Thursday, August 7, 2014
Best case/Worst case: Penn State
By Austin Ward
Our series on the best- and worst-case scenario for every Big Ten team in 2014 rolls along with a look at what might happen as James Franklin takes over for his first season at Penn State.
For anyone new to this preseason blog staple or in need of a reminder, please know these are not to be viewed as predictions. Do not take them seriously. The scenarios illustrate the potential highs and lows in a season. Still not sure? Catch up on the first few installments before diving into the Nittany Lions.
The motivational tactics and outpouring of emotion were already having an impact, but giving Franklin another carrot to dangle in front of his team took the Nittany Lions to an even higher level. An amped-up roster that already had used the chip on its shoulder to knock off UCF in the opener in Ireland finally had the dark cloud of a bowl ban removed from over its head after the release of the second Mitchell report prompted the punishments on the program to be scaled back again, and now it officially had something more to play for this season. After downplaying the influence the repeal of the postseason sanctions might have on the Nittany Lions during training camp, the way they cruised through September, capping it with four touchdowns from Christian Hackenberg in an impressive Big Ten victory over Northwestern, certainly suggested they were a more focused team now that championships were on the table.
The conversation started drifting toward a possible division title and appearance in the conference championship game after Hackenberg again showed poise beyond that of a normal sophomore with a flawless performance on the road against Michigan. The second-year quarterback hooked up twice with Geno Lewis for scores in a 31-17 win as Penn State improved to 6-0, setting the stage for a huge clash at home the following week at home against Ohio State with first place in the division on the line.
The perfect start ultimately came to an end and the inside position in the East slipped away with Braxton Miller turning in another vintage performance against the Nittany Lions down the stretch, with the Buckeyes eventually coming from behind and wearing down a team that at last showed some signs that the scholarship reductions were a factor that would keep them out of the title race for at least one more season.
That issue wouldn't be a problem for the next four weeks, though, as Penn State bounced right back with another winning streak that would last until the final week of the regular season -- another gritty outing against a top-15 opponent at home, but another loss as Michigan State's defense bottled up Hackenberg to keep the Nittany Lions at 10-2 heading into the postseason.
But thanks to the good news in September, the Nittany Lions punched a ticket to the Outback Bowl, capped the resurgent year with one final win with Bill Belton diving into the end zone in the closing seconds in a thriller that set the stage for an even bigger 2015.
Penn State hadn't built its hopes up, and it was a good thing it didn't. The second Mitchell report looked like a lock to open the doors to the postseason again for the Nittany Lions, but oddly the NCAA didn't lift a finger despite scaling back the sanctions after a similar release in 2013.
After downplaying the impact playing in a bowl game might have on the team this season, the Nittany Lions certainly looked like a distracted, disappointed team as it fumbled its way through the first half of the schedule. They had chalked up the opening loss to UCF to the travel overseas, and the Nittany Lions responded to that defeat by sandwiching nonconference wins around an uglier-than-expected victory to open Big Ten play at Rutgers. But Northwestern and Michigan both capitalized against an unfocused Penn State squad over the next two games, and even the seemingly tireless Franklin was starting to look a little worried after Ohio State came into Beaver Stadium and blasted his reeling squad thanks to a couple of turnovers by Hackenberg.
He bounced back the next week with three touchdowns to beat Maryland and ease some of the concerns about his growing pains, but the sophomore slump for the quarterback resumed in another shocking loss at Indiana, the second in a row for the storied program after having its perfect record against the Hoosiers snapped in 2013.
With some ESPN 300 recruits starting to panic and test Franklin's marketing skills, Penn State throttled Temple and Illinois to ensure it would have met the minimum bowl requirements had it been eligible in 2014. But the emotional year ended on a low note with Michigan State unleashing its vaunted defense on Hackenberg & Co., sending the Nittany Lions into the offseason with a .500 record and plenty of hard-earned lessons learned on the way back to contention in the Big Ten.