Penn State's breakthrough resembles Iowa's in 2015

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY — The words that Penn State football players are using this week sound familiar to those who followed the Hawkeyes’ 2015 run.

On the way to an undefeated regular season, Iowa players would regularly speak of togetherness and chemistry with a one-week-at-a-time focus. And you could tell they meant it.

The Nittany Lions have grown one week at a time on their way to a 6-2 record (4-1 in the Big Ten Conference), including a stirring comeback win over then-No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 22.

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They didn't look so good in a shaky September, but got things going in the second half vs. Minnesota on Oct. 1. After trailing 13-3 at the break, Penn State rallied to force overtime and won, 29-26, to spark its current four-game win streak.

And suddenly, the Nittany Lions are major factors in the Big Ten East race with Michigan (8-0, 5-0) and Ohio State (7-1, 4-1).

“I told you guys (preseason) that we had really good chemistry in the locker room,” third-year Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We work really hard at that. We're in a good place. This is how it's supposed to be.”

Until this year, Penn State’s program had been in a four-year funk — 8-4, 7-5, 7-6 and 7-6 — since Joe Paterno was ousted following the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

Penn State coach James Franklin exits Beaver Stadium after his team upended then-No. 2 Ohio State, 24-21, on Oct. 22. The Nittany Lions have surged to No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings and should be favored to win out and finish 10-2.

That football malaise was reminiscent of the one Iowa experienced from 2010 to 2014 (a combined 34-30) until its 2015 breakthrough.

Now Penn State is enjoying its best football since going 11-2 in 2009, and the Nittany Lions should be favored in their final four games. That includes being a 7½-point favorite in Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. CT game against Iowa (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten).

What changed?

“I don't think it's one moment or one thing or one game,” Franklin said. “It's just been kind of a process, sticking to our plan, believing in one another, building trust and relationships and identity.”

Certainly a return to the full allotment of 85 scholarships for the first time since the post-Paterno NCAA sanctions has provided much-needed depth.

But mostly, there’s been a unified culture shift behind an exciting new quarterback. (Sound familiar?)

“The chemistry on this team,” third-year sophomore signal-caller Trace McSorley said, “is probably as high as it’s been since I’ve been here.”

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McSorley took over for longtime QB Christian Hackenburg and has injected the same type of versatile, play-making threat that C.J. Beathard did for Iowa to start the 2015 season.

“Trace makes plays. He makes so many plays,” cornerback John Reid said, laughing as he thought about his QB. “He’s going to take the hits. (And) he has 100 percent trust in everybody in the locker room, on and off the field.”

McSorley has led an entertaining offense under first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Nittany Lions have gone from 101st nationally in scoring a year ago (23.2) to 39th this fall (at 33.6).

What’s more impressive and encouraging is that all 511 of Penn State’s yards from scrimmage in last week’s 62-24 win at Purdue were gained by underclassmen.

(By the way, Iowa hosts Penn State on Sept. 23 to open next year’s Big Ten campaign.)

Penn State is certainly riding high this week after it was placed No. 12 in the College Football Playoff Committee’s initial rankings.

Yet, like Iowa did a year ago (when it was ranked No. 9 in the first CFP Top 25), the Nittany Lions seem to be saying the right things.

They realize there's more work to be done.

“You can’t talk big-picture if you don’t care of the things in front of you,” McSorley said. “Right now, the thing in front of us is Iowa. That’s the thing we talk about: Being 1-0 this week.”


Schedule to date: Beat Kent State, 33-13; lost at Pittsburgh, 42-39; beat Temple, 34-27; lost at Michigan, 49-10; beat Minnesota, 29-26 (OT); beat Maryland, 38-14; beat Ohio State, 24-21; won at Purdue, 62-24.

Remaining games: vs. Iowa (6:30 p.m. CT, BTN), at Indiana, at Rutgers, vs. Michigan State.

Players to watch: RB Saquon Barkley leads the Big Ten with 11 touchdowns and needs 112 rushing yards to reach his second straight 1,000-yard season. QB Trace McSorley has accounted for 16 touchdowns (four rushing) with just three interceptions while completing 123 of 223 passes for 1,818 yards.