Nit­tany Lions con­fi­dent, ready to keep rolling

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Travis John­son

STATE COL­LEGE, PA. » Nearly three years ago, James Franklin was charged with lift­ing a ros­ter full of Bill O’Brien holdovers and dot­ted with vet­er­ans from the Joe Paterno era out of the dark­est pe­riod in Penn State his­tory. It was a mot­ley group of play­ers, cob­bled to­gether with a hand­ful of schol­ar­ships and a bunch of walkon try­outs that took on added sig­nif­i­cance in the wake of harsh NCAA sanc­tions fol­low­ing the Jerry San­dusky child sex abuse scan­dal. Plenty of them were skep­ti­cal about the pro­gram’s fu­ture con­sid­er­ing the penal­ties and that they’d be tak­ing cues from their fourth head coach in four years.

Line­backer Bran­don Bell, an O’Brien re­cruit in 2012, ad­mit­ted last week that when he com­mit­ted, he didn’t be­lieve he’d be play­ing for a team that would be able to as­cend the na­tional rank­ings.

That un­cer­tainty has faded in Happy Val­ley where No. 24 Penn State will try to win its fifth-straight Big Ten game for the first time since Paterno’s fi­nal sea­son against Iowa on Satur­day. The Nit­tany Lions (62, 4-1) will do so with ev­ery­one on the same page, a qual­ity that eluded them in Franklin’s first two sea­sons.

“You have to have trust in any suc­cess­ful foot­ball team,” Franklin said Tues­day. “You have to have love for one an­other. You have to have be­lief. We have that right now.”

The Nit­tany Lions had to learn to do all three, es­pe­cially af­ter a pair of 7-6 sea­sons in which Franklin’s teams went 6-10 in the Big Ten.

“I think Coach Franklin, all the coaches, they re­ally were work­ing on that the past cou­ple years, the whole fam­ily and trust thing,” of­fen­sive tackle Bren­dan Ma­hon said. “It took a lit­tle while for ev­ery­one to buy in, to be hon­est.”

Once they did, the bonds be­gan to show up on the field. They helped Penn State’s young of­fense de­velop quicker than many out­side the pro­gram thought and helped a short­handed de­fense ride out a storm of in­juries ear­lier this sea­son.

It be­gan in the sum­mer when play­ers like Bell and Ma­hon — two of 22 play­ers re­cruited or signed in O’Brien’s two years as coach — be­gan to be more vo­cal. Bell, who had done most of his talk­ing with his shoul­der pads to that point, no­to­ri­ously got on team­mates for lag­ging on a sprint, fail­ing to touch a line dur­ing con­di­tion­ing drills.

“He said, ‘No, if we want to be the team we want to be, we have to run this ex­tra one, make up for it,”’ run­ning back Andre Robin­son said.

That kind of ac­count­abil­ity is now com­mon­place and Penn State play­ers are look­ing out for each other more on the field.

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