Penn State Preview: Ohio State

Penn State v. Ohio State 2020 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

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 dive into this week’s preview for Penn State’s primetime matchup with Ohio State.

Game Details: No. 20/17 Penn State at No. 5/5 Ohio State. 7:30 PM ET kick-off, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Ohio Stadium.

Weather Forecast (via AccuWeather): Cloudy in the evening with a shower in spots early, then partly cloudy late. Periods of rain or drizzle earlier in the day. High of 58.

The Line: Ohio State -18.5 (via SI Sportsbook).

All-Time Series: Ohio State leads 22-14.

Last Meeting: Ohio State won 38-25 last season.

Other Big Ten Games This Weekend: 
– No. 6 Michigan at No. 8 Michigan State (Noon ET, Fox)
– No. 9 Iowa at Wisconsin (Noon ET, ESPN)
– Rutgers at Illinois (Noon ET, BTN)
– Indiana at Maryland (Noon ET, BTN)
– Minnesota at Northwestern (3:30 PM ET, BTN)
– Purdue at Nebraska (3:30 PM ET, ESPN2)

Throwback Classic: 1963. “When you win an important game from Ohio State in Columbus … the inclination is to be polite about the victory and magnanimous with the vanquished. But honestly we have heard so much gaff in the last 25 years about the power and the invincibility of Big Ten Football (especially when compared to the effete East) that you’ll have to pardon a chuckle or two from these quarters.”

So wrote Ridge Riley ’32 in The Football Letter the week after Penn State’s 1963 visit to Ohio Stadium, a 10-7 Nittany Lion victory over the Woody Hayes-coached Buckeyes. It was just the third meeting between the big state schools—all of them in Columbus—since the sporadically played series began in 1912. And for whatever low expectations folks in central Ohio—”the Football Capital,” as Ridge Riley wrote with what we imagine was tongue firmly in cheek—had for the visiting Lions in the fall of ’63, Penn State had won on each of its previous visits to the Horseshoe.

They won that time, too.

Read more on this classic Penn State win over the Buckeyes in this From The Archives article from 2013.

Penn State v. Illinois (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Lead: There’s not much to say about last week’s 9OT Homecoming loss to Illinois that hasn’t been written about already. In short: it was a disaster of a loss. Now Penn State has to limp into Columbus against an Ohio State team that has rolled everyone in its path since a Week Two loss to Oregon. Can the Nittany Lions pull off a shocking upset of their own?

Penn State Wins If: Sean Clifford plays the game of his life, inspiring the Nittany Lions to the huge upset. Clifford was clearly less than 100 percent against Illinois. He said earlier this week he’ll be at or close to full-go this weekend. Penn State will need him to play without restriction if it has a chance to win this game.

Ohio State Wins If: The Buckeyes offense can finish drives. Ohio State has steamrolled everyone in its path this season minus Oregon. Ohio State paces the conference and holds sixth in the nation with a 96.6 conversion rate including 23 touchdowns in 29 trips. Penn State leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh in the country allowing a 65.2 conversion rate in the red zone and holding opponents scoreless eight times, tied for the nation’s best. Whoever wins that specific matchup will come out on top.

Numbers To Know: 13: Penn State has forced a turnover in 13 consecutive games.
14: The Buckeyes recorded 14 tackles for loss as they held Indiana to 128 total yards last week.

Score Prediction: 
John Patishnock: Penn State 24, Ohio State 21
Vincent Lungaro: Ohio State 44, Penn State 7


PENN STATE PREVIEW: ILLINOIS

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 dive into this week’s preview for Penn State’s homecoming matchup with Illinois.

Game Details: No. 7/8 Penn State (5-1, 2-1) vs Illinois (2-5, 1-3). Noon ET kick-off, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium.

Weather Forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 54. Cloudy with a shower in spots; a chilly autumn afternoon for Homecoming.

The Line: Penn State -24 (via SI SportsBook).

All-Time Series: Penn State leads 20-5.

Last Meeting: Penn State won 56-21 in the 2020 season finale at Beaver Stadium.

Keyvone Lee. Penn State vs Illinois (2020). Photo By Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

Last Week: Both teams were on a bye.

Other Big Ten Games This Weekend:
– Northwestern at No. 6/6 Michigan (Noon ET, FOX)
– Wisconsin at No. 25/N/A Purdue (3:30 PM ET, BTN)
– Maryland at Minnesota (3:30 PM ET, ESPN2)
– No. 5/5 Ohio State at Indiana (7:30 PM ET, ABC)

Throwback Classic: 2008. Entering the game, Ron Zook’s Illini were coming off a Rose Bowl appearance and returned star players Isiah “Juice” Williams and Arrelious Benn. Up to that point, it was also the highest-scoring White Out game with a combined 52 points. After the Illini opened the scoring, Derrick Williams did a Derrick Williams thing and returned the ensuing kickoff to the end zone to even things up at 7-7. Williams finished the game with a kick return for a touchdown, a rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown to lead the Lions to a 38-24 win.

Derrick Williams. Penn State vs Illinois (2008). Photo By Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

The Lead: Saturday’s homecoming matchup will feature Penn State’s Generations of Greatness uniforms, which are being worn for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Penn State has previously worn the uniforms in matchups against Indiana in 2017, Purdue in 2019 and Iowa in 2020. The uniforms feature numbers on the helmets, block uniform numbers, a white stripe on the sleeves, a blue stripe on the pants, a gray facemask and white cleats.

Penn State Wins If: The offense can get enough production from whoever starts at quarterback. Whether it’s Taquan Roberson or Christian Veilleux, the Nittany Lions just need their quarterback to be average and that should be plenty to blow out Illinois. Sean Clifford has been practicing this week, but it’d be a surprise if Penn State risks him in this game ahead of next week’s clash at Ohio State. I expect offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to keep things simple for his quarterback, relying on his skill players with short routes and lean on the running game. Penn State’s defense is a juggernaut and Illinois has struggled mightily on offense. The Nittany Lions should win this easily.

Illinois Wins If: Penn State’s offense is catastrophically bad. It would take a turnover-plagued, penalty-heavy Penn State showing worse than what was displayed against Iowa (after Sean Clifford left the game, of course) for Illinois to win this game.

Keep An Eye On: Mike Yurcich using Taquan Roberson’s mobility. Roberson struggled mightily in the loss at Iowa, but one of the things that stood out to me as a positive was his ability to make plays with his legs. He picked up a couple of decent gains on designed runs or scrambles against the Hawkeyes, and it wouldn’t shock me if Yurcich uses that to settle Roberson into the game a bit early on.

Trivia Tidbit: This is the fourth time Penn State will square off against Illinois in a Homecoming game. The Nittany Lions are 2-1 with wins in 2000 (39-25) and 2006 (26-12).

Photo By Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

Number To Know: 101. This is Penn State’s 101st Homecoming game.

New Podcast: Check out the Alumni Association’s new podcast, “The People of Penn State.” On each episode of the podcast you can expect to hear the voices of Penn Staters talking about what they are passionate about, and you can expect to feel the pride and the power of the Penn State network. In the inaugural episode of the show, we talked to Tokyo 2020 Paralympian and alumni volunteer, Jake Schrom ’11. Click here to listen or check out the video version on the Alumni Association’s YouTube page.

Score Prediction:
John Patishnock: Penn State 28, Illinois 7
Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 30, Illinois 6


10 Questions For James Franklin

James Franklin has led Penn State to a No. 7 national ranking through the first half of the regular season. Here are 10 questions we’d like to ask Penn State’s head coach if the right opportunity arose. Photo credit: John Patishnock

James Franklin gets asked a lot of questions. A lot. Oftentimes, questions are grouped into predictable categories: thoughts on the upcoming opponent, how the team is improving, offseason priorities, etc.

That’s standard, and it makes sense. It’s also what Franklin is most likely expecting to be asked.

Here are 10 questions I’d like to ask the Penn State head coach, but never would during a typical media availability, at least not during the season. His mind is focused where it should be — on leading the football program. So, chances for a candid, insightful answer increase during an offseason interview, when Franklin has a chance to take something of a breather and discuss more light-hearted topics.

I want to emphasize these are legitimate, genuine questions. I believe Franklin’s responses would speak to his personality and give him an opportunity to talk about aspects of his professional and personal life that otherwise might go overlooked. And one or two are purely for my own curiosity.

Q: If you and your family had campus to yourselves for a day, or knew that fans wouldn’t ask for photos or autographs, what would you do?

Q: Have you ever hiked Mount Nittany? If so, what was the experience like? If not, would you like to hike Mount Nittany in the future?

Q: If you could appear as a contestant on any game show (current or past), what would it be and why?

Q: What is/was your favorite board game to play? Any strategies involved in that game that relate to football?

Q: When players celebrate a touchdown, do you ever worry about somebody twisting an ankle or otherwise getting hurt?

Q: College Football Playoff standings and rankings aside, what’s one bowl game you’d enjoy coaching in, and why?

Q: Signing as many autographs as you do, how did you decide on a handwriting style? Did it change when the number of autographs you sign increased, especially when people are standing in a line?

Q: When leaving the stadium after a game, do you ever get stuck in traffic? I know he leaves the stadium hours after the game ends, but I believe it’s still possible.

Q: Outside of people in the sports world, who are one or two people you’ve enjoyed meeting the most?

Q: When it comes to videos, photos, and social media posts that are shared on the football team’s various channels, how much do you impact what’s posted?

How about you, our alumni? Anything else you’d like to ask Penn State’s head coach? Leave us a comment or tag us on our Twitter account and let us know.

——

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Penn State Preview: Indiana

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.

Game details: No. 4/6 Penn State (4-0) vs Indiana (2-2). 7:30 p.m. ET kick-off, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium

Weather Forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 75. Patchy fog in the morning; otherwise, sunny much of the day; mostly clear skies for kick-off.

The Line: Penn State -12.5 (SI Sportsbook).

All-Time Series: Penn State leads 22-2.

Last Meeting: Week One, 2020 season. Indiana 36, Penn State 35 (OT).

Last Week: Penn State topped Villanova, 38-17. Indiana held off Western Kentucky, 33-31.

Other Key Big Ten Games This Weekend:
– No. 5/5 Iowa at Maryland (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1)
– No. 14/14 Michigan at Wisconsin (Saturday, Noon ET, Fox)
– No. 11/10 Ohio State at Rutgers (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network)

Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

Players To Watch – Penn State: QB Sean Clifford, WR Jahan Dotson, RB John Lovett, DE Arnold Ebiketie, S Jaquan Brisker.

Players To Watch – Indiana: QB Michael Penix Jr, WR Ty Fryfogle, DE Ryder Anderson.

The Lead: It’s another primetime clash for Penn State inside Beaver Stadium this week. Indiana won last year’s meeting thanks to Michael Penix Jr.’s outstretched dive for the pylon in overtime (OK, he was actually down short of the goal line and Penn State should have won that game, but I’m not going to harp on last year). It’s a new season and the Nittany Lions are a much better team than they were a year ago and Indiana has really struggled through four weeks of the season. Maybe it stems from the preseason expectations weighing a little too heavy on a program that’s almost always been a cellar dweller in the Big Ten. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers aren’t sneaking up on anybody this year. Penn State has plenty of motivation and what should be another energetic home crowd behind them.

Penn State Wins If: The defense continues to play at its current level. Penix Jr. has struggled a lot throwing the ball down the field this season (55 percent completion rate, 6 INTs to 4 TDs). Penn State has a good pass rush and one of the better secondaries in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers have talent on the outside in reigning Big Ten Receiver of The Year Ty Fryfogle and 3rd-Team All-Big Ten pick Peyton Hendershot, but the Nittany Lions are playing some terrific ball on the back on of their defense right now. I don’t expect this to be the week Indiana gets going through the air. Quick note also on Penn State’s offense. Sean Clifford has greatly improved since Penn State’s loss to the Hoosiers last year. He’s throwing the ball with confidence and getting it out to his variety of playmakers. I expect him to have another good day.

Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

Indiana Wins If: The Nittany Lions’ inability to run the ball finally catches up with them. Indiana’s front seven is pretty good and the Hoosiers’ defense has had a knack for forcing turnovers. If the Penn State passing game has an off day, the ground game will have to be a lot better than it has been through four weeks. If both aspects of the offense struggle and we get another offensive showing similar to what we saw for large periods of the game against Wisconsin, Indiana can hang around and be in the game late with a chance for another upset.

Keep An Eye On: The S-Zone. Great work from our student organization, the Penn State Lion Ambassadors last week in setting up a terrific S-Zone in the south end zone. Last week’s S-Zone showcased a THON theme for the annual THON Game at Beaver Stadium. This week should be another great display under the primetime lights, with t-shirts organized to create a blue background engulfing the large white S. Learn more about the history of the S-Zone here.

Stripe Out 2021: If you’re coming to town for this weekend’s game, don’t forget that it’s a Stripe Out. Be sure to check out http://PennStateStripeOut.com to find out what to wear for your section.

Trivia Tidbit: Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson connected on a 52-yard touchdown on Penn State’s first offensive play against Villanova. It marked the 16th passing touchdown between the duo. They trail only Todd Blackledge-Kenny Jackson (17) as the top QB-WR touchdown pair in Penn State history. Blackledge, who of course started at quarterback for the Nittany Lions from 1981-1983, will be on the call this weekend for ABC with Sean McDonough and Molly McGrath.

Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

Number To Know: Since 2016, Penn State holds a .758 winning percentage, with a record of 50-16, the sixth-best winning percentage among Power Five programs.

Membership Tidbit: Penn State Alumni Association are the key to everything we do at the Alumni Association. Members make it possible to keep Penn Staters connected with the University and each other through The Football Letter, events and publications, and so much more. If you’re a member, thank you for your support of the Penn State alumni community! If you’re not a member, you can join today at alumni.psu.edu/membership.

Score Predictions:
John Patishnock: Penn State 37, Indiana 14
Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 31, Indiana 17

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

‘First-class product’

The enhancements stood out immediately.

The blue concert-like directional lighting. The glistening new paint job. The rather enormous 1-0 banner. They all smack you in the face, metaphorically speaking. All these changes (i.e., improvements) were installed in the Beaver Stadium south tunnel before the Nittany Lions’ home opener against Ball State on Sept. 11.

The south tunnel is off-limits to nearly all fans, though it doubles as one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the entire stadium.

Why?

For one: every single recruit who has field access passes through the tunnel. I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that each of them is imagining what it’d be like to run through that tunnel on game day when they’re playing college ball. In James Franklin’s best-case scenario, those recruits are playing for Penn State.

Another reason: The upgrades make for pretty darn good television. Franklin mentioned ESPN and ABC when discussing the enhancements, saying the team wanted to clean up those images a bit. Not that the images looked bad before, but slapping on a new coat of paint and installing those lights adds a ton of production value. You can see an up-close view with the above video, which shows Franklin and the team heading toward the field prior to kickoff Saturday night.

And going back to the recruits. Nearly all of them — and most of their family members — are holding up a phone recording the action. Whether it’s a visiting high school player, a returning letterman, someone watching on television, or a current player or coach, the visual impact hits.

“We just want to make sure that everything we do, we’re presenting Penn State in a way that everybody looks at and says, ‘That’s first class and that’s sharp and that’s impressive,’ and that was another opportunity to do it that way,” Franklin said. “So when the eyes of the world — specifically the sports world — are on us, that everything that people see and associate with Penn State is first class and creative and fun and represents our brand the right way. I feel like that does right now.” 

Franklin continued:

“For our players, it’s a very short walk but I think they feel it too, they sense it as well. We want a first-class product. We want to make sure that we’re treating everybody in a first-class way on the front end, and I think we probably have more alignment with those types of things than we’ve ever had.”

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PENN STATE PREVIEW: BALL STATE

Penn State at Wisconsin. Penn State 16 – Wisconsin 10. 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: No. 11/13 Penn State (1-0) vs. Ball State (0-1). 3:30 p.m. kickoff (ET), broadcast on FS1.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where fans will be in attendance for a game for the first time since Nov. 30, 2019, a 27-6 win over Rutgers.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): Mostly sunny with a high of 74 degrees. Near perfect weather for a day of tailgating. and football.

The line: Penn State – 22.5

All-time series: This is the first-ever meeting between the Nittany Lions and Cardinals.

Last meeting: N/A

Throwback classic (2009): Without a game to relive between these two opponents, I took a quick look back at Penn State’s second game of the 2009 season, a 28-7 win over Syracuse. Senior quarterback Darryl Clark passed for 240 yards and tossed a couple of touchdowns as the Nittany Lions cruised to an out-of-conference win.

Last week: Penn State went on the road and picked up a huge road win over then-No. 12 Wisconsin at Camp Randall.

The lead: Penn State returns home after that huge victory in Madison to face the defending MAC Champions, Ball State. While the Cardinals aren’t quite the level of opposition as the Badgers were, this Week Two contest won’t be a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination for the Nittany Lions. Ball State returns 21 starters from last year’s conference title winning team, including second-team All-MAC quarterback Drew Pitt. Penn State head coach James Franklin said in his weekly press conference that he does believe in the idea of “trap games,” and this game would certainly fit that bill. It makes his “1-0” mantra extra important this week. Don’t expect Penn State to look past the Cardinals after that win over Wisconsin and next week’s White Out showdown with Auburn looming — it’s just not in their DNA.

Penn State at Wisconsin. Penn State 16 – Wisconsin 10. Photo by Steve Manuel

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions avoid mistakes. Penn State played turnover-free football last week and if that trend continues, it should see off any potential upset from Ball State. Sean Clifford and the offense grew into the game a week ago and most importantly avoided turnovers. If they pick up where they left off, the home fans will leave happy.

Ball State wins if: Penn State’s turnover woes from a year ago return and the defense’s performance last week can’t be duplicated. The Cardinals come into this one with plenty of confidence that they can walk away with a win. The last thing the Nittany Lions want to do is make mistakes and feed into the Cardinals’ belief.

Count on: A raucous atmosphere inside Beaver Stadium. It’s been 651 days (We think we did the math right!) since fans of the blue and white got to see their in action at home. As James Franklin tweeted throughout the week, this is going to be one big family reunion. It might not reach the levels of noise and excitement as next week’s game with Auburn, but it will still be a ton of fun. We’re jazzed up to see the return of tailgates, team arrival, the Blue Band performing pre-game and at halftime, and all that makes Saturdays in Happy Valley the best show in college football.

Keep an eye on: the Penn State running game. The Nittany Lions struggled to run the ball against Wisconsin’s stout front seven last week. Expect offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to try and get Noah Cain and the rest of the Lawn Boyz going early. If Penn State can run more effectively this week, it should open up the passing game a lot more for Sean Clifford and co.

Trivia tidbit: Penn State snapped Wisconsin’s 25-game home opener win streak with the victory in Madison in Week One.

Predictions:

John Patishnock: Penn State 38, Ball State 17
Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 33, Ball State 20

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Wednesday Night Lights

James Franklin and the Nittany Lions continued fall camp at Beaver Stadium on Wednesday night. Franklin said the team will practice at the stadium again Saturday, mirroring the game day routine at Madison for the Sept. 4 opener against Wisconsin, including going through the pregame meal and walkthrough. Photo credit: John Patishnock

The aura of Beaver Stadium is always there. Always. Even when the place is nearly empty. Actually, perhaps especially when it’s nearly empty.

That was the scene around 9 p.m. Wednesday night as Penn State was finishing practice and the media portion was waiting to start. The photo above was taken from the north side of the stadium, right at the back of the end zone. From there, you could look out and imagine all the great plays and noteworthy Nittany Lions who have elevated the program to where it is today.

Today, Penn State’s ranked again in the AP preseason poll and is nearing the end of fall camp, which means gearing up for the first game week of the season. Following the work out — which the media saw for the first 20 minutes — head coach James Franklin said that the team would practice at the stadium again Saturday in preparation for the season opener at Wisconsin on Sept. 4. It’ll be an 11 a.m. local kick, and Franklin said the Nittany Lions will mirror the game day routine. That’ll include the pregame meal and walkthrough, and then the team will scrimmage at Beaver Stadium at the exact time that the game will kick in Madison to help the players’ body clocks get acclimated.

For someone’s who as dedicated to details as Franklin, that shouldn’t be surprising. You can watch Franklin’s entire post-practice presser below, courtesy of Penn State Athletics.

Along with Franklin, tight ends coach and letterman Ty Howle, tight end Brenton Strange, and safety Jaquan Brisker also chatted about the progress the team’s made so far in camp. I asked Howle if he’s had much of a chance to talk with fellow lettermen who are back with the team in coaching roles, and if so, if he’s noticed certain themes that bond lettermen from different generations.

“Absolutely,” said Howle, who mentioned a few times how much he’s thrilled to be back at his alma mater. You can watch Howle’s media availability below, also courtesy of Penn State Athletics, and my interaction with him begins shortly after the 6:00 mark.

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PENN STATE FOOTBALL MEDIA DAY: CATCHING UP WITH ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH AND LETTERMAN TERRY SMITH ’91

Letterman Terry Smith ’91 is one of several former Nittany Lion players on James Franklin’s staff for the 2021 season.
Image Credit: Penn State Athletics/Mark Selders

As Penn State gears up for another season, where stars like Jahan Dotson and Jaquan Brisker will look to cement their legacies in Penn State history, there is also plenty of that history on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff in the form of former lettermen.

Players who spent their college careers suiting up for the blue and white, running out of the same tunnel Dotson, Brisker, and the rest of the 2021 team will go through in a few weeks for the home opener against Ball State. 

James Franklin has built a staff from his connections from all over the college football world, but he’s also recognized the importance of Penn Staters who have a deep connection to the program from their time as players. 

Former lettermen on Franklin’s staff include Terry Smith (associate head coach/cornerbacks coach), Ty Howle (tight ends coach), Deion Barnes (graduate assistant), Wendy Laurent (assistant offensive line coach) and Alan Zemaitis (assistant recruiting coordinator). 

Going into his eighth season as a member of the coaching staff, Smith was of course a standout receiver for the Nittany Lions from 1988-91.  

I caught up with Terry at the team’s Media Day on Saturday to talk about the importance of having Penn State lettermen as a part of the staff, what he learned going through the COVID-altered 2020 season, and more. 

As always, thanks to Terry for taking the time to chat. 

What did you learn about yourself as a coach going through such an altered season last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

TS: “You just had to learn to do things a different way, to teach a different way. Whether that was Zoom or just teaching at a distance like we’re talking right now. It really helped me realize that you don’t have to do things a certain way just because that’s the way you’ve done them your whole life. I think that helped our program change some things and do some things a different way. That’s going to help us advance in the future.”

Does the team’s process of preparation have to change at all knowing your opening up the season against a Big Ten opponent? 

TS: “No, our process is the same. Each week we’re trying to go 1-0. That opponent who is first, they’re the most important part of our focus. Training camp right now is to make sure we have a foundation set for the season. Whether it’s Wisconsin or someone else, all our focus is going on 1-0 to start things off.” 

How would you assess the cornerbacks group that you’re working with this season? 

TS: “I feel really good about the whole back end of the defensive backfield. With the corners, I feel like I have a lot of depth. There’s six guys that have played a lot of college football, including Johnny Dixon, who played at South Carolina. I’m excited for the competition this camp and we’ll let the field sort through all of that. Especially excited for Tariq Castro-Fields, who’s played a ton of football here and has been successful. Joey Porter had a breakout year last year. Daequan Hardy is our returning starter at the star spot. There’s a lot of guys competing to get back on that playing field. No job is given. They all have to earn it.” 

Image Credit: Penn State Athletics/Mark Selders

How important is it to have guys like yourself, Deion Barnes and Ty Howle on staff, who have been a part of this program as players and might understand what it means to play here just a little bit more? 

TS: “It’s essential. We’re former Penn State lettermen. Who knows this program better than us? We played on this field at Beaver Stadium. We walked those same paths in the hallway and the locker room. We can tell players what Penn State can offer from personal experiences. I like to give my testimony: my dad went here and is a ’68 grad, I’m a ’91 grad, my son was an ’07 grad, my daughter Haley is here in the WorkLink program, my nephew (sophomore running back) Tank Smith is on the team. Penn State is a great place and my family is a testimony of how great Penn State is. When you come to Penn State, it’s a 40-year decision, not just a four-year decision.”

You mentioned Tank, what’s it like to have him a part of the team and getting to be around him as he gets his own experience within Penn State?

TS: “My nephew, he’s doing a great job over there (on offense). He knows his role on this team and understands it really well. He’s a major contributor for us. I’m happy for him and happy he’s 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.”

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