Penn State Football

Walt Moody | After sanctions reprieve, opportunities abound for PSU

The Nittany Lions and coach James Franklin will likely be riding a wave of excitement throughout the after news that the NCAA bowl ban had been lifted.
The Nittany Lions and coach James Franklin will likely be riding a wave of excitement throughout the after news that the NCAA bowl ban had been lifted. CDT file photo

What a difference a couple of days makes.

On Saturday, we were wondering about the Penn State running game and how the Nittany Lions had let Akron hang around so long in a 21-3 Nittany Lion victory.

On Monday, students were partying in the streets.

Yes, the suspension of the bowl ban and the restoration of the program’s full complement of 85 scholarships by the NCAA was something you could celebrate.

Not only can the Nittany Lions play in the postseason (hope you didn’t blow all your money in Ireland), they are back in the race for the Big Ten title.

You can imagine there was some pretty big partying in the Lasch Building, too.

Now can Penn State take advantage of the good news, both this season and beyond?

After last weekend, the theme this week was to be the demise of the Big Ten.

It was a brutal weekend for the conference with perennial powers Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan getting smoked by at least two touchdowns. Northwestern fell to a MAC team. Nebraska needed a phenomenal late touchdown to beat McNeese State. Iowa needed two touchdowns in the final three minutes to edge Ball State. Maryland and Illinois also had to rally in the fourth quarter.

According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the league’s best win last week was Minnesota’s triumph over Middle Tennessee at home.

Of the Power Five conferences (Pac-12, Big 12, Southeastern and ACC), the Big Ten is dead last. The Big Ten fell more than 17 points in the ESPN rankings, the largest drop in more than three years. Against other Power Five schools and Notre Dame, the Big Ten is 1-5 this season. As a whole, the Big Ten has won just 61 percent of its nonconference games against Football Bowl Subdivision foes.

Those numbers are ugly.

Throw in a 29-47 bowl record since 2004 and a 7-11 mark in BCS bowls in that span and it doesn’t get any prettier.

But in future, the numbers could work out for Penn State.

Thanks to Bill O’Brien and his players, the program didn’t go into the dumper, which was the general idea when the NCAA cut scholarships. O’Brien got one of the country’s best quarterback recruits, Christian Hackenberg, on campus and Penn State didn’t miss on many of its other recruits.

Since replacing O’Brien in January, Franklin has been a recruiting machine. For his Class of 2015, 12 of the 19 oral commitments are rated four stars or higher. That’s a recruiting class that rivals the glory years.

Now he has the opportunity to add six more to that class and will be unfettered in the future.

While the future could be bright, that doesn’t put a hold on this season and given the conference power structure there are some opportunities.

In the East, Ohio State certainly isn’t the same team without Braxton Miller, who will miss the season with a shoulder injury. Virginia Tech gave Buckeye opponents a blueprint to harass freshman J.T. Barrett who was sacked seven times and threw three interceptions, including a pick-6 that clinched the win for the Hokies.

Michigan was just plain awful against Notre Dame, suffering its first shutout in 30 years and its worst loss in the series against the Irish.

Michigan State looked good for a half against Oregon, but fell victim to the Ducks’ speed. A highly touted Spartan defense gave up 46 points.

Entering the season, the East race looked to be a battle between Spartans and Buckeyes. It still may be, but that doesn’t appear to be a done deal anymore.

Can Penn State challenge?

Maybe. The defense has looked decent. Hackenberg has two pretty good wideouts and a couple of big tight ends to target.

That’s probably a little much to expect.

But with such a young team (only 10 seniors), the key is to establish a strong foundation.

Part of that is making a bowl game.

With four more wins, Penn State will be eligible. You can’t put a price on the extra practice time a team gets before going to a bowl game, whether it’s the Orange Bowl or the Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit).

Throw in the fact that a bowl will be a great reward for the seniors and you can bet Franklin has a motivated group.

Rutgers provides the first hurdle on that path (maybe a few recruiting roads, too).

It will be interesting to see what the days ahead bring.