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James Franklin Made Penn State Cool Again

I don’t really care if Penn State wins on Saturday night. As a senior and Pennsylvania native, I’m still in shock that James Franklin has brought this program as far as he has during my time at this school.

This weekend, we have College GameDay and the greatest spectacle in college sports — the White Out — right here in Happy Valley. Penn State is once again the center of the college football universe, even if it’s just for a week.

The first Penn State game that I ever watched as a student was the matchup between the Nittany Lions and the Temple Owls in 2015. I stood in the back of a long room on the bottom floor of Beaver Hall as James Franklin’s team was shut down in every aspect at Lincoln Financial Field. 

The only good thing that came of that game is that, while probably complaining about the team to people nearby, I met someone who’d become one of my closest friends here at Penn State. Other than that, it totally sucked.

Here are some stats from that game: Christian Hackenberg went 11/25 through the air for 103 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. The offense had 80 total yards on the ground. The offensive line gave up ten sacks. 

The most exciting game of the season was a night Stripe Out against Rutgers. It’s probably hard for freshman to even imagine that now. James Franklin was a victim of circumstance here in a lot of ways, inheriting a team that didn’t really fit his style of play and had some glaring weaknesses, especially along the offensive line.

2015 came and went without much to be excited about other than Saquon Barkley hurdling defenders. I cannot stress this enough for anyone who wasn’t a student in 2015, but the football games were completely forgettable and blend into one big, rainy mess in my mind. The White Out was a noon kick.

The 2016 season, however, changed absolutely everything in Happy Valley.

It felt like the beginning of a completely new era in Beaver Stadium. Suddenly, the Nittany Lions were running a no-huddle offense with an elusive quarterback and an elite running back beside him.

Just think about this for a second. Trace McSorley had committed to Vanderbilt as an undersized quarterback that had more serious looks from schools as a safety than as a dual-threat passer. McSorley was by no means a blue-chip prospect, but Franklin saw enough from the Virginia native to hand him the reins to the offense.

The first four games of the season squashed almost all hope of 2016 being any different from the previous four years. A 42-39 loss at Pitt and a blowout in the Big House reminded Penn State fans not to get their hopes up.

Halftime of the Minnesota game in Beaver Stadium marked a turning point, though. The Nittany Lions went into halftime trailing 13-3, and I nearly fell asleep while sitting in the bleachers as the Blue Band performed.

I have no idea what happened at halftime, but it sent the Nittany Lions on the most memorable tear of my life as a sports fan. McSorley came out and threw an 80-yard touchdown to Irvin Charles in the third quarter to send the game into overtime. The Gophers kicked a field goal on their OT possession before Saquon Barkley took the first play of the Penn State drive 25 yards to the house for the win.

The Nittany Lions put together a season that I can honestly say will be unforgettable. In the span of a few weeks, Penn State football shedded its brand as the mediocre program crippled by the after-effects of scandal to a point of absolute pride at the university and in the community. That fall was magical and the school threw everything behind that team.

The Paterno jokes and insults kept coming, but we were too good to really care. We had the most electrifying offense in football, and we were back.

Flash-forward to the present. Penn State is ranked No. 9 and is taking on No. 4 Ohio State in a game that has legitimate College Football Playoff implications. James Franklin’s 2018 recruiting class featured three five-star recruits and was ranked sixth in the country. Franklin even won a Big Ten Championship before Jim Harbaugh, which is amazing given the state of the program when he took over in 2014.

If you’d told me when I was a freshman that we’d be hosting College GameDay before a primetime, top-ten matchup with Ohio State during my senior year, I would have laughed in your face. If you’d told me all of that after the 2016 Michigan debacle, I probably would’ve laughed even harder.

But Penn State football is cool again. Franklin developed Trace McSorley into a Heisman candidate seemingly against all odds, cleared a path for Saquon Barkley to shine, and put together a defense strong enough to compete for conference championships. 

The White Out is Kirk Herbstreit’s best atmosphere and Penn State is already Rece Davis’ second-favorite place to host GameDay. Franklin’s squad is elite and the experts believe that it has a chance to be a Playoff team. That, however, doesn’t matter so much to me right now because Franklin has made me very proud to pull for the Nittany Lions.

So even if Penn State can’t take down the Buckeyes on Saturday night, I will most definitely remain an ardent Franklin supporter.

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About the Author

Derek Bannister

Derek is a senior majoring in Economics and History. He is legally required to tell you that he's from right outside of Philly. Email Derek compliments and dad-jokes at [email protected]

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