After Saturday’s win, one fan yelled out from a cozy contingent of fans behind Penn State’s bench: “James Franklin, I love you!”
Franklin, wiping his head with a towel, turned toward the section and responded in an amused tone.
“I love you, too, sir.”
After Saturday night’s 66-3 demolition of the Terrapins at Maryland Stadium, there was plenty of love for the Nittany Lions. For the first time since 2008 and 2009, they secured back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins. A year ago, Penn State captured 11 wins with a Big Ten title. This go-around, Franklin and his guys have a chance to equal that total at a cushy New Year’s Six bowl.
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After a pair of seven-win seasons to begin his Penn State tenure, the exasperated coach sat at a pop-up table in a cramped visiting media room and was thankful.
“I think we’re trending in the right direction right now,” Franklin said. “I’m very just pleased with the program overall and the progress that we’re making. ... We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m happy with where we’re at.”
Back in 2014, Franklin wasn’t sure when this kind of success would come. As he noted, “Obviously it didn’t happen fast enough for a lot of people,” referencing those who called for his job just a year ago following a 2-2 start.
But since Oct. 1, 2016, the Nittany Lions are 19-3. They’re outscoring opponents 909-408, and their three losses — at the Rose Bowl, Ohio State and Michigan State — were by a total of seven points.
The program has skyrocketed back into national prominence. Saturday’s 63-point win at Maryland was further proof of Penn State’s resurgence.
“Finishing off with an exclamation point, with the way that we played, I think it’s very convincing for us moving forward,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “It shows that we’re one of the top teams in the country.”
Gesicki, a senior, called it “humbling” and “fun” being a part of Penn State’s rise under Franklin. Senior safety Marcus Allen — who thought back to arriving on campus in 2014 thinking Penn State wouldn’t see the postseason his first two seasons — dubbed the transformation “amazing.”
And redshirt junior quarterback Trace McSorley? Well, he admitted that going 10-2 can bring a “bittersweet” feeling with the “woulda, coulda, should’ve’s” creeping in. If the Nittany Lions closed out the Buckeyes or Spartans, they’d be positioned for a College Football Playoff push.
But that’s in the past. Back-to-back 10-win seasons are to be treasured.
“That doesn’t happen all the time,” McSorley said. “It’s something you really need to cherish and be proud of because we put in a lot of hard work to get to this point.”
For seniors like Allen and Gesicki, seasons like 2016 and 2017 are notable ways to go out. But perhaps, more importantly, these years do more for the program moving forward.
After securing a 63-point win over Maryland — a result that was never in doubt — Franklin realized that.
“I’m probably more excited that I really believe this is just the beginning for us. I really feel like we can continue to get better,” Franklin said. “At this level, it’s very, very difficult and very, very challenging. We have to keep scraping and scratching and clawing for every little inch that we can find. Because, to be honest with you, for where we want to go, it’s still going to need to be a slow, steady crawl to get where we want to go. I’d make the argument that it’s going to be harder to make those next steps than what we’ve already done.
“It should be an interesting ride.”