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No mystery to Penn State’s rise, says James Franklin

Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire

With a four-game winning streak that includes a primetime knockout of mighty Ohio State, people are asking James Franklin for his secret. The Penn State coach says it’s nothing mysterious.

“I feel like we have been taking steps, positive steps, for three years,” Franklin told reporters in State College on Tuesday.

“Did it year one, did it year two, did it year three. It just kind of keeps progressing. The offseason, the depth, the maturity. So, to be honest with you, I think it’s just the experience that our guys are gaining, the confidence they’re gaining in having success, the support that we’re getting from our fan base, the positive support, the environment we’ve had at home. All these things play a part in it.”

The first College Football Playoff poll of the season released this week showed the Nittany Lions (6-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) as the No. 12 team in the land. They’ve come a long way since sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky case took hold. They topped out at seven wins in each of the last three seasons.

Penn State tries to make it five in a row on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, BTN) when it plays host to Iowa (5-3, 3-2). More than a touchdown favorite, Franklin is wary of the Hawkeyes.

“They’re going to line up and try to run the ball down your throat,” Franklin said. “Pro style offense. They’re going to be aggressive on defense, they’re going to be really good up front. They’re going to try to do a great job with their front seven. Typically going to play with a two-high safety and do a great job with those things.”

“They don’t turn the ball over on offense. They don’t make any mistakes on defense. They’ve built their program around that.”

Iowa ranks third among conference teams in turnover margin (+0.88). Its one fumble lost ties Nevada for the fewest in the NCAA. Its nine-game road winning streak is tied for second nationally behind Alabama.

Two Hawkeye running backs rank among the top 11 rushers in the Big Ten. Akrum Wadley averages 79.5 yards a game (7.1 per carry) and LeShun Daniels 78.0. Senior quarterback C.J. Beathard can hurt you with his arm or legs.

“A veteran quarterback helps. No doubt about it. He’s played a lot of football for them, been successful,” Franklin said.

“I think it really starts with them, like it always does at Iowa. Coach (Kirk) Ferentz is probably one of the most respected offensive line coaches in the country, always has been. The program has been built around that. They always seem to have good running backs. They’re going to play ball-control offense, not make any mistakes, keep a low-scoring game on defense, and also be able to find some play-makers on special teams and be well-coached.”

It’s the first meeting between the schools since 2012. Iowa is 7-5 in games played at Beaver Stadium.

Penn State’s offense continues to evolve under first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead. The spread attack is averaging 38.3 points during the four-game winning streak.

Running back Saquon Barkley has been sensational. The sophomore rolled up 207 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries at Purdue last week. He entered the week leading the Big Ten in rushing at 111.0 yards an outing.

The offensive line has taken big steps forward. First-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley has settled into Moorhead’s offense with a 138.7 efficiency rating.

Defensively, the Lions have healed up and amped up their pressure. They’ve produced the second most sacks among Big Ten teams (Michigan).

A proud program is once again trending up. The coaches and players now need to use the momentum and not lose it.

“We just got to keep heading in the right direction. Saturday is another opportunity to do that against a very good football team, a Big Ten opponent. Big Ten games are hard to win. We got to go out there and make sure we do everything we possibly can to keep progressing in the right direction,” Franklin said.

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