The buzz around the Penn State Nittany Lions football program was the biggest takeaway from a weekend that saw 72,000 optimistic fans fill Beaver Stadium on a sun-soaked Saturday in Happy Valley that promises a brighter future behind new head coach James Franklin.
You can throw out the statistics from Saturday’s game that didn’t see much from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other starters, but the two numbers to remember are the 72,000–which represented the third biggest crowd in Blue-White history–and the number 1, the current ranking for Penn State’s recruiting class, according to 247Sports.
This wasn’t supposed to happen at Penn State. Not after the NCAA imposed a historic four-year bowl ban and drastically reduced scholarships that limited the team to play with 65 scholarship players, 20 fewer than the maximum allowed in the FBS, and a maximum of 15 signings per recruiting class in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Certainly the rebuilding at Happy Valley would take a hit after Bill O’Brien left after two seasons to become the head coach with the Houston Texans and a 15-9 record, including a 10-6 mark in the Big Ten conference. Penn State could have been crippled with O’Brien leaving for the greener pastures of the NFL and getting out from under the black cloud that hung over State College since 2012.
In comes Franklin who was a bit of a miracle worker with the Vanderbilt Commodores and guided the once moribund program to three straight bowl berths and 24 wins over a three-year period that represented the Golden Age of Vandy football.
He is an engaging, excitable and enthusiastic leader. A perfect combination of teacher, coach and recruiter all wrapped into one perfect package that was exactly what Penn State needed. He also happened to be a Pennsylvania native born in Langhorne, about 200 miles east of Happy Valley and played quarterback at East Stroudsburg University.
He’s been the face of the program since he was hired on Jan. 11, nearly three months to the day prior to the Blue-White and in front of 72,000 fans who are buying what Franklin is selling.
The fans aren’t the only people believing in Franklin’s plan for Penn State as the Nittany Lions passed the Alabama Crimson Tide as owners of the top recruiting class in the nation after securing the commitment of four-star defensive tackle Adam McLean (Gaithersburg, MD. Quince Orchard).
This is an unfathomable accomplishment, even if national signing day is not for 9.5 months. This simply was not supposed to happen, but Franklin has made a career out of making the unfathomable, fathomable, as he did for three years at Vanderbilt, turning them in to a top-25 program.
The future looks bright, much brighter than even the most optimistic Penn State fan could have envisioned, and with the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in Hackenberg returning, the present could see an eight or nine-win season as a realistic possibility, despite the lack of depth.
Hackenberg came to college with a great deal of pressure and expectations after being the No. 1 prep quarterback after a standout career at Fork Union Military Academy. After throwing 20 touchdowns and 2,955 passing yards, both good for second most in the conference, it’s easy to project an NFL future for the 6-4, 220-pound signal-caller who exceeded the lofty expectations thrust upon him.
Penn State has their coach in Franklin, their star quarterback in Hackenberg, a loaded recruiting class on the way and the backing of 72,000 fans that will swell to 107,000 for the home opener on Sept. 6 vs. Akron.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re special, Franklin said in his postgame conference. “One of the big reasons we’re special is because of the support that we get from the community. I was very impressed. Running in that stadium was an unbelievable emotional experience for me.”
There is an awakening on the horizon not seen before in college football.