The Long Road for Penn State to get Back to the Top

By jstarr99
Nov. 23, 2016

This Saturday the Penn State football team will take the field against Michigan State looking to take one step closer to achieving something they have not done since 2008. If Ohio State takes care of Michigan earlier in the day, than all Penn State will have to do is win and they will be the Big Ten East Champions, thus earning a spot in the following weeks Big Ten Championship Game. This is something that did not seem possible at the beginning of the season, let alone two weeks ago prior to Michigan`s loss to Iowa.

This team is led by sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, who may just be the best offensive player in the Big Ten. And also a possible Heisman front runner for next season. Barkley is joined by quarterback Trace Mcsorley and top wide receiver Chris Godwin. These are just a few of the many faces that plays under Coach James Franklin, who in his three years have taken Penn State to a top team in the country. All of this success is truly remarkable looking at what the state of this program was just a few years ago, considering the mess that James Franklin inherited three seasons ago. What he has done to get this program back to a top level just three years after regaining bowl eligibility is nothing short of incredible. But, to understand how low this program was and just how much it has come back, we must go back to where this all began.

Penn State is thriving right now, but it has been a long road to get here
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

This all takes us back to November 5, 2011, when Sandusky was accused with 40 counts of sexual assault and was arrested. It was this day when all of the terrible things done by Sandusky began to come out and this began the down fall of the Penn State football program. Just days later, after more reports were released that coach Joe Paterno knew about the situation, was fired by the school. As the 2011 football season dwindled down, everything with this case was just beginning to unfold.

As Joe Paterno`s reputation began to take a hit, so did his health. Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer on November 18, 2011, just days after his release from the school. Just a few months later, on January 22, 2012 Joe Paterno died from lung cancer at the age of 85.

Over the next several months the case continued and in June of 2012, the decision was made by a jury that Jerry Sandusky was guilty of sexual assault and would be sentenced to 30-60 years in prison. It was then from there that the NCAA would begin to look deeper into the situation and make a decision on the punishments for Penn State.

In late July of 2012 the NCAA announced that Penn State would be fined $60 million, be banned from bowl games for four year and lose scholarships over the next few years. While the postseason ban would be lifted after two seasons, the sanctions pushed against Penn State for covering up this situation would hurt them for years to come.

Players already in the football program would then be allowed to transfer and not have to sit out a season. While also, incoming recruits had the option to opt out and switch to other schools. While some decided to take up this option, others remained loyal to the program and stuck with them. Two players who stuck with the program were kicker Sam Ficken and Quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Also, in that same class as Ficken was Michael Mauti.

Ficken, who was already in the program when the sanctions were handed down by the NCAA, stuck with the program and was one of the leaders amongst the senior class of 2014. He and other seniors continued to lead this team, throughout the 2012 and 2013 seasons as they were impacted hard by the sanctions that hit them. When the program was awarded bowl eligibility in 2014, it gave that senior class a chance to go out on high note, something they all deserved after everything they were through and still stuck with the program. And after an incredible game against Boston College, the last play rested on the foot of Sam Ficken. Who went on to knock through the game winning PAT, and watching Sam Ficken run down the field in celebration was just incredible after everything him and that entire senior class went through. In that senior class was also Michael Mauti, Mauti stuck with this program and kept the band of players together. Without his impact the situation could have gotten worse on the inside. But, Michael Mauti helped to keep the players together amidst the sanctions being handed down.

Christian Hackenberg is off in the NFL, but what will forever be thanked for what he brought to his program
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Christian Hackenberg committed to Penn State right around the same time of the events in the Jerry Sandusky case were unfolding. Hackenberg had the opportunity to pull his commitment and go elsewhere, but the kid from Virginia stuck to his word and played three seasons at Penn State. And whatever your opinion is of Christian Hackenberg, he played a vital role in helping this program recover. There were so many instances he was involved in that helped move this program forward from the sanctions. As a freshman, he guided Penn State to a thrilling four overtime win over Michigan at home. And in his final two years, Hackenberg guided Penn State to their first bowl games since the 2011 season.

Much of Hackenberg`s time at Penn State was hampered by a struggling supporting cast, especially his offensive line. Due to the lack of scholarships from the sanctions, Penn State could not recruit the high level players that they were us to. While Hackenberg had his struggles over his two years at Penn State he can never be repaid for what he did to help bring this program out of the extremely dark shadow they were in, along with Coach James Franklin.

James Franklin was on the hot seat not to long ago, but his job looks to be safe now
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

James Franklin took over at Penn State in 2014 after Bill O`Brien departed for the NFL`s Houston Texans. Franklin has had his critics but he was able to get the most out of a team that did not have top talent and guided Penn State back to postseason play after being awarded bowl eligibility in September of 2014. Now in his third year James Franklin and his Penn State team are reaching new levels that never could have seemed possible this soon. But, with a new offensive coordinator in Joe Morehead and being able to bring in top recruits five years after the sanctions were handed down, he is guiding Penn State back into the national spotlight.

This team led by Saquon Barkley, Trace Mcsorley, and Chris Godwin. While anchored on defense by Seniors Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda was not always looked at so favorably, even as early as this season. After a loss to Pittsburgh in September, James Franklin was facing much heat from Penn State`s fans. Never having a signature win in his third year, it was time for something to change.

And it did on a Saturday night in October. On this night Ohio State came into Happy Valley for this year`s white out game. Would this finally be the signature win that James Franklin`s program needed so desperately? And on one fourth down in the fourth quarter with Penn State down 21-17, Ohio State lined up to kick a long field goal. And then came the biggest play in the recent history of Penn State football. A blocked kick was returned for a go ahead touchdown to lead Penn State to a 24-21 upset victory over Ohio State. One play, and one win that would bring this program to new heights.

Now as we enter the final week of the college football regular season, Penn State is ranked seventh in the College Football Playoff rankings. Something that never seemed possible just a couple months ago. A coach who was once the hot seat just a little bit ago, is now being looked at as the coach who helped to bring Penn State out of a very dark place. And this Saturday with a win over Michigan State, paired with an Ohio State win over Michigan, and Penn State will win the Big Ten East division. Which is one of the most stacked divisions, in one of the best conferences in all of college football. If this happens, then Penn State will be one win away from a possible Big Ten Championship, their first since 2008.

Penn State is inching closer to its first Big Ten Title since 2008
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

It is truly incredible how much this program has grown in a very short amount of time. Being brought back out of the dark light that is was in not very long ago. A program now one the rise, and can possibly be one the best in the country if it is to win the Big Ten.

While the scars will always remain from the terrible events that happened at Penn State, and the victims will always be in our thoughts. The healing process for this program is well on it`s way and the glory days of Penn State football are not that far away.

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