Giving Themselves A Chance

Micah Shrewsberry and the Nittany Lions men’s hoops team battled LSU on Friday night in the Emerald Coast Classic. The four-team tournament’s taking place in Northwest Florida State’s gym, with Penn State pushing LSU to overtime with a buzzer-beating basket before falling 68-63. Photo credit: Penn State Men’s Basketball.

Micah Shrewsberry sounds confident. The way his team plays explains why he feels that way.

Penn State men’s basketball is spending the holidays in Northwest Florida, as part of the four-team Emerald Coast Classic. The Nittany Lions will spend some extra time together, staying several days as opposed to the typical overnight trips for a standard game on the schedule. Along with team bonding, these games often serve as guideposts for how the team will fare in conference competition.

Based on Friday night, Shrewsberry will have his team ready.

The Nittany Lions’ first opponent was LSU, which finished 19-10 and won an NCAA Tournament game last season. The Tigers were 8-point favorites, though entered the locker room at halftime facing a 32-29 deficit. In a game with plenty of crucial possessions, Penn State didn’t flinch, sending the game to overtime at the buzzer after Seth Lundy caught a carom in midair and scored on a put-back with one-tenth of a second left.

Lundy was one of four Nittany Lions to score eight-plus points, with Jalen Pickett (14), Sam Sessoms (13), Myles Dread (13), and Lundy (8) the top scorers for Penn State.

“If you look at this game, how LSU wants to play, if you look at the scores that they’ve had, you look at what they do, we turned this into a Big Ten game. That’s what we do with our defense,” Shrewsberry said after the game on a media call. “If we defend like this, you give yourself a chance every single night, and this is going to be the Big Ten. … So this is great preparation for us.”

To Shrewsberry’s point, the over/under for this game (the expected number of points scored for both teams) was 141.5. If you’re wondering how it’s possible to score a half-point, that’s purely for betting purposes. Even with the extra period, Penn State and LSU scored 10 less points combined than expected.

That’s what Shrewsberry was talking about when he said Penn State turned this into a Big Ten game. In LSU’s first five games, the Tigers scored at least 74 every time out, including 101 in their season opener. Overall, LSU averaged 85.4 points coming into Friday night’s contest. Penn State held LSU to 58 points in regulation, 27 points below the Tigers’ season average.

Pretty darn impressive. You can check out Lundy’s buzzer-beater and the team’s game graphic below. We’ve also included our full Q&A exchange with Shrewsberry, so you can see the entire context.

Q: Micah, I ask this question especially within the context that the Big Ten now plays a couple conference games in December: When you have a game like tonight where there are so many crucial possessions, how much does that prepare the guys for the upcoming Big Ten season?

A: “You know what, for us, if you look at this game, how LSU wants to play, if you look at the scores that they’ve had, you look at what they do, we turned this into a Big Ten game. That’s what we do with our defense. If we defend like this, you give yourself a chance every single night, and this is going to be the Big Ten. These are going to be the wars like this in the Big Ten, so this is great preparation for us. Who’s going to go to the glass as hard as these guys? Well, Michigan State will on Dec. 11. We’ve got to get EJ Liddell off the glass but he’s shooting 3s just like (Darius) Days was tonight. So, this was great practice for these early Big Ten games that are coming up. But the effort that we play with, what we did tonight effort-wise, what we did against Cornell the other night, effort-wise, that gives you a chance. That gives you a chance in the Big Ten, and that’s all we’re asking for. We want a chance to compete.”

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Penn State Preview: Michigan

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season. Let’s breakdown all the info you need for Penn State’s matchup with Michigan.

Game Details: No. 6 Michigan at Penn State. Noon ET kick-off. Broadcast is on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium.

Weather Forecast (via AccuWeather): Clouds and breaks of sun; cooler with a brief shower or two; cold enough during and after the game for wet snowflakes. High of 43.

The Line: Michigan -1.5 (via SI SportsBook)

All-Time Series: Michigan leads 14-10.  

Last Meeting: Penn State won 27-17 last season at Michigan Stadium.

Last Week: Penn State snapped a three-game losing with a 31-14 win over Maryland. Michigan rebounded from a tough loss at Michigan State by thumping Indiana, 29-7.

Penn State v. Maryland (Steve Manuel/The Football Letter)

Other Big Ten Games This Weekend: 
– Northwestern at No. 18 Wisconsin (Noon ET, ESPN2)
– Rutgers at Indiana (Noon ET, BTN)
– No. 19 Purdue at No. 4 Ohio State (3:30 PM ET, ABC)
– Minnesota at No. 20 Iowa (3:30 PM ET, BTN)
– Maryland at No. 7 Michigan State (4 PM ET, FOX)

Throwback Classic: 2008. Penn State 46, Michigan 17.

The week leading up to the showdown against the Wolverines was typically jovial at University Park.

Fans camped outside Beaver Stadium starting on Monday, and hundreds of alumni helped dedicate the Alumni Walk at the Hintz Family Alumni Center on Friday. In between, all the usual wonderment enveloped Happy Valley during Homecoming of the 2008 season. Then, the game started, and the good vibes changed.

Read more in our From The Archives story from 2019.

Penn State v. Michigan 2008 (Steve Manuel/The Football Letter)

The Lead: After going more than a month without a victory, Penn State finally got back in the win column with last week’s 31-14 win over Maryland. It wasn’t always pretty, but you could tell from the postgame celebrations from players and coaches it meant a lot to get the weight of the losing streak of their shoulders. Michigan, meanwhile, showed no signs of a letdown from a crushing loss to in-state rivals Michigan State two weeks ago, cruising past Indiana 29-7. Both teams started the season with aspirations of a Big Ten title. That goal is still very much in the frame for the Wolverines. Penn State is all but out of the Big Ten East race, but the Nittany Lions can play spoiler to the two Michigan schools down the stretch. That starts with Saturday’s game.

Penn State Wins If: The Penn State offense plays to its potential. It feels like that hasn’t happened very much this season. Last week, the Nittany Lions were able to overcome a sluggish offensive performance thanks to Jahan Dotson going nuclear and the defense playing another great game. To beat an opponent at the level of Michigan, the offense is going to have to play a lot crisper. Mike Yurcich is going to need to be at his best calling plays. Who knows, though, maybe Jahan will make me look silly for saying that by following up his 242-yard effort with a 300-yard effort to propel Penn State to another win.

Michigan Wins If: The Wolverines don’t settle for field goals. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but every opponent Penn State has faced this season has struggled to finish off drives with touchdowns. At times, particularly in the loss to Michigan State, the Michigan offense has put together good drives and only ended up with three points once they reached the end zone. The Wolverines can’t afford to settle for field goals again or the narrow defeat to the Spartans is going to be repeated.

Penn State v. Maryland (Steve Manuel/The Football Letter)

Keep An Eye On: Penn State’s offensive tackles. The offensive line has been pretty disappointing for the Nittany Lions this season. Michigan has two outstanding defensive ends in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, both of whom will be playing on Sundays. The Nittany Lions OTs are going to have to have a great game to give Sean Clifford time to find Dotson, Parker Washington and other skill players.

Trivia Tidbit: Despite being two of the most successful programs in college football history, Penn State and Michigan had never played each other until 1993. The Wolverines won that inaugural meeting 21-13.

Number To Know: 829. Running back Hassan Haskins leads Michigan with 829 yards rushing this season. That’s good for fourth-best in the Big Ten.
12. Penn State has held opponents without a score in 12 of 34 red zone possessions this season, including three stops at Maryland.

Membership Note: If you aren’t using the Alumni Library, you’re missing out on one of the most valuable benefits of membership in the Alumni Association. Find out how logging in can give you access to a treasure trove of knowledge, including tools that can enlighten, inform, enrich, and entertain you—or even provide information you can use to astound your coworkers and delight your boss! Click here for more info.

Listen to ‘The People of Penn State’ podcast at alumni.psu.edu/podcasts. 

Podcast: Our guest for this week’s episode of ‘The People of Penn State,’ is Daniel Berlin ’92. Dan has never let his vision loss affect the life he wanted to live. He is co-founder and former CEO of Rodelle, a world-leading vanilla extract company, and the co-founder and president of Team See Possibilities, a non-profit organization which empowers young people with vision loss to thrive. Dan has also traveled the world as an endurance athlete and advocate for the blind. Dan joined us and discussed coming to terms at a young age with his vision loss, the founding of Rodelle, the impact of Team See Possibilities, and his experiences as an endurance athlete. Listen to the show today or check out the video version on YouTube.

Score Predictions:
John Patishnock: Penn State 21, Michigan 17
Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 24, Michigan 20



Live From University Park

Football Letter Live returns this fall, airing at 7 p.m. Thursdays on YouTube and Facebook. Free registration is available for the entire schedule, with a weekly link provided to everyone who signs up.

This has been said many times, though it’s still worth repeating: Penn State football is special for so many reasons, both on and off the field. Highlighting those reasons is really what drives Football Letter Live, which debuted last season and is back again this year. Our season premiere episode is this Thursday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m., and will feature Penn State VP for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour, letterman wide receiver Jordan Norwood ’08, and Madison Chapter President Phil Bower ’99, ’01g.

You can visit the show’s landing page to see the guest lineup and also to register. When you sign up, you’re registered for the entire season’s worth of shows and will receive a link each week for the upcoming episode. We’re broadcasting on a new virtual platform this season (StreamYard), which allows us to share questions and shoutouts on screen, along with a running ticker at the bottom.

In addition to submitting comments when you register, you can also share questions/shoutouts in the chat area of YouTube and Facebook — where the show will be live streamed — and we’ll get to as many as we can each week. We want the audience to not just watch, but also be part of the show. We’re aiming to have each interview be more of a discussion than a straight-forward Q&A, and we’ll be sharing plenty of videos and photos on screen during the show.

This is a big weekend for Bower and his group, with Penn State visiting Madison for the season opener against Wisconsin. The game will kick off at noon (ET), 11 a.m. local time, with the Madison Chapter and the Alumni Association co-hosting a mixer Friday night. That event is already sold out, and last week, we also reached capacity for our game day pep rally. So, it’s pretty safe to say that Penn Staters are ready to cheer on the Nittany Lions.

We’ll ask Bower what this weekend means for the chapter and how they hope to capitalize on it — the alumni mixer usually benefits a scholarship or similar fundraiser, and with Wisconsin being in the Big Ten Western Division, the Madison Chapter can’t count on seeing Penn State every other year.

Alumni and fans can tune into the premiere episode of Football Letter Live this Thursday evening at 7 to hear from Jordan Norwood and ask the standout wide receiver questions about his time at Penn State and in the NFL. Photo credit: Steve Manuel.

Norwood, meanwhile, has successfully transitioned into his post-NFL days by launching a photography business while also investing in real estate, among other entrepreneurial pursuits. That’s not to gloss over his collegiate and NFL career. He was a standout receiver for the Nittany Lions from 2005-08, and then enjoyed an NFL career highlighted by a Super Bowl victory. In that game — which saw Norwood’s Broncos defeat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50 — Norwood set a Super Bowl record for longest punt return. He also has deep ties to the State College community, and we’ll cover all that and more.

As expected, Barbour’s been busy with the fall sports season underway, and she covered plenty of topics earlier this month during a conference call with the media. You can see the entire discussion on our YouTube channel, and be sure to check out Thursday’s episode to hear more from her, along with our game preview and ways that you can connect with alumni in your area and support the Nittany Lions.

The season of Football Letter Live should be a fun time. We hope to see you Thursday evening and all year long.

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Meet Your 2021 Nittany Lions

Penn State players, coaches, and staff gathered at Beaver Stadium for the team’s annual photo day, which features plenty of time for everyone to get photos with family and friends, in addition to the official photos by position group and other categories. Photo credit: John Patishnock

What a special day for the players and their families.

That’s the feeling I had as I was leaving Beaver Stadium today, after the media portion of the football team’s annual photo day concluded. Media had about 90 minutes to watch, grab some photos and videos, and see the Nittany Lions in a somewhat relaxed environment. Just as important as anything, coaches and players had the opportunity to have their family members and friends at the stadium for photos. Seeing the pure joy and enthusiasm on the faces of parents, brothers and sisters, and other family members is always special.

The atmosphere at photo day is a combination of graduation and the first day of classes. There’s plenty of excitement, some goofiness, and maybe even some wonder about what the future will hold.

Associate head coach and letterman Terry Smith ’91 (center) and the team’s cornerbacks took time out Saturday to pose for a group photo. In addition to the official team photos, players and coaches also get plenty of photos on their phones during the day. Some are serious, some are light-hearted, though all are good memories. Photo credit: John Patishnock

After the Blue Busses pulled up to the stadium to drop off the players, everyone gathered in the north end zone for the official team photo. It’s not an easy task to take that large of a group photo, and there’s a fair amount of last-second shuffling, though everything is worth it to get that shot.

Looking across the field at Beaver Stadium, there’s plenty of talent on this squad, and head coach James Franklin has assembled an impressive coaching and support staff. Included among that group is letterman Alan Zemaitis ’05, who returned to his alma mater earlier this year as an assistant recruiting coordinator. During media day, defensive coordinator Brent Pry spoke highly of Zemaitis, called “AZ” for short, for his energy. Smith added that Zemaitis especially epitomizes one of the team’s four core values: have a positive attitude. Even though he’s been in his position for not quite six months, it’s clear Zemaitis has already had an impact.

Letterman Alan Zemaitis ’05 was back on the field at Beaver Stadium, where he excelled as a second-team All-American and three-time all-Big Ten selection at cornerback. Photo credit: John Patishnock

Penn State opens the season Sept. 4 at Wisconsin, with a noon (ET) kickoff, 11 a.m. local time. The week after, the Nittany Lions begin a four-game home stretch against Ball State, Auburn, Villanova, and Indiana. You can check out the entire schedule at GoPSUsports, with kick times and TV info still TBD for most of the games.

As always, we’ll keep alumni updated and connected as we roll through the season.

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Media Day Sights and Sounds

Linebacker Ellis Brooks (left) and safety Ji’Ayir Brown celebrate during Penn State’s second fall practice Saturday, Aug. 7, at the Lasch Practice Fields. The Nittany Lions opened fall camp the day before, and earlier on Saturday, James Franklin and the team met with the media to look ahead to the 2021 season. Photo credit: Steve Manuel

Wow, did it feel good to be back at Beaver Stadium.

True, the media and a small group of fans were present in April for a few spring practices, though Saturday brought with it all the familiar sights and sounds that appear, or rather re-appear, when a new season can be seen on the horizon.

The next best thing to being there is actually feeling like you were. That’s where we can help (we hope). Our ace photographer Steve Manuel ’82, ’92g was onsite at Beaver Stadium for the media portion of the day, before catching the late-afternoon practice over at the Lasch practice fields. You can check out some of Steve’s photos on Twitter, and we’ll be sharing more images in the weeks to come, both on social and on all our Football Letter platforms. First, you see images from practice, and if you scroll down just a bit, we also have photos from the media day session at the stadium.

We got to the stadium early Saturday, which we find is always beneficial. Before the on-field interviews started, we had a few hours to record lots of video in the stadium, which we’ll share throughout the year, especially on this season’s episodes of Football Letter Live. And even before then, we captured some cool sights from outside and around the stadium. Alumni will definitely see those shots this fall, too.

You can see our highlight video on Twitter (it’s also on Facebook), and the video takes you onto the field at Beaver Stadium, where you’ll see the iconic place from some different angles. Alumni will also hear from associate head coach and letterman Terry Smith ’91, senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, and senior quarterback Sean Clifford. We end the video at Lasch for the second practice of the fall, and you’ll see players going through drills and finding some rhythm in preseason camp. There’s some cool natural sound, particularly on the Jugs machine, which fires footballs at receivers and defensive backs to help with their reaction time.

During the media session, Terry gave an incredibly insightful answer about the impact Penn State has had for him, with numerous generations of his family having graduated from the University. That legacy continues with the current team, with his nephew Tank Smith occupying a spot on the roster as a sophomore running back. Toward the end of the media session, I asked Terry if “Tank” was a nickname, and if so, what’s the story behind it. The response was so heartwarming, which anyone who knows Terry has come to expect.

His brother named his son after Terry, “because he loves his brother,” Terry said, speaking of the relationship he has with his sibling. So, Tank was named Terry, and then he physically grew into the stature of a tank, So, the nickname came along, and has stuck. That’s why on Penn State’s roster, you’ll see No. 38 listed as Tank Smith.

Tank grew up in Pittsburgh, where Terry is a legend, particularly in the high school ranks. Many Penn Staters are familiar with Terry’s background and long-standing success in the commonwealth, though for anyone who wants to learn more, you can visit his official bio on GoPSUsports.com. Vince Lungaro ’18 chatted further with Terry, and you can read that Q&A on the blog.

Saturday was busy, fun, and productive. And best of all, it’s only the start of what’s sure to be a fun, exciting, and successful fall on the gridiron in Happy Valley. Stay tuned. There’ll be many more videos, photos, and stories to share this season.

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Roaring Into Spring

More than 7,500 fans attended today’s spring practice, with head coach James Franklin saying that after last season, the number felt more like 75,000. Photo: Penn State Athletics

For a few hours Saturday afternoon, Beaver Stadium temporarily reverted back to its old self.

The band played “Hey Baby,” special guests visited to say hello, fans cheered on the Nittany Lions. Even the sun momentarily appeared, never guaranteed in April in Happy Valley. However, considering the type of day it was, it should have seemed inevitable.

Because for the first time since 2019, Beaver Stadium opened back up beyond parents’ families, with first-year students, the Blue Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Lionettes providing the signature soundtrack to Happy Valley football. And for everyone wondering, yes, even “Sweet Caroline” was heard over the speakers.

So if it’s a yes/no question, the answer is the former. Yes, Beaver Stadium roared back to life this weekend.

The announced attendance was 7,521, with students and players’ families socially distanced throughout the stadium, and their impact was evident.

“After last season, it felt like 75,000,” head coach James Franklin said. “It really felt good to be in there with our freshmen students and our parents. It was really good work for us. Obviously, there are a lot of thing we’ve got to get cleaned up, but being back in the stadium, I thought was a real positive for us and we’ll build on that.”

Along with Franklin, defensive coordinator Brent Pry knows what Beaver Stadium typically feels like. The rocking atmosphere is a big reason why many recruits choose to play for the blue and white. When talking about today, his mind first went back to last season, equal parts spooky and surreal.

“Last fall, there were a lot of times when you’d run out of that tunnel and it was like an Alfred Hitchcock show or The Twilight Zone. It was weird, coming out of that tunnel and nobody in those seats,” Pry said. “Just the energy today that that number of fans provided was outstanding. Our guys feel that stuff. That’s a big reason why a lot of our guys come to Penn State, is the environment they get to play in.

I’ve so appreciative of everybody coming out and supporting these guys. It’s just outstanding to get a little bit, a little taste of what hopefully we’ll get back to in the fall. And for the guys, it meant a lot. For the guys who were out there last fall, that was a tough situation being in a 107,00-seat stadium with nobody in it, so it was nice today.”

The scoring started with the White squad, with Sean Clifford finding Cam Sullivan-Brown along the visitor’s sideline for a long pass, setting up a field goal four plays later. Sullivan-Brown adjusted to the ball nicely, catching it with his outstretched hands right next to the sideline.

Later on, Clifford threw a scoring strike, a 45-yard touchdown to tight end Brenton Strange, who got loose in the secondary along the home sideline. Clifford faked a quick throw and found Strange around the 15-yard line. Strange outraced a defender and was tackled into the end zone. It took a possession or two for Clifford to find some rhythm with his receivers, though he got there, and all the quarterbacks dealt with pressure that was nicely provided by the Nittany Lions’ defensive line on both teams.

Sophomore running back Devyn Ford bursts through the line during Saturday’s spring practice at Beaver Stadium. Photo: Penn State Athletics

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson looked crisp on a lot of his passes, and he also rushed for a touchdown late in the scrimmage, scampering in from about 10-15 yards, as Penn State switched to having the offense start at the 25-yard line. Devyn Ford put together a nice 10-yard burst, running into a crowd. It would’ve been a shorter gain, but he bounced off for an extra five or six yards. Ford carried the ball for the White squad, while Caziah Holmes was the featured back on the Blue team. Holmes looked fresh, gaining yards and also catching a touchdown out of the backfield from freshman quarterback Christian Veilleux.

Prior to the practice, Blue Band Director Greg Drane led the crowd through a series of fight songs, the Lionettes performed, and Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford greeted the first-year students in attendance through a “We Are” cheer.

Former Nittany Lions and current pros (and one future pro) Marcus Allen, Pat Freiermuth, Blake Gillikin, Yetur Gross-Matos, KJ Hamler, and Miles Sanders were in the house to support the team and give shoutouts to the crowd. Former All-American cornerback Alan Zemaitis also was on hand, with the former Nittany Lion now serving as a recruiting coordinator for the program.

Franklin hired Zemaitis earlier this year, saying that Zemaitis had worked at a few Penn State camps and that everyone who he sought out spoke highly of the standout cornerback. Zemaitis was previously an assistant football coach at in-state school Susquehanna University, and he was featured on the blog and on The Football Letter Live last season.

On the field, there was some rustiness, to be sure, and that’s standard with spring practice. But there were enough highlights to provide a sense that Penn State should be ranked in preseason polls, with most early forecasts placing the Nittany Lions between tenth and fifteenth.

Freshman cornerback Kalen King picked off two passes, including one for a score that he returned for about 25 yards to give the Blue squad its score of the day. As usual, Franklin watched the action right on the field, and the quarterbacks not in play were nearby, mirroring the action of snap and dropping back, while the team scrimmaged about 10-15 yards in front.

Keyvone Lee had a number of impressive runs and freshman Tank Smith scored twice. Yes, the freshman running back from Penn Hills in Pittsbugh has one of the coolest names you could hope for — Tank Smith — and maximized his opportunity when he entered the practice later on. He scored once on the ground and caught a short pass for his second score in the waning moments of the practice, before the place-kickers booted some simulated kickoffs.

Penn State will close out spring practice next week, with the final workout coming Friday at Beaver Stadium, which seniors are invite to attend. Full details on that are available online.

Sophomore defensive tackle Aeneas Hawkins (27) goes through drills during Saturday’s practice at Beaver Stadium. Photo: Penn State Athletics

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Spring Welcome

Saturday’s Penn State football spring practice will be modified and different from the traditional Blue-White scrimmage that unofficially serves as the kickoff of spring in Happy Valley, though the purpose remains the same: Uniting the Penn State family, even if it’s in a limited capacity.

This year, the Alumni Association will play a pivotal role in welcoming first-year students to one of the most memorable blue-and-white experiences — cheering on the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium.

Freshmen will be in attendance throughout the lower level of Beaver Stadium, socially distanced in groups of three. Prior to the 1 p.m. scrimmage, there’ll be a pregame show that’ll introduce students to Penn State traditions such as the “We Are” cheer, blue-and-white shakers, and more.

Our student groups, Lion Ambassadors and Blue & White Society, will be part of the festivities, as will Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford. Additionally, students will have an opportunity to win a football autographed by head coach James Frank Students through a contest on the Blue & White Society’s Instagram page. We’ll also share practice updates on The Football Letter Twitter account and our additional social channels.

While the S-Zone will be removed for Saturday’s practice to make room for seating, it’ll return for this season, continuing a tradition started and upheld by the Lion Ambassadors.

Athletics has announced additional opportunities to engage with the team during Saturday’s game, including a “We Are” challenge and spring digital poster, and you can read more on their website. Among the ways that alumni can stay connected to the game is by listening to the live radio broadcast from Beaver Stadium and by following along on Instagram for live check-ins from practice. Full details are at GoPSUSports.com.

Visit alumni.psu.edu for more info and learn more about our student groups the Lion Ambassadors and Blue & White Society online.

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Welcoming the newest Nittany Lions

The Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s Signing Day ceremony this week. The team’s three-hour live stream featured messages from notable alumni and an interview with CEO Paul Clifford, welcoming the signees to the Penn State family. (Image by Penn State Athletics)

Have you ever wanted to help Penn State in recruiting?

We’re guessing the answer is yes, and in many ways, alumni and fans have been doing that for years. Every time you attend a game, every time you rep Penn State gear or clothing, every time you shout “We Are” to a fellow Nittany Lion — whether in State College or across the country or someplace across the globe — you’re having an impact.

And people within the football program notice. People, for example, like Andy Frank. He’s the director of player personnel for Penn State football, which is to say he’s at the forefront of the team’s recruiting efforts, which have geographically expanded significantly since James Franklin and his staff arrived in Happy Valley.

This week’s Signing Day ceremony is a really good example of the power of the Penn State alumni network, which the team has always leveraged. Now, those efforts are increasing.

This year, the Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s National Signing Day, with a three-plus hour live stream celebrating the signees Wednesday morning. The live stream features an interview with Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford (1:37:20 mark) and a pre-recorded video from Alumni Association President Randy Houston (2:00:00 mark).

Additionally, notable alumni such as Keegan-Michael Key, Lara Spencer, John Colaneri, and Ken Frazier. It was a coordinated effort to emphasize that each signees’ decision to attend Penn State doesn’t end when they graduate. That connection lasts forever, and the Alumni Association’s role as a conduit motivated the meaning behind the partnership.

Penn State cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith knows all about the alumni network. Smith starred as a wideout with the Nittany Lions from 1988-91, and is in his seventh season on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff. Smith joined The Football Letter Live program this week to discuss the impact of alumni support in recruiting. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

“It’s really special to see how much people care about this place and what that means for people down the road, the connections, the job opportunities, just that fraternity of Penn State, and the parents gravitate to that because they understand,” Frank told reporters Wednesday, hours after the signees officially became Nittany Lions. “As a high school kid, you don’t know what it’s going to be like to be 40, you don’t know what it’s like to be 30 and looking for a job, but your parents do because they went through that.”

Frank called the Penn State Alumni Association “the largest and most powerful in the world,” which plays a role not only as players graduate, but also when they choose Penn State in the first place. “Kids that usually pick a place like Penn State, they’re looking at more than just the football field,” Frank added.

Lettermen also figured prominently in Wednesday’s ceremony, with Nittany Lions-turned NFL standouts such as Allen Robinson, KJ Hamler, Adrian Amos, and Jason Cabinda welcoming the signees. That message hits home, literally. Both Robinson and Hamler starred for the same Detroit-area high school in Michigan. They welcomed twin brothers and Penn State signees Kobe and Kalen King, who both also excelled at linebacker and defensive back, respectively, for a different prep school in Detroit.

“That’s something that we sell a lot. We talk about our alumni base, the power of our alumni base, not only in numbers but in the power of the individual as well … I know it was really special for some of our Michigan guys to have Allen Robinson and to have KJ Hamler (welcome them),” Franklin said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of resources here, and you’ve got to be willing to take advantage of them. On a year, today, where these guys were missing out on so many of their normal traditional recruiting experiences, we’re trying to be creative and think outside the box and have some fun with it. I thought it went well. I was happy to see the parents’ faces light up and the signees’ faces light up as we went through the process and tried to make it as special as we possibly could, again, under unusual circumstances.”

Alumni support will become even more critical in the future, with Frank mentioning today that the NCAA’s ruling on name, image, and likeness will impact recruiting moving forward. In short, the NCAA decided in April of this year that student-athletes can earn compensation for their name, image, and likeness, previously prohibited. You can find more info on the NCAA’s website, with the changes expected to happen no later than the 2021-22 academic year.

In short: The more powerful the connections that exist at a school, with lettermen, fans, and alumni, the more attractive that school will be for the highest-ranked recruits in the country. In some ways, that’s always been true, though the ruling brings each University’s alumni network sharper into focus.

For the Nittany Lion football program, that’s a good thing, to state it mildly. Most, if not all, Penn Staters want to help, want to give back, want to feel what they’re doing has an impact.

Now, they just need to be ready.

“In terms of our ability to recruit kids, we’ve got a great setup here for it, but at the same time, we can’t rest on our laurels (and think) just because we have this huge network, it’s just going to automatically work for us,” Frank said. “We’re going to be calling on the alumni to help us throughout this process and help us recruit kids.”

To hear more about the football team’s Signing Day event, the newest class, and the impact of alumni support in recruiting, visit the Alumni Association’s Facebook page to see this week’s episode of The Football Letter Live, which features an interview with cornerbacks coach, defensive recruiting coordinator, and Penn State alumnus Terry Smith.

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

Back to Penn State Football

Freshman tight end Brenton Strange finished with a career-best 45 receiving yards Saturday against Michigan State, Penn State’s third straight win. Simmons totaled career-highs of seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

There are any number of reasons for Penn State’s turnaround this season.

There’s the revamped running game, as the Nittany Lions have rushed for at least 245 yards in three of the last five games.

Another example is the successful rotating of both Sean Clifford and Will Levis into the offense, with Clifford finding targets like Parker Washington and Jahan Dotson, while Levis bulldozes defenses in short-yardage situations. In such instances, Levis essentially turns into a fullback, which should please a certain number of Penn State fans who have asked James Franklin when the team will recruit for such a position.

The Nittany Lions have also taken better care of the football and played lock-down defense in nice spurts, while also impacting the game through special teams.

Clifford summed it up nicely following the team’s latest win on Saturday.

“We’re just back to Penn State football,” he said. “It’s just that basic.”

He continued:

“Things haven’t gone our way all the time this year and we understand that. It’s been a weird year. No one’s going to deny that, it’s just been a very odd year, inside the facility, outside the facility. There’s a lot going on and the people just don’t understand. And I understand, we’ve got to win games, that’s just the fact of the matter but it’s nice to see that the team’s playing complete games.

When the offense needs help, the defense is stepping up. When the defense needs help, the offense is stepping up. Special teams are making plays, that’s Penn State football. That’s who we are, and that’s who we pride ourselves to be. I’m just happy for these guys, happy that I can be a part of it. We’ve just got to keep on grinding because we keep talking about how we want to get as many wins as we can this year, with next week and whatever happens after that, but we’re ready to catapult into the next season as well.”

Shane Simmons’ standout game against the Spartans helped the Nittany Lions’ defense clamp down in the second half Saturday. Simmons totaled career-high marks with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

After starting a season 0-5 for the first time in program history, Penn State has won its last three games, with the latest victory coming after the Nittany Lions trailed Michigan State 21-10 at halftime, with the Spartans scoring three touchdowns in the second quarter to momentarily surge ahead.

Such a half could have had the players and coaches thinking “Here we go again,” but instead, Penn State seized control in the second half and won by two scores, setting up a scenario where the Nittany Lions can avoid a losing season by beating struggling Illinois and closing out the season with a potential bowl victory.

After the team’s first win of the season against Michigan, Clifford brushed off the notion that he ever doubted himself. Watching the Nittany Lions for the last three weeks gives a good indication why he kept the faith, not just in himself but in the team.

In an era when players out opt and transfer if they don’t receive first-team reps every week, both he and Levis have made the two-quarterback system as seamless as could be hoped for.

When Levis comes into the game, everybody on the opposing sidelines knows there’s about a 90 percent he’ll take the snap and run for the first down. It doesn’t matter, because they still can’t stop him. Levis also has shown off his arm, at times, giving the Nittany Lions plenty of options no matter who’s in the game.

Seeing two guys who would be the starter at nearly every school in the Big Ten share snaps and help one another be successful is a good barometer for how the Nittany Lions have banded together during a time when so many other programs are falling apart.

“I think it all just comes down to the love that we have for each other,” Levis said in describing the team’s fight and resiliency. “There was no doubt about it, that we weren’t going to give up on each other, on the season, and we were going to approach every day just like we always have been: that it’s the most important day of the week and that game is the only game you’re focused on. We just made sure that we approached every day with the correct attitude and stuck to the process that we know has worked so long for this program. It’s great to see the wins start coming in now and that’s pretty much what it comes down to, just the love and the trust that we have for each other.”

The win over Michigan State ensured that one of the most beautiful and prestigious trophies in college football — the Land-Grant Trophy — would remain in Happy Valley. OK, so maybe we took a little bit of literacy license with that description.

Still, winning any game, and retaining any trophy, in a season that was scripted for The Twilight Zone, will look pretty good from any angle.

“The resilience that we have shown, again, I’m proud of them,” Franklin said. “It’s not something that we’ve experienced or been through, so to find a way to show that type of heart, to show that type of belief and brotherhood and stick together and stay together and battle through, I’m very proud of them. I’ve very proud of everybody. Again, it’s not easy to do. The last three weeks, we have found ways to win, which is really what we’ve done for seven years.”

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

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Penn State Preview: Michigan State

Penn State welcomes Michigan State to Beaver Stadium on Saturday for a noon kickoff (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: vs. Michigan State, noon kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 297-77.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 50 degrees, which would be the warmest day in Happy Valley in almost two weeks.

All-time series: Michigan State leads 17-16, dating back to 1914.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 28-7 in East Lansing on a rain-soaked day.

Last week: Penn State won its second straight with a 23-7 victory at Rutgers, while Michigan State got blown out at home against Ohio State, 52-12.

The lead: A few weeks ago, as both Sean Clifford and Will Levis shared snaps against Nebraska, James Franklin said that the team would need both quarterbacks this season. That’s proven to be true, and also beneficial for the Nittany Lions. Clifford’s been able to connect with his receivers while Levis has added a genuine threat to the running game, actually not even attempting a pass last week against Rutgers while rushing 17 times. When Levis comes into the game, opponents know he’ll rush, and they still can’t stop him. That’s as much a tribute to the offensive line as it is to Levis.

It’s only been two games, though it appears Penn State is on the verge of turning its season around and possibly finishing with a non-losing record. Michigan State, meanwhile, has largely struggled under first-year head coach Mel Tucker, even suffering a home loss to Rutgers to start the season.

This is a game that Penn State should win, and the Nittany Lions are favored by about two touchdowns. Getting their third win a row would create a lot of momentum heading into their last regular season game and then a possible bowl to get to 5-5.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions have another productive game from one of their running backs, such as Devyn Ford. Last week, the sophomore ran for 65 yards and a touchdown, and afterward, he shared the heartbreaking news that one of his brothers recently died; Ford had missed the game against Michigan the week before, and Ford’s bio on GoPSUSports says that he has four brothers and two sisters. After the win against Rutgers, Ford was mature and eloquent with his words, saying that he had received plenty of support from his teammates and coaches.

Michigan State wins if: the Spartans can produce some offense. This might sound like a low bar, though Michigan State ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, averaging 17 points per game. Worse, the Spartans have produced only 11.5 points per game in their four losses. Michigan State’s quarterback boasts an awesome name — Rocky Lombardi — and he’s produced respectable numbers so far. He’s completed 84-of-157 passes for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s also tossed nine interceptions. Getting a big-time game from him would go a long way for the Spartans.

Count on: the Nittany Lions continuing to work the ground game. Penn State rushed for 248 yards last week, the third time in four games that the Nittany Lions eclipsed 245 rushing yards.

Keep an eye on: The football team’s Unrivaled Pregame Show. The Alumni Association is sponsoring Senior Day and our CEO, Paul Clifford, will be on the show to talk about the importance of welcoming the graduating seniors into the Penn State alumni network.

Trivia tidbit: While Michigan State leads the overall series, Penn State leads 15-9 since joining the Big Ten.

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.