Last we saw our boys in Blue and White they had just closed the door on a perceived rival and served Turtle Soup as the entrée for a soggy Homecoming crowd. The word “progress” flashed in neon lights throughout Happy Valley after the game. A team that barely averaged 100 yards on the ground during its first five games erupted for close to 400 yards in what many consider the most thorough and most dominating win of the Franklin era. As overrated as the Terps may have been, the victory over Maryland served notice and opened eyes. Combined with the overtime win against Minnesota the week before, Penn State entered a much-needed bye week banged up but motivated. Linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda made a full return to practice this week and both are expected to resume their roles in charge of Linebacker U; welcome news for a unit that spent the first half of the season scrambling to find replacements. As much as they’ve been missed, hats off to their fill-ins which may be the biggest story to date, midway through the season. Brandon Smith, Manny Bowen, Cam Brown and Koa Farmer came in under adverse conditions and took the bull by the horns. Penn State enters the biggest game of the year with a linebacking crew that is deep, experienced, and battle tested. A far cry from the dire straits we were in the first half of the season.
For its part, the Evil Empire, er I mean Buckeyes, roll into Happy Valley 6-0 and bring with them a No.2 ranking. For a team that lost a record 12 players to the NFL, it’s a testament to a coach we love to hate, Urban Meyer. Trust me, that was painful to admit but respect is due for the job he’s done year in and year out. As much as the likes of Michigan may want to challenge, Ohio State represents the benchmark of where we want to be again. A week ago they took their show on the road to Wisconsin and faced all they could handle from the Badgers before pulling out the win in overtime. Led by an old nemesis of our own in quarterback JT Barrett, their offense is as strong as ever and until last week their defense had not given up a rushing touchdown. They are well on their way to another run at a title with only a Whiteout standing in their way. No small task for even the best of the best.
Two years ago on the same stage and under the same spotlight, Marcus Allen made his debut and became a fixture on defense. DaeSean Hamilton had a monster game with 14 receptions for 165 yards and Saeed Blacknall caught a touchdown in the corner of the end-zone to breath life into a game that had almost gotten away. Tight end Mike Gesicki was credited with one catch for three yards but was thrown into the fire early on to help as a lineman for an O-Line that could barely keep it’s head above water. On the sidelines stood Trace McSorley then the backup freshman QB who would not see the field for well over a year and a handful of high-school seniors dressed in their best Penn State hoodies and gear, all white of course. Names that Included Bates, McGovern, Reid and yes, Saquon Barkley among many others. Barkley would make his presence felt a year later in Columbus. The Evil Empire, with a little help from their friends in stripes, narrowly escaped the jaws of defeat that night in Happy Valley. The impression was made on all of those who lace up those black Nike’s on Saturday night, including Meyer who made it a point this week to wish Penn State would schedule someone else to take them on during the pesky Whiteout. The ground has been said to feel like tremors and the steel has been known to buckle. If Penn State gives itself even a sliver of a chance, the raucous crowd becomes a factor and spells trouble for anyone that stands in their way. Two years ago, we let one slip through our fingertips, but that will not be the case in 2016. This rag-tag pride of Lions is older, wiser, rested and back to full-strength. On their road to redemption, they've found a bit of swagger. The kind that used to lift the Nittany Lions from the jaws of defeat. In 2014, it was a wing and a prayer, along with some help from a stadium full of White. In the immediate aftermath of that near-win, head coach James Franklin made it loud and clear there were no such things as “moral victories” at Penn State. Two years later, we make the statement everyone has been searching for Nittany Lions 27 - The Evil Empire 24.