being satisfied with one stunning upset.
Time will tell if Penn State can indeed turn the historic win into a huge springboard for the future. It’s not a leap to think that it can, but playing in such a loaded division against powerhouse programs and coaches, nothing can be taken for granted.
Perception is a powerful thing, however, and it’s amazing how much one victory can change the perception of a team, a program and a coach. Anyone who wasn’t already buying into Penn State before Saturday should probably rethink that position, because the Lions now have a world of momentum going in their favor.
n Take a bow, Brent Pry. The defensive coordinator, an Altoona native, has done a truly incredible job lately of overcoming so many personnel losses to help transform the PSU defense from a liability to a strength. Ohio State scored five of its 21 points after Penn State special teams mistakes, so the Lions’ defense actually allowed only 16 points. That’s nothing short of remarkable against a team that came in averaging 49.
n Ohio State hadn’t been shut out in any quarter all season. Penn State’s defense did that twice in four quarters Saturday (first and fourth). The Buckeyes also failed to score in the final 23:31 of the game.
n PSU rallied from down 21-7, making it the program’s largest fourth-quarter comeback since at least 1967.
n The Lions won on a special teams touchdown by Grant Haley after Marcus Allen’s blocked field goal. How rare was that? As ABC’s Chris Fowler tweeted, PSU was the only Power 5 program in the country that had not scored a special teams TD in the last four years.
n Penn State opened as a 10 1/2-point favorite for this week’s game at Purdue, but the line quickly went to 14 in some places.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.