Penn State Football

How far has Penn State come as a program? Look at the last trip to Illinois

Penn State football coach James Franklin yells to his players during the Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 game at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State football coach James Franklin yells to his players during the Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 game at Beaver Stadium.

DeAndre Thompkins hasn’t forgotten the last time Penn State traveled to Champaign, Ill. But it almost seems like forever ago now.

Back when the fifth-year wideout was a true freshman, when James Franklin was trying to keep his head above .500 in Year 1, the Nittany Lions hopped on a plane and received a shock from the Fighting Illini. The orange-and-blue used a last-minute field goal to slip past Penn State, 16-14.

At 9 p.m. Friday, Thompkins and the Nittany Lions will again square off against Illinois. It’s been just four years since that last road meeting, but Thompkins struggled putting into words how much has changed since.

“That’s a good question, man; that’s a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot we’ve gone through, adversity-wise, and a lot we’ve triumphed through.”

In 2014, the year of that Illinois road game, Penn State was still a question mark and Franklin was still a hotshot coach trying to prove Vanderbilt was no fluke. The head coach was forced to dress his offensive linemen in gray jerseys during the annual scrimmage — because there weren’t enough linemen for two teams. He inherited a mediocre defense, which ranked No. 59 in scoring the season before. He had a quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who didn’t fit the offense.

But he had a smattering of players then that would form the leadership backbone of the team now. In addition to Thompkins, there were four other current starters like quarterback Trace McSorley and safety Nick Scott. They looked on as the Illini limited their team to 93 passing yards and 3.7 yards per rush.

Penn State entered that game as a five-point underdog in Las Vegas. The Nittany Lions are entering as four-touchdown favorites Friday — with a Heisman-contending quarterback, one of the conference’s most-explosive receivers and one of the Big Ten’s most-feared defensive lines.

“That’s just the culture of Coach Franklin that he’s brought to Penn State,” said running back Mark Allen, also a fifth-year senior.

Penn State didn’t get to this point by accident. The team didn’t buy in, not completely, in the very beginning. Some players privately referred to Franklin as “Coach Kardashian” that first season; it was hard to buy into a different culture when they had already bought into Bill O’Brien’s.

But Franklin slowly chipped away at that wall. This gradually became his team, and it was better for it. Ask any of the veterans about the main differences.

“Overall, I’d say that’s the most consistent thing that’s been on the rise since Day 1 — the relationship between the coaches and the players and then the relationship between player and player,” Thompkins said.

This is the first time, since Joe Paterno, that more than 90 percent of this roster was recruited by the man who’s the current head coach. This is Franklin’s program.

It hasn’t always been a smooth journey to get to this point. But it’s been one with two major bowl berths, a Big Ten championship and two near-playoff spots. Looking at where Penn State was the last time it traveled to Champaign is a reminder of that road.

And, with any luck, Franklin’s program will continue to evolve. At its current pace, there’s no telling where the Nittany Lions will be the next time they fly to Champaign again, in another five years in 2023.