UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Moments after securing one of the signature victories of his coaching career, James Franklin figured he — and his Penn State squad — earned an opportunity to soak it in. Fresh off a 42-13 win over Michigan in front of a record-setting Beaver Stadium crowd, an Oct. 28 game at Ohio State now looms large, but Franklin savored a short-lived reprieve.
He asked a packed Penn State media room for the time. It was 11:23 p.m. ET.
“We’ve got 37 minutes to enjoy this win. I’m not talking about the next opponent,” Franklin said. “We’re going to enjoy the heck out of this win for 37 minutes, and then [Sunday] we’ll focus on the next opponent.”
There’s little doubt Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, in the midst of a bye week, shifted focus to Penn State at least a week ago. This time, it’s the one-loss Buckeyes’ turn to play spoiler.
Last October, an unranked 4-2 Nittany Lions team ended Ohio State’s hopes for an unbeaten season Oct. 22 in Beaver Stadium. Unlike 2o16, Ohio State enters this matchup with one loss and another defeat would almost certainly dash its chances for a third College Football Playoff appearance in four years.
On the other hand, a win over Penn State would thrust the Buckeyes back into contention for postseason opportunities. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, can bury the Buckeyes, bolster hopes for a repeat Big Ten title and help ensure there’s no legitimate case to leave them out of the playoff this time, all in one fell swoop.
It’s another exciting matchup to anticipate. For us in the media. For the fans. But not for Penn State coaches and players. At least not yet.
“If you know anything about the man who runs our program, we haven’t even talked about the next one,” Nittany Lions tight end Mike Gesicki said. “Tomorrow when we get back out there, we’ll learn from the mistakes we made today and move on to our next opponent.”
The Penn State staff will locate those mistakes. Self-assessment is a unending process for championship-caliber programs. However, there are few negatives to take away from this game at first glance.
Quarterback Trace McSorley tossed a momentum-swinging interception in the first quarter, but he was sensational aside from the turnover. McSorley totaled 358 yards and 4 touchdowns, including three rushing scores.
Running back Saquon Barkley dropped a potential long-distance touchdown toss, but he was otherworldly aside from the blunder. He fueled his Heisman Trophy hunt, becoming the first player to rush for 70 or more yards against Michigan this season (108) and scoring 3 total touchdowns.
Barkley burst through the line of scrimmage and bolted past Michigan’s defense for a 69-yard scoring sprint on the second offensive play of the night. It gave Penn State a 7-0 lead 43 seconds into the game and sent a crowd of 110,823 fans into an early frenzy.
Well that was quick.
Saquon Barkley already doing his thing for the Nittany Lions. pic.twitter.com/AsdRTuoDib
— ESPN (@espn) October 21, 2017
Barkley and McSorley combined for 6 touchdowns as Penn State piled up 506 yards against a Michigan defense that entered this matchup leading college football in yards allowed per game (223.8).
“All week long, everybody was talking about their defense,” Franklin said. “We’ve got a pretty good defense around here, too.”
The Nittany Lions allowed 9 points per game during the first half of regular-season action. That number will increase after this outcome, but so will nationwide respect for the unit.
“I think we made a big statement,” cornerback Christian Campbell said. “We weren’t surprised we had the top defense. Everybody was talking about Michigan this and Michigan that. Tonight was the night that we showed the world our defense — and our team — is good. We dominated tonight. Michigan has a great defense and a great team, but we were just the better team and dominated tonight.”
Campbell forced a fumble while sacking Michigan quarterback John O’Korn. It was 1 of 2 Wolverines turnovers, and 1 of 7 sacks.
Remember, the last time these teams met — and the last time Penn State suffered a Big Ten loss — Michigan scored 49 points. Saturday night, 12 conference wins and a Rose Bowl appearance later, these Nittany Lions laid the lumber.
“We always have to prove something,” Campbell said. “Even if we beat a big team, we still have to prove something. We’re just going to keep playing one game at a time and keep dominating.”
Defensive leader Jason Cabinda, a senior linebacker, spoke to teammates Friday night during a “share” session at the team hotel. He’d suffered three losses to the Wolverines and didn’t want to deal with defeat again Saturday.
“He said he doesn’t want to leave here without beating Michigan,” defensive end Ryan Buchholz said. “You could see the emotion when he said it and we all kind of took it to heart. … It’s a good thing to check off the list.”
It’s been that kind of October for the Nittany Lions. A month to check items off the list. Franklin was 0-5 combined against Northwestern and Michigan coming into this stretch. Penn State beat both by a combined 53 points.
“Obviously, whether you beat them or not in the past, you still want to come out and get that win, but to have that extra motivation in the back of your mind definitely helps,” Gesicki said.
The Michigan game — one discussed so often across the country, one that lured ESPN’s College GameDay to campus — is suddenly now in the rear-view mirror. Ohio State, and its motivation for revenge, is next on the collision course for Penn State.
But for those 37 minutes late Saturday night, Franklin was content to take stock of what his squad’s accomplished. More of the same should ensure this team will receive its shot at a national championship.
“One of the things we’re doing, and I haven’t been around it very much, is we’re playing really good in all three phases,” Franklin said. “That doesn’t happen very often where offense, defense and special teams are all playing good enough to win. There are still a lot of things I think we can improve on, which is the exciting thing.”
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