Thirty minutes after the victory bell at Beaver Stadium stopped ringing, the grin had long disappeared from Mike Gesicki’s face. He was serious, and sincere.
After placing his Domino’s pizza box near his feet, once the locker-room celebration subsided, he wanted to make a few things clear: This isn’t the 2016 team. This isn’t just a second-half team — and fans should let Saturday serve as Exhibit A.
“It has nothing to do with the competition,” the senior tight end said, dispelling the notion the fast start was simply the result of playing a MAC opponent. “It was just our mindset; it was something we’ve been emphasizing all (offseason) long and, overall, we’re a mature football team.
“So there’s no time for mistakes or for slow starts, just because we know the potential and talent we have. So we just have to make the most of it.”
In a week where Ohio State trailed Indiana at halftime, Pitt needed overtime to dispatch Youngstown State, and Wisconsin didn’t take its first lead over Utah State until the third quarter, a slow start wouldn’t have done much to quell talk about Heisman aspirations or Penn State’s potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
But the fact James Franklin’s squad put together a complete game — players said he told them in the locker room this was maybe the most complete game he’s seen in Happy Valley — means, even with a lowly opponent and enough hype to make Don King blush, this team is ahead of schedule. That should be a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten.
“We’ve harped on trying to be a four-quarter team,” wideout Juwan Johnson added. “Last year was last year.”
Offense, defense and special teams put forth three highlight-worthy efforts. DeAndre Thompkins returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown, the first time in nearly a decade since a punt-return TD — Oct. 11, 2008, to be exact, when Derrick Williams found a seam for a 63-yard return vs. Wisconsin. The defense dominated, regardless of personnel, by racking up 14 tackles for loss and allowing just 69 yards in the first half. And the offense rolled to its best season-opening point total since 2008’s Rose Bowl run. (The Lions scored 52 points on Saturday against Akron and, in 2008, 66 against FCS Coastal Carolina.)
This wasn’t an apparition. And Saturday’s effort wasn’t accidental. Franklin has emphasized starting fast since his team flew back home from Pasadena, Calif. Every day, the words “Four-quarter football team” appear on the coach’s Power Point presentation. And Amani Oruwariye just laughed when asked how often Franklin has addressed playing fast all four quarters.
“A lot,” he said, nodding. More than a hundred? “Yeah. Probably.”
Said defensive lineman Ryan Buchholz: “He brought it up today, too.”
At practices, the first-team offense and defense will face each other earlier than usual. And now, after stretching, position drills will start as opposed to special teams.
Franklin and the Nittany Lions haven’t just emphasized the changes with words. They’ve put them into action — and that showed on the field Saturday time and time again.
Sure, it may just be Week 1. And it may just be Akron. But Saturday was essentially a best-case scenario for Penn State. It wasn’t perfect — DaeSean Hamilton dropped a pair of passes, and Trace McSorley threw a pick in the end zone — but the conversation has shifted from potential to reality.
Penn State doesn’t just have the potential to be a contender. It is one. And that has players and fans alike excited for just what comes next for last year’s “second-half team” that’s now playing all four quarters.
Gesicki might as well have spoken for fans and students alike after the game.
“This is what we were waiting for,” he said.