STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – It was 11:23 p.m. Saturday night – James Franklin, poised to address reporters in the Beaver Stadium media room, knew the time because he checked a cellphone lying before him – and Penn State’s coach said that would allow him exactly 37 minutes to enjoy the 42-13 victory over Michigan (see observations).
After that it was time to move on, time for the second-ranked Nittany Lions to prepare for the next step down a treacherous path. That involves a visit to No. 6 Ohio State next weekend, with another trip, to No. 18 Michigan State, to follow.
Franklin wasn’t about to discuss the Buckeyes within that precious 37-minute window. There will be time enough for that in the days to come.
But what seems apparent is that the Lions have the ability and adaptability to run with the Big Ten’s big dogs – that if they lose next week, it will be because of the Buckeyes’ strengths, not their weaknesses.
On Saturday night PSU was as good as it has been against a quality team in Franklin’s three-plus seasons on the job, outgaining the No. 19 Wolverines, 506-269, and unleashing Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley for three touchdowns apiece.
“Everybody’s been saying we haven’t been playing anybody this year,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Obviously we played somebody today.”
Somebody who came away pretty, pretty impressed.
“They hit us on quite a few plays that we have defensed well this year,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought their execution was really good tonight, right from the beginning.”
As in, the second play from scrimmage. That’s when Barkley lined up in the Wildcat – a formation the Lions hadn’t shown all year – and zipped 69 yards for a touchdown. He then capped their second possession by scoring on an option pitch, something else PSU hadn’t done much this season.
Franklin had said in the days leading up to the game that the Lions had something up their sleeves, that they were waiting to spring some stratagems on the Big Ten heavyweights. The wrinkles, he added Saturday, were things they had worked on during the preseason.
“The fact that we have some recall helps,” he said.
So too did the fact that they had a week off to prepare for the Wolverines.
“We watched, probably, seven different games of Michigan film,” Hamilton said. “It really helped a lot.”
Michigan cut the gap to 14-13, but then the Lions ran away and hid. It was difficult to find fault with any aspect of their performance, though Franklin tried. He thought the defense could have handled sudden change better, seeing as Michigan charged downfield for a touchdown after McSorley threw a first-quarter interception.
Barkley tried, too. On a day when he generated 176 all-purpose yards – 108 of them on the ground – the Heisman hopeful fixated on his second-quarter drop of a McSorley pass, on a wheel route down the left sideline.
“Sometimes I overthink and I just put myself in bad situations,” Barkley said. “I should have just caught it first. I was thinking score. I was thinking about catching the ball. I felt the safety. I felt his presence. I wanted to try to make him miss and find a way to get into the end zone.”
He atoned with a 42-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter, though he juggled that one, too.
“I was able to run through it,” he said. “It humbles you again, makes you realize you’ve got to put a little more work in. You’ve got to find a way to make those plays.”
Especially now that the celebration, brief as it was, is over. It’s time to take another step down a treacherous path, time to find out where it might lead.