For a few minutes each Wednesday during the football season, Penn State head coach James Franklin opens the gates of the Lasch football complex to reporters and photographers.
Sandwiched in the middle of a set of weekly media availabilities that begins Tuesday with a press conference at Beaver Stadium, and ends each Thursday evening when the coach takes fan questions for his radio show, the Wednesday session provides a glimpse of a program at work.
And though the window is small on Wednesdays, Penn State’s first- and second-team offense can be seen working through two-minute drill situations.
They’re often quite recognizable, too.
With a whistle in-hand, Franklin belts out a time and place from which the Nittany Lions are intimately familiar. The on-field clock lights up, down markers are set, the ball is spotted at a specific place on the field and the offense goes to work.
Following the Nittany Lions’ season-opening win against Akron, the situation set-up on Wednesday involved a first-and-10 for Penn State’s offense at its own 10-yard line, with 2 minutes, 25 seconds left to play at the end of the first half, trailing 28-7.
Sound familiar? It should.
Faced with just such a circumstance against Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten Championship game, the Nittany Lions were charged with finding a way into their opponent’s end zone.
Coordinator Joe Moorhead and the offensive staff get in on the act, running through the signals and play calls needed to find success. Defensive architect Brent Pry and his staff have the same pressures, a tangible penalty at stake for the loser of the highly competitive, do-or-die scenarios playing out as the sun sets in Happy Valley. The outcome hanging in the balance, the results matter to these Nittany Lions, reflected by the outbursts of taunting and trash talk that accompany crucial plays on both sides of the ball.
Late Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium, the Nittany Lions found themselves in just such a situation.
Reeling from a blocked field goal and late Hawkeye drive capped by Akrum Wadley’s 35-yard touchdown carry, Penn State needed a touchdown in a hurry. To Penn State senior tight end Mike Gesicki, though, the obstacle that might otherwise seem daunting simply was not.
They’d been there before, he thought, as recently as Wednesday afternoon back on campus.
“After they got the ball past midfield and they were in a position to kick a game-winning field goal, that was the best scenario; them scoring that fast and giving us a minute and 40 seconds to be able to do what we ultimately did,” said Gesicki. “We prepare every Wednesday for that situation in two-minute drill against our defense and we were able to use our preparation to ultimately come out successful tonight.”
The Lions had statistically dominated the host Hawkeyes in every facet of the game, gobbling up yards, first downs and time of possession, stuffing Iowa’s running game at the point of attack while disrupting the passing game at every opportunity, and again owning the field position battle through an expert kicking game. Still, to the Lions’ disbelief, a raucous stripe-out crowd was buoyed by Penn State’s inability to cash in offensively, three big-play defensive breakdowns, and a 4-point lead.
Beginning the possession at the 20-yard line with a 12-yard completion from quarterback Trace McSorley to redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson, the Nittany Lions appeared off to a good start. But back-to-back incompletions, followed by an 8-yard pitch-and-catch to running back Saquon Barkley set up a first crossroads.
The Kinnick crowd roaring, the Lions’ fourth-and-2 offering was a quick slant to Saeed Blacknall to pick up a first down, quieting their surroundings. McSorley’s next snap, a scramble into open space for a 12-yard pickup into Iowa territory, recalled shades of a critical run to top Minnesota last October. Suddenly, back-to-back completions to Johnson and Barkley for a combined 32 yards left the NIttany Lions with a first-and-goal opportunity at the Hawkeye 10 with ample time remaining.
Four shots at a win, the Nittany Lions would need to find an end zone that had proven difficult to breach through the game’s prior 59 minutes.
For a group of players with a considerable amount of returning experience, though, the experiences that led Penn State to a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl berth last year bubbled to the surface.
“Let’s get in the end zone. It was that simple,” said Barkley. “We work on that every week. We go from old situations we had in the past. Last year Rose Bowl, Wisconsin, all those two minute situations we’ve been in before.”
A stretch pass on first down picked up a couple of yards, but incompletions on two successive plays left the Nittany Lions with one final opportunity to run a play. Fourth-and-goal from the 7-yard line with just 4 seconds remaining, the Lions leaned on the experiences that have gotten them thus far to buckle down when it mattered most.
“We’ve been in this situation multiple times last year and had a lot of guys coming back. We have that dog in us. We have that never quit mentality and the game is never out of reach,” said Barkley. “We’re going to find a way to get a win, whether it’s the run game, pass game, comes down to the last minute or four-seconds, you have to find a way to get into the end zone.”
Hurrying backward out of the shotgun snap, McSorley let Johnson execute the feint drawn up on the sidelines during the timeout. Flinging the ball high enough to avoid the hands of Iowa defensive linemen that had batted down six of his prior attempts, McSorley connected with Johnson in the back of the end zone to silence the crowd and cement a 21-19 win for the Nittany Lions.
Just like they’d practiced.
“Last year's experiences definitely helped us a lot because we've been in these types of situation before. And in practice, we do this all the time,” said senior safety Marcus Allen. “We work two minute defense and offense. We work four minute offense and defense. We work situational football where the offense gives up a turnover and we gotta run out on the field. We do that in practice, so it's nothing new to us.”
A firm believer in the value of hard work, not only on the practice field but also in the weight room in the offseason, through spring sessions, winter workouts and preseason camp, Barkley credited the team’s effort from long before as paying dividends in the young season’s most crucial moments.
“The reason why those wins like that are so fun is you find a way to grind out a win with your teammates. It sounds so corny but you literally can take it back to winter workouts, summer workouts, spring ball,” he said. “It’s a moment that happens before in the past that you may not recognize right now that helps us in moments like today. One more extra rep, one more extra hill, staying for extra seven-on-sevens, going against the defense in camp. Something happened in the past that reflected on now.”
Succeeding when it mattered most, it’s an experience the Nittany Lions can now add to their mental collection, and to Franklin’s.
Certain to face other adverse scenarios this year, with maybe even more at stake as the season progresses, the Lions will likely rely on the lessons learned Saturday night. And, if Franklin’s habits are any indication of future teaching opportunities, they’re bound to see it again soon.
Maybe even as early as Wednesday.