This team is back. That team is back. The practice of proclaiming that a struggling traditional college football power has returned to elite status after a big win is fraught with false steps.
The truth is that a return to glory can rarely be narrowed down to a single game. But if there ever were a “they’re back” moment in college football that turned out to be real, it was on Oct. 22, 2016, in State College, Pennsylvania.
That night, unranked Penn State – a month removed from getting demolished at Michigan and three weeks after an overtime escape against Minnesota that had Nittany Lions fans booing the home team – beat No. 2 Ohio State in a Beaver Stadium whiteout. For the first time under coach James Franklin, Happy Valley was euphoric about Penn State football.
The Nittany Lions have been one of the best teams in the country since.
One year after that victory, the Nittany Lions have another whiteout scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. But it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State (6-0) beats No. 19 Michigan (5-1) on Saturday night.
The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, but a lethargic offense (86th in the nation). Penn State looks like a College Football Playoff team right now with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley, a top-25 offense (6.49 yards per play) and a top-five defense (4.01 ypp).
It’s easy to point to last year’s Ohio State game as a turning point for Penn State, but the humbling loss to Michigan was also notable. The Nittany Lions were banged up on defense and still working out the kinks of a new offense, but at that moment they looked light years from being able to consistently compete with the best in the country. They have not lost a regular-season game since.
All this talk of turning points does not resonate with Franklin, who just sees a long steady grind that continues to this day.
“Like I say with a lot of things, there’s 25 slices in this pie,” Franklin said. “The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor. I don’t make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be.”
Barkley’s Heisman campaign slowed a bit the last couple of weeks as he was held to a 121 yards rushing and 60 receiving. Still, he is without question the focus of Michigan’s defense.
“He runs with great balance,” Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said this week. “He can make those cuts. He can hit those small holes.”
Penn State’s offensive line has had issues keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving Barkley a chance to get rolling. The Nittany Lions rank 122nd in the nation in tackles for loss allowed at 8.33 per game.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.