Nittany Lions confident, ready to keep rolling
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.