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2016 blowout at Michigan served as a springboard for Penn State

COMMENTARY

Three years can be a college football lifetime, and Penn State is proof.

Since the Nittany Lions visited the Big House for a September 2016 matchup — and lost 49-10 — they’ve won 35 of 42 games with every loss being by four points or fewer.

Every loss except one – at Michigan last year (42-7).

Just as Penn State had returned the favor by winning big (42-13) in 2017, the Lions owe the Wolverines from last year, but they also point to the 2016 blowout as the springboard toward the successful run they’ve enjoyed and the growth they’ve shown.

“In ’16, after that game,” senior guard Steven Gonzalez said, “I think it kind of like opened our eyes.”

“It’s a game that stuck with a lot of us,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “You were either going to tuck your tail or face the adversity head-on. There were a lot of decisions made by people in our program.”

And those decisions included a more collective belief.

“(We felt like), ‘Hey we need to continue to buy in more now than ever,'” Gonzalez said. “No matter what the situation, what’s going on, we need to continue to buy in, and obviously that worked out for us, and it’s continually been working out for us.”

Penn State had a rash of injuries at Michigan in 2016 and found itself with true freshman linebacker Cam Brown and converted walk-on tight end Jan Johnson in the game at LB as the rout kept getting worse.

Johnson blew out his knee and missed the remainder of the season.

“You think about how much has changed from then, how far we’ve come,” James Franklin said.

These days, guys like Brown and Johnson are two of the leaders on a defense that’s ranked among the nation’s best in several categories and is chiefly responsible for the Nittany Lions’ 6-0 start and No. 7 ranking.

“We were just coming off of sanctions (in 2016) and (lack of) scholarship numbers and just a lot of challenges and a lot of adversity,” Franklin said. “Those guys that stuck with us then, that committed under those circumstances, that battled through the adversity that we had as a program, I think those guys really are the backbone of what we’re doing right now.”

Though Michigan has won four of the last five matchups, there’s a distinct feel that the Lions are trending upward and on a better trajectory than the Wolverines, who have underachieved under Jim Harbaugh.

Both teams have assembled solid young talent and have top-10 recruiting classes, but Franklin has created more excitement and is clearly not content with what he’s achieved so far.

“My responsibility as the head coach (is) to continue to educate and have challenging conversations and push people to keep driving this thing forward and do it in a way that fits underneath the Penn State umbrella and that everybody is comfortable with, but pushing everybody,” he said.

Joe Paterno was the engine behind numerous expansions of Beaver Stadium, which is certainly big enough but was neglected for many years after the last expansion in 2001.

Without trying to offend Paterno supporters, Franklin did say Tuesday, “I think for probably about 15 years, we didn’t do that. I don’t want anybody to misinterpret what I’m saying, and I don’t mean that as a slight to anyone. But we’ve got to push, and we’ve got to keep fighting and climbing and scratching and clawing for every little inch we can, because the margin of error is so small where we’re at, and everything matters. We’ve got to compete in every aspect.”

While Franklin was talking off the field more than on it, he also knows enthusiasm toward improving program amenities is higher when the Lions are challenging for the Big Ten championship, which won’t happen without a victory tonight.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a rather short period of time under very, very difficult circumstances,” Franklin said. “There’s been a lot of people that have been a part of that, but the thing we can’t do is take a deep breath and feel like we’re back. The programs that we’re competing with, they haven’t taken a deep breath or pushed the pause button in 50 years.”

Despite the grand ambitions, Franklin is a combined 3-12 against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, and for all the upbeat talk, that’s a real stat that has to change.

And especially since Wisconsin bludgeoned the Wolverines 35-14 earlier this year, in front of a whiteout gathering of 107,000-plus eager to sustain momentum, and avoid a midseason “pause button,” this is one game Penn State can’t afford to lose.

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Neil Rudel covers Penn State football from the Altoona Mirror.

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