STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — This may not be the dream season some anticipated for Penn State, but it remains on track to serve as a continuation of the finest stretch of football this program has played in a decade. The Nittany Lions defeated Nebraska, 56-44, Saturday night, securing a win for the 18th time in 21 games.
Penn State led the Cornhuskers 42-10 at halftime, producing its highest first-half point total against a Big Ten opponent since 2005. The Nittany Lions have now scored at least 33 points in nine consecutive home games.
While this isn’t the Nebraska of yesteryear, the Cornhuskers feature a substantial volume of blue-chip recruits and annually carry high ambitions. Penn State decimated its guest, finishing with the most yards in a game (603) since 1995 and the final score was not indicative of just how out of reach this game quickly became.
“I think we’ve got a good football team,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said afterward. “I don’t think we played as clean on special teams today as we have in the past, but I think we’ve got a pretty good football team.”
The College Football Playoff committee thinks so, too. Penn State won’t reach the playoff tournament this season, but it’s a top 10 team for the second straight season. That’s quite a leap for this program considering it didn’t finish a season ranked, top 10 or otherwise, from 2010 through 2015.
Penn State would secure back-to-back double-digit win totals for the first time since 2009 with a victory at Maryland next Saturday. Beyond that, there’s a strong case to make for inclusion in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Some have scoffed at Penn State’s out-of-conference schedule. Nobody would consider Pittsburgh, Akron and Georgia State murderer’s row, but how would a postseason victory against an Auburn, LSU or a Notre Dame look upon reflection of this 2017 season?
A win in a marquee matchup would set the stage for Penn State to warrant consideration again as a top 10 preseason program next season, even if celebrated running back Saquon Barkley bolts early for the NFL. The Nittany Lions feature the most depth and overall roster talent of Franklin’s tenure and serious reinforcements await in 2018.
Penn State will likely have 19 redshirt freshmen to utilize, along with the arrival of a recruiting class that’s arguably the greatest in program history. You better believe a notable bowl win would also resonate well on the recruiting trail.
“This program is on the up and up and will continue to rise because of the younger guys that are coming in,” Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki said. “These guys are of the Penn State mold. They do the right things and they mirror the players that have come before us. That’s the kind of kids these younger players are. They work really hard and they’re blue-collar. That’s Penn State, and I think they’re going to keep it that way for a long time.”
Mike Gesicki waves goodbye. pic.twitter.com/9aSH0w0FVJ
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) November 19, 2017
Excitement surrounding potential postseason opportunities reached another level Saturday evening when Barkley — fresh off a 224-yard, 3-touchdown effort — confirmed he will suit up for any bowl game. This goes against a growing trend of top NFL draft prospects sitting out of non-playoff postseason matchups.
“If my teammates came out and said, ‘Don’t play. We don’t want you to play in the bowl game. You don’t need to,’ I probably wouldn’t,” Barkley said. “At the end of the day, I’m playing for my teammates. I’m playing for my brothers. At the end of the day, from the offseason on [it’s been] blood, sweat and tears.”
There’s not a player in the Penn State locker room who wouldn’t love to be preparing for a national semifinal matchup next month, but the reality is a pair of road losses to ranked Big Ten opponents by a combined four points separates them from that dream.
Franklin was 16-14 through his first 30 games. The Nittany Lions are 18-3 in their past 21 matchups, with those three defeats occurring away from home — including two against top 10 opponents — by a total margin of 7 points.
Penn State used an explosive start to bury Nebraska on Saturday, boosting its chances of earning a more formidable foe this winter.