A few hours after they pushed and shoved each other around a chilly, overcast Beaver Stadium, in front of an estimated 71,000 fans on a day that seemed more designed for celebrating 2016 than legitimately looking forward to 2017, James Franklin did something few thought he’d ever have the chance to do so early in his Penn State career.
At the team’s annual picnic to celebrate the close of spring practice and the end of the Blue-White Game, he handed the Nittany Lions their 2016 Big Ten Championship rings.
“Who wouldn’t be?” receiver DeAndre Thompkins smiled broadly, when asked if he had been looking forward to that moment all spring, all his life. It’s that big an accomplishment for a group few thought could achieve it. It’s the symbol of the Nittany Lions’ dedication, the objectification of the magic they created last fall for their fans, and themselves. The proof they lived their very own impossible dream.
Once they put them on their fingers, got done admiring them, finished reflecting on a run that captivated college football and sent them all the way to Pasadena and to the doorstep of the College Football Playoff, Franklin gave them one directive before he sent them home for the rest of the spring.
“We’re never going to talk about this Big Ten championship again,” he vowed. “It’s over. We enjoyed it. We appreciated it. It was awesome; a lot of hard work went into it. Once they get those rings and walk out of the building, we’re fully on to 2017, and we’re not discussing those things again.
“We had a nice season, but we still have a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas.”
It’s difficult to make a legitimate case that any of those areas were exposed in Saturday’s Blue-White game, because it’s folly to put any stock at all in what happens on a football field in April, when a sure-bet Top 10-ranked team’s first- and second-teamers take on its third- and fourth-team players. There were some plays missed downfield by starting quarterback Trace McSorley, but in fairness, he didn’t have tight end Mike Gesicki or receiver Saeed Blacknall to stretch the field. Neither side’s running game looked particularly dynamic, but star tailback Saquon Barkley watched from the sideline. In all, nine players who started last season sat out, mostly to avoid needless injury to established players.
But Franklin made this much clear: While the 2016 Nittany Lions won the Big Ten championship and were so dynamic offensively in the Rose Bowl that they’ll surely be considered a top contender again, the 2017 Nittany Lions haven’t accomplished anything.
“Preseason rankings mean nothing,” Franklin vented. “Look at our preseason ranking last year.”
Turning the page: This is how the great programs are run, and this is what the best coaches demand. They turn the page. They realize one season propels a program, but many seasons define them.
Fact of the matter, though, is the season following the breakout is always the biggest test for programs like Penn State’s. Doing something twice, in sports, has proven more difficult than doing it once, especially when the process of doing it that first time is still carrying the fan base, still something talked about around Happy Valley and Pennsylvania on an almost daily basis.
“It’s a little hard,” center Connor McGovern said, “because you do want to look back at last year. We’re just going to have to forget that last year, keep moving on, and expect bigger things every single day.
“Last year, we set the foundation. This year, we have to build on it.”
That, McGovern said, is why his second spring practice seemed so much more aggressive than his first. And it’s probably why fans should reluctantly accept the College Football Playoff committee did Penn State a favor by bypassing it in favor of Ohio State and Washington last December.
All spring, Franklin painted the picture of a hungry team, one practicing at a level it had never attained and competing like jobs were on the line, even with so many starters returning.
“I don’t think it’s much of a challenge,” Thompkins said of working to forget that Big Ten title. “It’s more, do you want to settle for the Big Ten championship? Or, do you want to play for the national championship? We don’t settle for the Big Ten championship. It was great. It was something that we strived for. But, we have to have a higher ceiling than that.”
Time will tell if they do, because Penn State is no longer the underdog doing amazing things. It is the marked team now. The champ. The squad every program in a pretty good conference and one of the most competitive divisions in college football is looking to make a name against.
Rest on that one accomplishment, they learned in April, and they’ll fall because of it.
Cast it aside, and they can get even further. But the thing about doing something unforgettable is, doing that is going to be a fierce battle against human nature, a fight only the great ones consistently win.