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The real James Franklin is finally standing up for Penn State

12 September 2015: Penn State head coach James Franklin leads the team out the tunnel onto the field. The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Buffalo Bulls 27-14 at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA.
Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire

It was a win that reverberated throughout college football. Not only did Penn State’s 24-21 toppling of No. 2 Ohio State shake the foundation of Beaver Stadium, but it shook up the Top 25 poll as well.

After the loss, Ohio State, which is still arguably one of the best teams in college football, fell to No. 6 in the AP. It was a big drop for Urban Meyer and his team, though it’s worth noting that the Buckeyes still very much so have College Football Playoff aspirations. It just got a little bit harder to get there for OSU, and the road may now run through Ann Arbor and then Indianapolis.

For Penn State, the win vaulted the Nittany Lions into the Top 25 for the first time since December of 2011.  To put that in context, Joe Paterno started that season as head coach of the Nittany Lions before being fired in the midst of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. Tom Bradley took over for Paterno and the team finished 9-4 with a loss in the Ticket City Bowl.

It’s been a mixture of sanctions, mediocrity and coaching changes since 2011 for Penn State. Bill O’Brien took over and stayed two seasons before bolting to the NFL for a head coaching gig (Houston Texans). Penn State was able to lure away upstart head coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt, but up until this point he has been a relative disappointment, leading the Nittany Lions to two 7-6 seasons in a row and a 1-1 bowl game record.

Earlier this season, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour silenced any talk of the hot seat with a strong endorsement of Franklin, saying that he’s PSU’s long-term football coach. Since that point, the team has responded in a big way.

After a 49-10 loss in Ann Arbor to a very good Michigan team, Penn State has won three in a row, with the win against Ohio State obviously going down as the biggest of the bunch. Not only did it vault the Nittany Lions to No. 24 in the latest AP Top 25 rankings, but Franklin talked after the game about how he felt it will be a turning point in Penn State football history.

“This is for everybody, this community has been through so much in the last five years, and this is a big step in the right direction in terms of healing,” Franklin said.

“I said this very, very early on that for us to get where we wanted to be we need this entire community together and a win like tonight, I know I’m biased, but I believe that football has the ability to bring a community together like nothing else, so I want to thank everybody.”

Franklin is right — the win does have the potential to be a turning point for Penn State football. Obviously that will ultimately come down to what the Nittany Lions are able to do moving forward — not letting down against Purdue on the road will be a great start — but Penn State proved against Ohio State that it can play football at a big-time level when everything comes together.

Sure, Ohio State dominated PSU in a lot of the metrics. The Buckeyes outgained Penn State 413 yards to 273, and the Buckeyes were perfect in the turnover department, while Penn State lost a fumble.

The X-factor for Penn State was the desire to keep fighting. Down 21-7 after a safety midway through the third quarter, PSU could have given up. After all, the No. 2 team in the nation was expected to win that game and was starting to pick up momentum. Nobody would have blamed Penn State had it packed it in at that point and started looking ahead to next week.

That’s not what Franklin’s team did, though. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley displayed the heart of champions by getting the offense back into the game. McSorley rushed for a two-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to make it a seven point game and after a field goal, the Nittany Lions trailed 21-17 with still over nine minutes to go.

Then came one of the plays of the year, and certainly a play that will go down in Penn State history. PSU blocked an Ohio State field goal attempt and Grant Haley took it back 60 yards for the touchdown. Up 24-21 at that point and smelling blood in the water, Penn State’s defense shut down Ohio State one last time and that was all she wrote.

“It’s a special night for all of those young men in that locker room,” Franklin said when asked about the blocked kick. “It’s a special night for the State College community. It’s a special night for all of the 107,000 fans that were in the stadium, and the 100,000 people out there still tailgating.”

It was indeed a special night for Penn State football, and perhaps it will be the start of something special for the Nittany Lions, who at 5-2 and 3-1 in the Big Ten find themselves in the race for the Big Ten East crown.

Penn State may not completely control its own destiny in order to achieve that goal, but winning the rest of the games on the schedule (at Purdue, vs. Iowa, at Indiana, at Rutgers and vs. Michigan State) is certainly doable. It’s what the Nittany Lions need to focus on. Even if PSU can’t jump ahead of OSU and Michigan in the division, the win over Ohio State very well may go down as a turning point for the program.

It was the game when all the talk and hype came together with the play on the field. It was the game when Franklin, regarded as one of the top coaches in the nation while at Vanderbilt, finally lived up to his immense potential. It was a win that very well could put him and his program over the hump.

If PSU finishes this year on a strong note and produces a strong showing on the recruiting trail (Franklin has always been an elite recruiter), things could start rolling downhill (in a good way) for Penn State very quickly. If so, Saturday night’s game will be remembered as a principal PSU pivot point.

Franklin was right — this win was a big step in the right direction, and it can be more than just a healing moment for Penn State football. It was the moment Franklin became the real-deal for Penn State.

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