Trace McSorely and Saquon Barkley (Getty Images)
CHICAGO — The best way to quantify the excitement around the Penn State football program heading into the 2017 season also is the simplest.
James Franklin doesn’t want to get in trouble, but the fourth-year coach can measure the side effects of last year’s 11-3 this season — which earned his team a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth — like this:
“The best example is we’ve broken every record in season ticket sales this season,” Franklin said at Big Ten Media Days on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t be shocked by an average of 104,000 for the season.”
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Happy Valley is here again, and Penn State is on the short list of top playoff contenders. The Nittany Lions have two Heisman Trophy contenders in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley. Tight end Mike Gesicki stayed in school and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will be looking to improve after averaging 37.6 points per game in 2016.
Franklin hears the stories about the legendary Penn State teams all the time, and the easiest A-to-B comparison is 1994. The quartet of quarterback Kerry Collins, running back Ki-Jana Carter, wide receiver Bobby Engram and tight end Kyle Brady helped Penn State win the Rose Bowl while averaging 47 points per game.
Gesicki remembers Carter speaking to the team before the Rose Bowl against USC. He was grateful for the opportunity to listen to him speak.
But this is a different Penn State team, in a different time — the right time in the four-team playoff era. The 1994 team finished No. 2 in the AP Poll behind Nebraska. This year’s team, which was stiffed out of the playoff last year, seemingly would get that opportunity to make the playoff if they deliver on expectations. That made bypassing the NFL Draft easy for Gesicki, who made that decision before the Rose Bowl.
“I didn’t want that game to impact my decision, even if I had 10 catches for 200 yards and three (touchdowns) that wasn’t going to influence my decision,” Gesicki said. “I knew with the talent we had coming back what we were capable of achieving.”
Gesicki alternates between calling his teammates by their first name and numbers to emphasize how good those star players are. He power cleans 380 pounds, but “26 is up there with 405.” Gesicki said his favorite catch is catching Barkley or McSorley in the air after a touchdown.
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Gesicki believes receivers Juwan Johnson and Saeed Blacknall are in for big years because, “We have plenty for 9 to go back there and dice it up and pick whoever he wants to have a chance.” Perhaps one of those receivers will play the role of Engram.
It adds up to an offense that should average close to 40 points per game if all those pieces click together again. Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo points back to the same game as Gesicki for when Moorhead’s offense found that rhythm. Barkley’s 25-yard touchdown in overtime capped a 29-26 overtime victory against Minnesota, and the rest is recent history.
The Nittany Lions averaged 40.1 points per game through the rest of the season. DiNardo later broke down that play with McSorley and wasn’t surprised by those results.
“Being an option coach, that’s not that unusual,” DiNardo said. “You keep going. You keep pounding it and pounding it, and all of a sudden all the lights go on. The players, and especially the quarterback, say all the light goes on.”
Franklin wouldn’t point to the Minnesota game as a turning point for the program, noting that the double-overtime loss to Ohio State the previous season could have just as easily been that moment had it gone the other way. Yet the Rose Bowl Game — the thriller the Nittany Lions lost 52-49 to USC — is a launching point for this season. Franklin said he received emails and letters that stretched into the thousands about the game, even a few who were impressed with how Penn State players reacted to USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson’s injury.
“People would come up to me and say, ‘Coach, that was the best Rose Bowl Game I’ve ever seen,” Franklin said before shaking his head. “I was like, ‘It wasn’t that good. It could’ve been a little bit better.'”
Then Franklin finishes that thought and the implications of a game that kept Penn State pointed in the right direction.
“Being on that stage and playing that type of game, I do think there was some value in it.,” Franklin said. “I always make the argument that losing that game at the end of the season has motivated our players. They want this season to end differently.”
Franklin is on point here. The Nittany Lions aren’t picked to win the Big Ten East. Ohio State is. The Nittany Lions aren’t the biggest headliner in the Big Ten East either. Michigan is. Franklin wouldn’t even entertain questions about rival Pitt, which visits Beaver Stadium on Sept. 9. Franklin addressed that on the podium as only he could.
“(All) I’ll say is we open the season against Akron,” Franklin said. “And I would love to talk about Akron and Akron and Akron and Akron and Akron and not get ahead towards any other games.”
That’s part of the mindset that should serve this star-studded team well. The Nittany Lions won a Big Ten championship, but it wasn’t enough to reach the College Football Playoff. It was a long process to get the program back from the NCAA sanctions to that point. Now Franklin wants to take the next few steps forward — without looking back.
“Everybody buys in, which is the biggest difference from last year,” Franklin said. “For this year, it’s the opposite. Let’s not be too confident. Let’s not be cocky. Let’s not take things for granted and be complacent. Confidence is a great thing, but it’s a fine line. You don’t want it to go where we lose our identity.”
That shouldn’t be a problem. Not when 104,000 people might show up for Akron.