Promising Penn State closes out spring with Blue-White Game

Promising Penn State closes out spring with Blue-White Game

While Penn State turned a corner in 2016, it does not necessarily follow that the Nittany Lions have found a patch of straightaway.

Not when you consider their division -- the Big Ten East, featuring Michigan and Ohio State, is one of college football's best -- and the schedule that lies ahead this fall.

Not when you consider the potential for injury. (And PSU has already had a big one.)

That said, the Lions have just about everybody back from a team that went 11-3, won a conference championship and played in the Rose Bowl in 2016. They have also sorted out some things in the course of spring practice, which wraps up Saturday with the Blue-White Game, a 3 p.m. kickoff in Beaver Stadium. 

And coach James Franklin can only hope that his players were paying attention when he sounded the alarm about complacency at the beginning of spring drills. 

The Langhorne native, 7-6 in each of his first two seasons on the job, talked then about the Lions' not taking things for granted and approaching their business the same way they did last season -- "that we understand that 2016 was nice, and that it was a great experience, but 2017 is a completely different animal."

Time will tell as to whether that message has taken hold, but quarterback Trace McSorley, excellent in his first year as a starter, has told reporters this spring he is still kicking himself over the late interception that set up USC's game-winning field goal in the Arenaball-ish 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to the Trojans. 

And Mike Gesicki, the senior tight end from Manahawkin, N.J., has played the no-respect card, a popular gambit in just about every locker room in America. Specifically, Gesicki told USA Today that standout running back Saquon Barkley didn't receive the notice he deserved last season due to "a lack of respect Penn State gets as a program."

Never mind that Barkley was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2016, and catching 28 balls for 402 yards and four scores. Never mind that Barkley and McSorley are both in this year's Heisman conversation.

And never mind that the team has routinely been ranked near the top of various way-too-early polls for '17. That’s Gesicki's story, and he's sticking to it.

"There were moments throughout the season, after we knocked off (then-No. 2) Ohio State (on Oct. 22), we still felt that people weren't favoring us," he said during an April 11 conference call with reporters. "You watch all the shows, sitting in the hotel all day before games and see people knocking you on TV. It's stuff we can't control. We can't control other people's opinions about us and, at the end of the day, I don't think it affects us."

Even if it might seem otherwise.

Suffice it to say, at least, that the Lions still understand there is work to do, still understand they have mountains to climb.

They don't figure to show much Saturday; they never do in the spring's final scrimmage. Stars like McSorley, Barkley and Gesicki will play little, if at all. Ditto for Ryan Bates, the redshirt sophomore left tackle from Archbishop Wood; he excelled at guard and tackle last year, and now looms as the anchor of a unit that has quickly gone from a team weakness to a strength.

Saturday will be more about the emerging guys. Guys like Juwan Johnson, the redshirt sophomore wide receiver from Glassboro, N.J., who has been the talk of spring ball. Guys like defensive ends Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney, Philadelphia natives who played at George Washington and Imhotep Charter, respectively.

It will also be about cornerback Lamont Wade, an early enrollee from Western Pennsylvania who has made a quick impression. Safety/special teams captain Nick Scott said last week that Wade is "killing it at corner right now," and believes he will be "one of those guys that really helps contribute his first year here."

He might have to, seeing as John Reid, the junior corner from St. Joe's Prep, suffered a knee injury early in the spring, as first reported by Lions247.com. He could miss a sizable chunk of the season, if not all of it. Franklin, in keeping with his standing policy, has declined to address Reid's injury.

The coach has acknowledged that senior Christian Campbell is playing Reid's old spot. And Franklin also told reporters that the 5-9, 190-pound Wade is "physically developed," possesses "tremendous confidence" and has shown himself to be a quick study.

"You never know if he's going to hit the wall as installation [of the defensive system] builds up," Franklin said. "But we haven't seen that yet. I think he'll put himself in place with a good foundation and go into the summer with confidence and have a chance to legitimately compete."

As for Johnson, he is the heir apparent to Chris Godwin, who opted for the NFL draft after capping a team-leading 59-catch season with a brilliant nine-grab, 187-yard, two-touchdown performance against USC. The 6-4, 218-pound Johnson redshirted in 2015 and made his first two career catches while playing primarily on special teams last year; his biggest play was a blocked punt in a late-season rout of hapless Rutgers.

"When you talk about the most improved players on the team," receivers coach Josh Gattis told the Big Ten Network on March 31, "he's one of those guys that comes to mind. He's one of the guys that's going to make a lot of plays for us this upcoming season and help us win a lot of games."

Johnson expects as much. Atop his Twitter page is this quote: "Sleep on me if you want to. I'll wake you up soon."

It is from Sept. 19, 2016.

In the meantime, he has had to become more consistent, more attentive to detail. And he has had to be patient.

"I've always been a person that's been -- not looked down on, but [looked at as], 'He's going to be good; we've got to find out when,'" he said earlier this week.

Which is why the tweet in question is one he "harped on when [he] was younger."

"This offseason I kind of focused on that," he said. "Eventually it worked out for the best."

Miller and Toney are both in the mix at defensive end, after the Lions lost last year's starters, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. While PSU recorded 40 sacks in 2016, seven came in the opener against Kent State. The Lions had none in their losses to USC, Michigan and Pitt.

Redshirt junior end Torrence Brown, naturally, believes the pass rush will be better -- that, in fact, he and his linemates are "improving every day" while jousting with the Bates-led O-line.

"If we keep competing with those guys to the best of our abilities," he said earlier this week, "it will translate to the games and we'll be a great pass-rushing line this year."

Just another matter to consider, now that PSU has turned a corner. Next stop, parts unknown.

Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

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USA Today Images

Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Flavor Flav had his red cap flipped backward as he pulled out his iPhone on the Madison Square Garden court. Flav held the camera steady and recorded cousin Shep Garner clip the final strands of the championship net and wave it toward the Penn State die-hards.

Flav's T-shirt at the NIT said it all for the Nittany Lions: Believe the hype!

Garner hit the 3-pointer that brought rapper and reality star Flavor Flav to his feet and helped send Penn State on its way to an NIT title in an 82-66 victory over Utah on Thursday night.

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (26-13) also knocked off No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the tournament en route to winning their first NIT title since 2009.

"This means the whole world to me right now ," Flavor Flav said.

They were pretty pumped in Happy Valley, too.

"I think we set the standard," Garner said. "We preach defense and rebounding, but now we have something we can always go to. We won something. We're champions."

Flavor Flav, member of the seminal `80s rap group Public Enemy, sang along to "Fight the Power" as it blasted in the Garden and had the PSU student section chanting "Flav! Flav! Flav!" as the Nittany Lions pulled away for a program-defining championship under coach Pat Chambers.

Lamar Stevens scored 28 points, Josh Reaves had 18 and Tony Carr had 15 points and 14 assists for Penn State.

Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center has a long-standing reputation as one of the dreariest arenas in college basketball. Penn State fans, from rappers to silver-haired alumni, packed the Garden all the way to the last row of the upper deck.

Penn State football coach James Franklin, who led the program to a Pinstripe Bowl victory in 2014, was in the house. Flavor Flav stole the show a few rows behind the PSU bench. Wearing a T-shirt that read "33 Shep Garner," Flavor Flav danced all night in his seat. Flavor Flav popped his T-shirt and raised the roof in the same arena where Public Enemy once tore down the house.

"I think we've proven to teams across the country that Penn State basketball is here to stay," Chambers said.

The clutch moment came in the third quarter when Garner -- who became Penn State's career 3-point leader in the tournament run -- hit a 3 for his first basket of the game and a 49-41 lead that had the fans going wild.

"To see my cousin break records, win trophies, all that, he deserves it," Flavor Flav said. "The whole team deserves it."

Reaves hit a crashing layup on a three-point play that stretched the lead to 11 and Stevens wagged his tongue toward the PSU fans on a jumper that helped blow open the game.

Flavor Flav raised an arm in the air when Garner sank a 3 early in the fourth for a 68-49 edge that all but put this one away.

The final minutes certainly put some flava in your ear -- half the MSG crowd chanted "We Are!" and the other half bellowed "Penn State!"

Yeah, boy!

Sedrick Barefield hit six 3s and scored 22 points for second-seeded Utah (23-12).

"You're always kind of watching the NIT and maybe you think of it as the consolation prize or whatever," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "They have no idea how cool this was for us."

Big picture
Utah: David Collette, Justin Bibbins and Tyler Rawson are among the seniors moving on. ... Bibbins scored 15 points.

Penn State: Stevens reached 1,000 career points was named most outstanding player. ... Chambers, a former assistant coach under Jay Wright at Villanova, took over in 2011 and has struggled to find any kind of regular success. The Nittany Lions have never made the NCAA Tournament under Chambers and they'll have just their second winning record in seven seasons. But Penn State's 26 wins are second-highest in program history. The Nittany Lions won a record 27 games in 2008-09.

Big crowd
The 11,175 fans at MSG were the most for an NIT final since 2005.

"And you say we're a football school," Chambers cracked.

Something different
The NIT was a bit of a mad scientist in the college basketball lab. The game featured four 10-minute quarters. The tournament also implemented the FIBA 3-point line (22 feet, 1.75 inches), NBA-width lane of 16 inches, and a 20-second shot clock following offensive rebounds.

Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

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USA Today Images

Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Nearly a month after Penn State was bounced out of the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions are back at Madison Square Garden with another chance to win a championship.

Tony Carr scored 21 points, Shep Garner added 18 while breaking the school record for career 3-pointers and Penn State routed Mississippi State 75-60 in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals Tuesday night.

"Of course we were a little disappointed not to make the (NCAA) Tournament, but we made another goal," Garner said. "We saw we were in the NIT and our goal was to get to New York and win it. That's what everyone wants to do. We put ourselves in position to do so."

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (25-13) will play No. 2 seed Utah for the title Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

After the score was tied 9-all, Penn State ended the first quarter on a 9-2 run. From there, the Nittany Lions opened the second with a 19-0 spurt capped by Garner's 3 off an assist from Carr to make it 37-11.

With football coach James Franklin cheering from the stands, Penn State went up 42-23 at halftime and led by as many as 27.

Mississippi State (25-12) wasn't able to get within 20 again until there was 7:56 left in the game. Abdul Ado's dunk made it 65-47, but that was the closest the Bulldogs got before the waning moments.

"We were really impatient," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. "Once we started falling behind, we got anxious and we were shooting quick. Quick, bad shots and it just like, snowballed."

Tyson Carter scored 19 points off the bench to lead No. 4 seed Mississippi State. Ado had 13 points and seven rebounds.

Lamar Stevens scored 17 for Penn State, which shot 11 of 20 from 3-point territory. Carr had six assists and five rebounds.

Big picture
Penn State: While the Nittany Lions would have preferred to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, they made the NIT for the first time under seventh-year coach Pat Chambers. Penn State's last trip to the NIT title game was in 2009, when it beat Baylor for the crown. The school's only other appearance in the final was a loss to Minnesota in 1998.

Mississippi State: With just one senior on the roster, the Bulldogs will return most of their team and have something positive to build off as they try to move up the rankings in the rugged SEC next season.

Record producer
With his six 3-pointers, Garner broke Penn State's record for 3s in an NIT along with the school mark of 332 held by Pete Lisicky (1995-98). Garner also had six 3s in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss to Purdue, giving him 12 in his last two games at Madison Square Garden and 334 for his career.

"They say the record is an individual record, but I've had a lot of teammates that had a lot to do with the record," Garner said. "A lot of people that set screens for me to get me open, break passes to them, they put it right on the button for me and I just finish the job. That's a team record. It's a lot of people that had stuff to do with it. I tip my hat to my teammates and my coaches to put me in a position to do something special like that."

Up next
Penn State: Will try to win the second NIT championship in school history when it faces Utah (23-11), which beat Western Kentucky 69-64 in the first semifinal.

Mississippi State: Starts preparing for a promising 2018-19 season.