Legendary Penn State running back Blair Thomas adjusted his hat and let out a laugh when asked what it’s like to see his alma mater “back,” while fans lined up around Medlar Field’s concourse last week to grab a photo with fellow legend Ki-Jana Carter.
“Back?” Thomas said. “I don’t think we ever left and had to come back. We always had a winning season throughout (the sanctions), which I don’t think any program around could’ve survived.”
The two backs — ranked fifth and 10th all-time in school rushing yards — are both staples in Happy Valley. Thomas has missed about five home games in 10 years, and the Florida-living Carter has plans to attend four games this season.
They’ve experienced the highs of Penn State football and watched the lows. And both weighed in, ahead of the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, on what it’s been like to see the program evolve while overcoming the specter of the sanctions.
Carter said he noticed a change in the squad right after Penn State’s unlikely 24-21 comeback win against Ohio State in 2016, when safety Marcus Allen blocked a field goal and Grant Haley scooped it up for a score. The Nittany Lions were never the same after that, Carter said.
“We always struggled a little bit against the big opponents and, when we came back against Ohio State and took that blocked field goal to win it, it gave the kids confidence to say, ‘You know what? We can play with the big boys,’” Carter said. “You could see it after that game. What did we do? Ran the table.
“Kids get confidence and, a lot of times, that’s all it is. All these kids have the ability, but now you got the confidence not to say we hope we win but we expect to win.”
Thomas and Carter both know what winning Penn State teams look like. Thomas’ teams were twice ranked in the top 10 when he was an underclassman, including the national-championship-winning 1986 season, while two of Carter’s squads also earned top-10 finishes.
James Franklin’s crew is now intent on earning their third straight top-10 ranking this season. That’s something Penn State hasn’t accomplished since 1980-1982, back when Joe Paterno’s hair was almost as jet-black as his player’s cleats.
“I thought we were going to come out of this thing on the better side of it, no matter what,” Thomas said, again referring to the sanctions, “because good always trumps evil. ... Those young players that committed and stayed — those guys really set the tone.”
Thomas would like to be at every home game, while Carter expects to attend three — Appalachian State, Ohio State and Iowa — in addition to being at the Pitt game at Heinz Field. They’ve closely followed their alma mater, with an eye to the running back position, and they’re both looking forward to a bright 2018.
Carter sees their potential. He just hopes they live up to it.
“(Franklin) has done a great job recruiting these big-name kids, so now when their number is called, they got to go produce,” he said. “So are we going to miss Saquon (Barkley)? Yes. Are we going to miss Mike Gesicki? Yes.
“But we got Trace (McSorley), so he’s going to help these guys until they get their feet wet because he has that experience to help carry the team. And we got some studs behind Saquon — Miles Sanders, he was the No. 1 back in the country. Now it’s his time to shine and go play.”