Penn State's climb from embarrassed to elite

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) scores a touchdown by running during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Penn State won 31-7. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) scores a touchdown by running during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Penn State won 31-7. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The conversation started as soon as Penn State's players entered the visitors' locker room at the Big House after Michigan had administered a 49-10 beating on them, a defeat that fueled further belief that perhaps James Franklin wasn't the right head coach for the Nittany Lions.

Before quarterback Trace McSorley would face the media and apologize for what he called the "embarrassment" of the team's performance, he already had spoken with two veterans on the offensive line, center Brian Gaia and tackle Andrew Nelson, about how the Lions were going to fix this.

"We just felt like, one, we were outmatched, and, two, we were way underprepared for that game," McSorley said a few days ago.

As the Penn State players and coaches sullenly left the locker room and headed to the airport for their flight back to State College, no one possibly could know that over the next 16 games, a stretch extending into this season, they would go 15-1, with the only defeat coming on a last-second field goal in the Rose Bowl.

With the much-awaited rematch against Michigan coming up Saturday before a White Out at Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions are 6-0 and considered the Big Ten's best bet to grab a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Maybe it would be too much to say that the crushing September afternoon in Ann Arbor, a game in which the Lions were outgained, 515-191, was the catalyst that sparked the current streak. But it sure made an impact on them.

"You just can't turn it on on Saturdays," McSorley said. "You have to be ready, watch film Sunday through Friday. Then Saturdays, you've got to show up for the game. It's how you are in practice, the mentality you bring to the field every day, how you're approaching each team period in practice, understanding what you're trying to get out of each drill and making the most out of that.

"That's what that game kind of showed us. Michigan was a top team in the Big Ten when we played them. We would talk about, 'We want to compete,' but that's who we needed to be competing with. So for us to compete at that level, we knew we had to raise our mentality and our preparation each week. We didn't want to kid around with ourselves. We actually wanted to start competing with teams like Michigan and Ohio State."

Cornerback Grant Haley, who returned a blocked field goal for the deciding touchdown in the upset win over Ohio State that launched Penn State to the division title and the Big Ten championship, said one effect of the Michigan game on the players was that they wanted to be part of a dominant team.

"The way they played that game, that's who we wanted to be," Haley said. "We realized that we're better than this. We all took that hard look in the mirror, all looked at each other and said we've got each other's back. I think that's where it started, the chemistry in the locker room. The players really took on that huge leadership role, knew what they wanted to do to bring Penn State football back."

Added linebacker Jason Cabinda, "We knew after that game, that was the last of that. We're not going to put up with that. We're not going to play like that any more. We just needed to give more, we needed to sacrifice more, if we wanted more."

For Franklin, who received 2016 coach of the year honors nationally and in the Big Ten and recently signed a lucrative contract extension keeping him in Happy Valley through 2022, it was more a matter of continuing what he called "a slow, steady process of building since we got here" than having the process severely damaged by the Michigan debacle.

"That loss obviously gave us a shot in the gut," he said, "and I think everybody took a hard look in the mirror and said, 'What do we need to do to move forward and to take the steps that we need to take?' But I think that loss, as well as 100 positive steps in the right direction, kind of everything just came together at the right time.

"I wouldn't say it's one specific moment, but I think it's a combination of situations and experiences that we've grown over the years and over the seasons to get to this point. And I like where we're at right now."

To get to that point, however, the players needed to do some soul-searching, answer some tough questions, unite as a team and, as Franklin liked to say, "pull the rope in the same direction."

"We just went back to the drawing board," Haley said. "Even though Monday is our off day, everybody came in and watched film for the next game, just putting that extra effort in practice, in the weight room, going that little extra mile and realizing what we needed to work on individually and collectively as a group, as a unit, and as a team."

The commitment was there the week after Michigan, but Penn State came dangerously close to losing that next Saturday, needing a late field goal to tie Minnesota at home and then winning in overtime. The Nittany Lions were more solid the next week in a 38-14 win over Maryland.

The wins followed, a total of nine in a row, including the Big Ten championship win over Wisconsin, before the 52-49 loss to Southern California in what many considered to be the best of the 2016 postseason games.

"When I think of last season, that's the only thing I think about, losing in the Rose Bowl," Cabinda said. "Last season might have been great, but it ended in a loss. We know that none of the success that happened last year is guaranteed this year whatsoever. We needed to come up with a new identity and new purpose and play better, and we've been able to do that on defense so far."

Through the first half of the 2017 season, the Nittany Lions have improved their defense and special teams to go with a productive high-tempo offense led by McSorley and Heisman Trophy front-runner Saquon Barkley. The defense has come up with 17 takeaways, and the Lions' plus-12 turnover margin is tied for best in FBS.

Clearly, the momentum of last season has carried over. Franklin said it's a matter of having a number of players back from last season combined with the unfinished business of reaching the playoffs.

"I think our guys said, 'Look, we had a nice year last year, but we want more,'" he said. "So the combination of all those things factored in to us having a very focused, very determined offseason to get us to this point where we're headed in the right direction. We've got a really good locker room, really good chemistry, and gained a lot of valuable experience in the first six games of this season."

The way Penn State has rebounded from a potentially dreadful season to winning the Big Ten, and then sustaining that fine play this season, has impressed observers.

"In retrospect, you'd say yeah, it was a good learning experience," said former Nittany Lions all-American Matt Millen, an analyst for the Big Ten Network. "But don't drop it all on the kids. I think there was a lot of learning done by the staff. I think they needed to realize where they were. They needed to realize what they had. Then they had to put their coaching hats on, and I saw a difference."

"Something like that can provide a real chip on your shoulder," said former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, an ESPN analyst. "You create this us-against-the-world mentality and that's an intangible quality that I think is often overlooked in college football. With that talent and a real sense of motivation to prove the naysayers wrong, teams with that type of recipe lend themselves to having pretty outstanding results, like with Penn State last year."

Penn State had a bye week and began preparing early for Michigan. Its fans probably didn't need an extra week to get excited for the game, and that means they'll be at a fever pitch hoping their team can provide a good measure of payback for last season, and maybe defeats to the Wolverines in each of the last three seasons.

Millen thinks revenge is overblown, saying it "sounds good before a game, but when the ball's kicked off, you don't ever think about it again."

The players also are of that mind-set, although McSorley admitted payback "could be a talking point."

"We'll probably keep it as business as usual as far as preparation and kind of how we talk about the game," he said. "It will be in the back of our minds that they really did hand it to us last year, but we've got to come out, got to be prepared. We feel like we're a different team than we were at that point in the season last year, so we fell like we're a lot better than we were then."

It has been quite a journey over the last 12-plus months to this point for the Nittany Lions. The Wolverines' visit next week will remind them that it still has a ways to go.

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