'Found our mentality:' Penn State starts to rediscover itself with win over Rutgers

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton is upended by Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker (1) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

James Franklin has said for weeks that Penn State's 2020 season doesn't truly define his program.

The seventh-year head coach said he wanted his Nittany Lions — who had won as many games as most top-tier teams in college football over the past three seasons — to remember their identity.

Penn State's 23-7 win over Rutgers on the road Saturday comes a week after the team's win over Michigan — marking two consecutive victories since starting the season 0-5. Now more than ever, it sure seems like players have taken Franklin's words to heart.

"This program is not a losing program," redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford said after Saturday's win. "It's just not who we are. We had a rough start — a lot of things factored into that. But we know that we're not a losing program. We didn't come here to lose."

Clifford said he can't pinpoint one particular reason why, but he feels like he and his teammates are "just getting back to ourselves." The 6-foot-2, 217-pound Ohio native has slowly started to play with the confidence he had during the Nittany Lions' 11-2 campaign last year. And while his performance wasn't spectacular on Saturday against the Scarlet Knights, he didn't force plays or try to do too much.

His statline — 133 yards through the air on 15-22 passing for one touchdown and one interception — doesn't jump off the page, but Clifford made timely throws. With 3:32 left in the first quarter, he hit freshman receiver Parker Washington for a 29-yard touchdown to get Penn State on the board first. And the Nittany Lions never looked back.

Run game, defense excel: It also helped that Penn State's running backs had a solid outing.

Freshman running back Keyvone Lee ran for 95 yards on 17 carries, while sophomore running back Devyn Ford — who missed last week's win over the Wolverines because of the death of his brother — added 65 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

"We've been clicking," Ford said. "We've been making things work. And it's been coming out in our favor. We have a team. We just haven't been able to play like we wanted to play all year. It hurts at times, but it's alright."

Then, there was the Penn State defense, which only allowed the Scarlet Knights to accumulate 205 total yards of offense and 12 first downs.

Rutgers didn't score until there was 4:56 left in the third quarter — after Clifford's interception gave the Scarlet Knights the ball at the Nittany Lions' 36-yard line to start their drive.

After the game, Franklin said his team has "gotten back to how we've played for six years" on defense. Players are starting to limit opponents' explosive plays, swarm to the ball and "make people earn it," he added.

According to redshirt freshman cornerback Joey Porter Jr., the defensive turnaround took some reflection, too.

"When everybody turned their back on us, we had to just look at ourselves and look at our team and just be like, 'We're the only ones that can pull us out of the situation that we're in,'" Porter Jr. said. "And after realizing that and after all coming together as a team, we finally realized that it's all on us. I mean, nobody else could help us but us."

A return to form: It was just earlier this week when Franklin told reporters that his program is still the same one that won the Cotton Bowl last season, the same one that won the Fiesta Bowl in 2017 and the same one that won the Big Ten title the year before that.

These past two weeks, the Nittany Lions are finally showing glimpses of those teams.

"We still have the guys that were 11-2 and won the Cotton Bowl," Clifford said. "We're still that team. We're still great players."

If the team's change in mindset remains consistent throughout the final two weeks of the regular season, Penn State could change the narrative of its 2020 campaign. With a home game against a struggling Michigan State team and a crossover matchup against a Big Ten West foe remaining, the Nittany Lions could end the year with four consecutive wins.

That could be enough to clinch a bowl berth in a year in which the NCAA has waived its bowl eligibility requirements because of the reduced number of games being played due to the coronavirus.

For now, though, the Nittany Lions are taking things one game at a time, while rediscovering who they are in the process.

"I feel like we finally found our mentality — we found our mentality," Ford said. "The mentality that Penn State plays with. And you see the last two weeks what we can do on the field. So, as long as we keep that up and continue that mentality, continue the 1-0 effort, we can go grab some wins."

Game time: Penn State's contest vs. Michigan State this Saturday will feature a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on ESPN, it was announced on Sunday.