No. 13 Penn State leans on seniors in successful run
By TRAVIS JOHNSON
Nov. 17, 2017
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — James Franklin has been asked a lot this week about his first senior class, which helped Penn State win 17 of its last 20 games.
The No. 13 Nittany Lions will celebrate the seniors at home on Saturday against Nebraska. Coach Franklin reminds people he didn't singlehandedly assemble this group. It includes the program's all-time leading receiver and tight end, two hard-hitting defenders and a former walk-on-turned-starter destined for medical school.
"There's still a combination of guys that were committed when I got the job," Franklin said. "And guys that were redshirt guys that had been here a year before I got here. I think that's one of the things that we were able to do in the last two years is build that relationship and rapport with those guys."
It's translated into another shot at a New Year's Six bowl game if Penn State (8-2, 5-2, No. 10 CFP) can take care of the struggling Cornhuskers (4-6, 3-4).
Nebraska has lost four of its last five as its defense has allowed 412 yards and 32 points per game. Although the Cornhuskers could be without starting quarterback Tanner Lee, Penn State has had its own problems in a 1-2 stretch.
The Nittany Lions haven't been able to get Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley going on the ground. Barkley hasn't surpassed 63 yards in any of the last three games.
Meanwhile, quarterback Trace McSorley is rewriting the team record books.
He's thrown a touchdown pass in 25 straight games and has gotten help from wideout DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki. They can both add to their record catch numbers on Saturday.
Hamilton was one of those redshirted players when Franklin arrived. Gesicki came in with the coach. Like Hamilton, linebacker Brandon Smith was already here, too.
Smith quickly made a name for himself on the scout teams, "embarrassing" starters in practice as Franklin recalls. Smith will make his second straight start because outside linebacker Manny Bowen is suspended for a violation of team rules.
Smith will join linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen in their final games at home. Both Allen and Cabinda help give Penn State's defense an edge as four-year starters.
"Everybody bought into coach Franklin's method and what he wanted to do with Penn State," Allen said. "And as time went along, guys just started to believe in his system and started clicking."
LEE STILL QUESTIONABLE
Nebraska coach Mike Riley said Thursday that quarterback Lee, who was in concussion protocol all week, could be cleared if he takes part in the walk through on Friday.
"How we do that, we have not yet decided what that means about playing time," Riley said.
Redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien would make his first career start if Lee isn't cleared.
Even if Lee can't play, the Cornhuskers have two key cogs available on offense. Wide receivers JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr. have helped Nebraska average 322 yards through the air in the last three games. They need 66 and 73 yards, respectively, to give Nebraska its first pair of 800-yard receivers in a season.
IS THIS GOODBYE?
Barkley will have another year of eligibility remaining, but he'll also have NFL general managers plenty eager to draft him in the spring.
Barkley knows he'll have a decision. This summer, he said he'd make it with his family and coaches after the season. He wasn't available to the media this week.
If Barkley doesn't think about this as possibly his last game at Beaver Stadium, Penn State fans will. Barkley has scored 11 of his 16 touchdowns at home this season.
Both teams have prepared to play in wet conditions at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. Nearly a quarter inch of rain was forecasted to fall on Happy Valley, with rain starting in the morning into the afternoon.