Pregame Predictor: Penn State vs. Kent State
I quickly captured the image to savor the moment, shared it with all my friends in Nittany Nation, and turned back to finish my day. Within seconds, I began to hear the sound of incoming notifications coming from my phone laying on the table behind me. One after another, back-to-back-to-back they came chiming in and they all centered around that scene in Ireland. I can’t say for sure that I was the first to spread what was going on over there, but it was truly one of those times when I caught the internet in a perfect storm and we all celebrated as one. Needless to say, not much work got done that afternoon.
Of course, Penn State went on to win the Croke Park Classic with a last second field goal from Sam Ficken and it’s next three games to initiate what I had already dubbed the “FrankLion” era. After a week off, which included the reinstatement of bowl games to prepare for the Homecoming clash with Northwestern, reality reared its ugly head. Injuries to both Nyeem Wartman (who hadn’t yet changed his name to Wartman-White) and Brandon Bell took a major toll on our defense and a well coached Wildcat team took complete advantage and exposed us. The lack of depth behind the starters over the last two seasons was more than evident. The fourth quarter became a moot point if we were stuck in a dogfight. Lost in the mix of all that, I heard James Franklin mention numerous times that because of the lack of depth year three would really be like year one. Like most of you, I was too consumed with the excitement he was trying to sell to pay attention and listen. This was a program that in 2014 had as many walk-ons as it did scholarship players. It was a program that was forced to replace an injured starter with true freshmen in 2015. In short, it was a no-win situation, no matter how valiant those replacements played.
So here WE ARE, my friends, year three, that is really year one of the “FrankLion” era. This is a team that is dominated by underclassmen, with a handful of senior leadership that has been through the fire and come out on the other side. Names like Bell, Wartman-White, and Evan Schwan are still here to guide us out of the dark tunnel this program was forced to walk inside five frightening years ago. Behind them is hunger. These guys are hungry to prove that they belong. Hungry to achieve that signature win that has alluded them for far too long. Hungry to make a statement and to send those seniors out as winners, although they won at the game of life long ago.
Behind that senior class is the body of work that defines James Franklin to date. Make no mistake, his job was to not only sell Penn State to a nation that had its collective doubts, but to sell his brand and vision of Penn State to a fan base that expected a Rose Bowl and conference championships right away. His job was to rebuild what had been taken away. Not just on the depth chart, but to rebuild a reputation that had been tarnished as well, as unfair as it was. As much as we all want to gauge success by the outcome on the field, it simply wouldn’t be fair to gauge Franklin’s performance to date on wins alone. Only now, starting today, would it be fair to gauge his success on the sideline. First up, is Kent State, a team that stumbled to 3-7 a year ago. For the record, I predict a blowout win in this premiere edition of my Pregame Predictor for 2016. This game is a tune-up for bigger days that lie ahead. As I set out to write this piece, I couldn’t get that vision of the Croke Park pep rally out of my head. The excitement and expectations that carried us throughout that offseason spilled out onto the streets of Dublin, and the streets were bathed in Blue and White. Little did we know, at the time, that those expectations would have to wait until year three. Today, WE ARE on the cusp of a new season. The sun shines bright in Happy Valley, that dark time is officially behind us, and WE ARE all stronger for surviving the storm.