COLLINS: Penn State wanted the win, but needed the relief

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) celebrates his team's win over Michigan with wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) after an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Every week, James Franklin is seeing things through his transition lenses that he says his wildest dreams (or, really, his worst nightmares) couldn't have made seem real.

When Penn State arrived at its team hotel Friday night, it couldn't hold its usual team meetings because of rules against large gatherings in Michigan. The Nittany Lions couldn't meet virtually, either, because WiFi at the hotel was down.

They traveled to the Big House on Saturday past golf courses typically packed with cars and tailgaters that were now empty. It was quiet. Oh, to see just one group of rowdy opposing fans, cursing out the Nittany Lions, giving them the collective finger.

There was nobody in that cavernous stadium Saturday outside of the Nittany Lions and Michigan Wolverines, of course, and it struck Franklin that as he did his customary pregame walk around the field, he saw only cardboard cutouts staring back at him. He Facetimed with his daughters during that walk, and that's the only kind of personal contact he can have with them.

Sacrifices and adversity: None of this has been normal. Not for any of us. But while fans look forward to Saturdays to watch a football game and reconnect with a little bit of normalcy in a time of great madness, Franklin knows the sacrifices it takes for him, for his team, to provide that normalcy.

And the stark reality is that, before they marched out of the Big House with a 27-17 win Saturday afternoon, Penn State players and coaches had gotten nothing back for what they have given.

"I know, at the end of the day, people are focused on football and they want a couple hours to get away from reality and support Penn State football, and I get that," Franklin said, exhaling. "But there have been a lot of things going on this year. To see our team battle through that adversity and to see our program battle through that adversity with all types of limitations and issues and challenges, I couldn't be happier for our players."

No excuses: They aren't excuses, and everybody around the Nittany Lions insist that be understood. But this is a team playing without its absolute most-talented players, a team playing without personal contact with family, a team playing in circumstances it has never — could never — have prepared for in the past.

For the first five weeks, it was a team playing badly. A team that saw one thing go wrong and looked powerless to reverse course. A team that couldn't handle the little bit of opportunity it gave itself against Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa. A team that clearly has had a hard time dealing with nothing going right.

Kindred spirit in Michigan: Then Saturday, it ran into a kindred spirit in Michigan. A team that had hopes once. A team that watched them spiral off into the stratosphere early on, and struggled to build any type of momentum since.

Penn State did what it needed to do Saturday. It got an early lead. It protected the football. It made everything really difficult on a team already woozy from banging its head repeatedly against adversity.

Penn State then got what it had to have: A player nobody figured would have to step up to do it. Running back Keyvonne Lee rushed for 134 yards on 22 carries, picking apart a Michigan defense that was supposed to be a trademark, helping his own beleaguered offensive line build confidence along the way.

"It all comes down to the execution of our details, which we've been talking about," center Michal Menet said. "Today, we just did it. We stopped talking about everything and actually started to do all the things that we've been coached."

Ugly win was exactly what PSU needed: It was an ugly performance in every way for the Nittany Lions, except in the fact that it was exactly what they needed. They did simple things well, over and over and over. Doesn't seem like much, but it's what they hadn't been doing all season.

The easy thing to do now is to wonder how this affects Penn State moving forward? Is this the turnaround moment? Did they find some kind of secret sauce to propel them down the stretch?

While those are legitimate questions, they're also unanswerable in the moment.

Maybe a year from now, Penn State fans can look at Nov. 27, 2020 as the day it all turned around, as the moment Penn State settled in. But this is still a team with issues, a team walking a very fine line between a winning effort and a disastrous one.

A meaningful win: Right now, they have to look at it somewhat differently. Like it's one win, in a season in which they've been very difficult to come by. Like Menet, who has played in New Year's 6 games and in top-10 matchups, called it: A top-five win in his career.

"I know, outside looking in, it might be like, 'Why does it mean a lot? It doesn't really matter. You guys are 1-5, were 0-5 coming into the game,' " defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. "But you know, it means a lot."

It could very well be the win that gets Penn State's mind set back where it needs to be, because it's one of the few moments that might seem normal to a group of guys used to being near the top of the standings. A little bit of normalcy might be exactly what this team needs, and what it has struggled to attain much more than it has victories.