Rudel: Lions ready to push on
There’s a fine line between winning and losing, but there’s a wide gap on how outcomes affect certain teams.
Especially teams with big dreams.
Penn State’s 27-17 victory Saturday at Michigan in an empty Big House sent a much-needed infusion of positivity through the Nittany Lions, who had been sulking since their devastating season-opening loss to Indiana.
“I don’t know if anybody in the program has slept right since October 24 (Indiana game),” defensive tackle and team leader PJ Mustipher said.
The Lions allowed that disappointment, followed by the usual loss to Ohio State, to mushroom into an 0-5 start, which put them in exclusive company as the first preseason Top 10 team to ever start a season 0-5.
Suffice to say James Franklin didn’t enjoy his Thanksgiving meal.
That will change Monday night when Franklin said the Lions will convene for a “victory dinner, which is going to be the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
Mustipher called the post-Michigan locker room “electric” and noted the Lions had not won since Dec. 29, 2019 (Cotton Bowl over Memphis).
“Guys were dancing, laughing,” he said. “It was incredible.”
So how did it happen?
For one, the Lions showed more pride than they had this year, sustaining blocks to ride their best running game effort of the season (254 yards) and being tough defensively in short-yardage situations, when it mattered most.
They didn?t turn the ball over, got a welcome performance from back-to-starting quarterback Sean Clifford and, perhaps most of all, staged a coming-out party for true freshmen Keyvone Lee and Parker Washington.
Lee’s 134 yards rushing and Washington’s nine catches for 93 yards both included great effort after initial contact, sending a positive vibe to the rest of the team and needed hope for the future for an anxious fan base.
“We’ve had 13 first-time starters this year with four true freshmen on offense,” Franklin said.
The infusion of young talent breathes life into the Lions and positions them for a strong finish to carry into 2021. They have improving Rutgers and Michigan State left in the regular season.
No matter what happens, Franklin will write this year off as “surreal,” but it’s been that way for every team. Fortunately for the Lions, so far they’ve at least been able to play all their scheduled games while many other Big Ten teams have had games canceled due to COVID-19.
It’s created a backdrop that other coaches have handled better than Franklin, at least until Saturday.
“You drive up to the Big House, and there’s not a car on the road,” he said. “There’s nobody giving you the middle finger on the ride up to the stadium. The parking lots are empty. There’s no meeting at the hotel. No meals at the hotel, and the Wifi wasn’t working so we couldn’t even have Zoom meetings. It was just weird.”
Playing Michigan helped. The Wolverines are in disarray under Jim Harbaugh, but they are still Michigan, where Penn State had not won since 2009.
“I think we really had to understand to what it took to win,” Mustipher said.
In that regard, it become fairly simple.
Penn State didn’t turn the ball over for the first time this year.
The Lions blocked better and for the most part tackled better.
So they won.