STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Two weeks ago, Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki knew his football team had reached a critical juncture. The Nittany Lions were 2-2 and smarting from an embarrassing non-competitive loss at Michigan.
After all of the tension created by the so-so start, Gesicki and his teammates earned a rare opportunity Saturday in the final moments against Maryland at Beaver Stadium. Penn State controlled the game against the Terps, and eventually pulled away for a resounding 38-14 victory.
There haven’t been many games like this, where a victory was assured, the veterans on the team could relax and admire the work they had just put in.
“We were able to really enjoy it, at the end of the fourth quarter,” Gesicki said. “Those are the best games, when you can stand there and look back at the game and know the success that the team had. It was big. These two weeks were big.”
Wins against Minnesota and Maryland are far from season-defining, but they were almost certainly season-saving. The loss to Michigan made it very clear how far Penn State is from competing for a Big Ten title.
All the Nittany Lions could do was regroup, improve and keep as many of the season-long goals within reach as possible. They survived against the Golden Gophers, coming back from a 10-point deficit to win in dramatic fashion.
This game was different. Penn State went ahead immediately, continued to control the play despite several drives feeling like missed opportunities and eventually rolled to a comfortable victory against a previously undefeated team.
There have been tangible signs of progress, beyond the team’s win total improving.
For instance, quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 152 yards against Maryland and could have had more were it not for a wet football slipping through the hands of his receivers on at least three occasions. He also flummoxed the Terps’ defense with effective reads on option plays and scrambles when passing plays broke down.
After leading the rally against the Gophers and spearheading this 524-yard performance, McSorley has shown he is a competent Big Ten quarterback with the potential for a bit more.
After weeks of wondering when Saquon Barkley would produce, he ran for a career-high 202 rushing yards along with four or five highlight-reel runs. Maybe even more impressive: several times he ran into the middle of the line and pushed forward for 4-to-6 yards.
Penn State “stayed on schedule” more against Maryland than it has against any team this season, and the result were sustained, methodical drives to complement quick strikes like McSorley’s 70-yard pass to DeAndre Thompkins and the two-minute drill near the end of the first half that consisted of three Barkley runs for 70 total yards.
“It’s simple. It’s up front,” coach James Franklin said. “We are maturing and growing up front. We are more physical on the offensive line. We’re sustaining blocks. When you’re able to do that, you’re going to have a successful offense. Whether you run a pro style, a spread or the wishbone, it starts up front.”
One of the themes of the season has been Penn State’s slow starts. This past week Franklin instituted a “chaos” period at the start of every practice. It was an unscripted, best-on-best portion of practice to simulate game situations.
Obviously, it looks great when the coach does that and the team opens the next game with a clinical seven-play, 84-yard touchdown drive. There was a psychological impact. Several players were quick to credit the practice tweak, even if Franklin downplayed it during his postgame remarks.
“We’ve been putting 30 points on the board and we haven’t been coming out on fire, coming out fast,” Barkley said. “We still left … two touchdowns got called back, we missed a couple plays here and there. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re slowly progressing and getting better each week.”
Spending the bye week on a two-game winning streak is going to be a lot different from dealing with all of the state-of-the-program topics and discussion points that seem to consistently dominate the Penn State football story in recent years.
By no means has this Penn State team arrived. All of the things people said after the Michigan game will be repeated, if Ohio State comes to Happy Valley and administers a similar beatdown.
It was an important two-week test against the middle class of the Big Ten, and Penn State passed. The Nittany Lions did just enough against Minnesota, and earned high marks for dismantling regional rival Maryland.
The injuries continue to be a concern. Promising drives ended because of a bad snap or a penalty.
But the Nittany Lions have earned a short respite from the big-picture, is-the-world-ending type questions that would have resulted after losses to Minnesota or Maryland.
“We would not have been able to survive this from a numbers standpoint a year ago, two years ago,” Franklin said. “It is a step in the right direction. We’re making progress. I see it very, very clearly. I know [the media] see it as well with all of the positive articles you guys right about us. … The progress is happening.”