A proud program, a perennial contender for a major bowl bid, a two-time national champion and a difficult game on anyone’s schedule. That's what Penn State meant to college football for decades.
“When I came here, I wanted to bring Penn State back to where it was,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “In the 80s, 90s and early 2000s Penn State was one of those teams that when you saw Penn State on your college team’s schedule, you knew that was going to be a tough one."
"It was a dominant program throughout those years," he added.
From the start of 2012 to the end of the 2015 regular season, the Lions were 29-21 with a 16-16 record in the Big Ten. They were far from dominant and miles away from a team opposition fans “circled” on their schedule.
But on Saturday evening, the Lions, now the No. 7 team in the country in the College Football Playoff Selection Committee rankings, closed out a 10-win regular season and clinched the Big Ten East division and a berth in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis against No. 6 Wisconsin next week.
“For people to be talking about what Penn State is, I think that is awesome,” McSorley said. “I don’t know if we’ve brought it full circle, brought it all the way back, but for us to be starting that conversation again is huge for us.”
On Friday, past players and some lettermen talked to the team about what it had to play for Saturday and what was on the line for the seniors who would be playing in their final game in Beaver Stadium. Those seniors had stuck with the program when they had the ability to freely transfer without the NCAA penalty of sitting out a season.
Defensive end Evan Schwan talked about what was said on Friday.
“Todd Rucci [who played at Penn State from 1989 to 1992] was a guy that came and talked to us, and just thanked us for everything that we did,” Schwan said. “Specifically pointing out the guys that stayed and just told all the other guys, the youngers guys on the team, ‘You owe it to these guys to play your butts off and give it everything you’ve got.’ I think that happened today.”
Linebacker Brandon Bell added on to what Schwan said about how proud the former players are of the current team for sticking with the Lions, keeping the program together and bringing it back to the point where the country is talking about “what Penn State is.”
“Some alumni came by Friday at practice and kind of spoke about it,” linebacker Brandon Bell said. “The alumni support us so much, they are proud of the success we had.”
Bell, a senior, has been here through the recovery, the lows, the blowout losses, and now, he is a Big Ten East champion.
“Last four or five years, everyone talked about what Penn State was, got to get back to what Penn State was,” Bell said. “Finally kind of talking about what Penn State is.”
As coach James Franklin stood on the stage that was set up on the Beaver Stadium field post-game with the team, athletic director Sandy Barbour and President Eric Barron, he delivered one line that stood out above all others.
“This is just the beginning.”