The game in the desert means different things to different people wearing blue and white.
For Penn Staters of a certain age, it’s a return to the site of some of the program’s greatest triumphs. Penn State is 6-0 in Fiesta Bowls. It won its most recent national championship in the 1987 game after denying No. 1 Miami on Pete Giftopoulos’ goal-line interception. The Lions’ win in the 1982 Fiesta Bowl set up a national title run the following season. There were three come-from-behind wins and memorable performances from Penn State greats such as Curt Warner (two-time Fiesta Bowl MVP), Shane Conlan and Curtis Enis. Penn State has visited no bowl more often than this one.
For the current players on Penn State (10-2), it’s a chance to end a season four points shy of perfection with a major bowl victory. They know about the program’s history in the Fiesta Bowl but are focused on making their own.
For Penn State coach James Franklin, it’s a continuation of the balancing act he has done throughout nearly four seasons on the job. Franklin must recognize past PSU success, while making sure everything about the program, including expectations, applies to the current climate.
“I get the history,” he told ESPN.com recently, “but those six wins that we have in the Fiesta Bowl, none of those points carry over.”
That’s true, but Penn State fans should be feeling more than nostalgia when the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions take the field Saturday to face No. 11 Washington in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (4 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App). Their team is 21-5 over the past two seasons. Since a 49-10 loss at Michigan in September 2016, Penn State has 19 wins, a Big Ten title and three losses by a combined seven points. A win over Washington would ensure back-to-back AP Top 10 finishes for the first time since NCAA sanctions were imposed on Penn State in July 2012. All six of Penn State’s previous Fiesta Bowl champion teams finished in the AP Top 10.
Penn State football will never be the same after the events of 2011 and 2012, during the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but the program could be entering a new normal of 10-win seasons, strong recruiting classes and playoff contention.
“We’ve been a part of these national conversations for two years,” Franklin said. “We’re in a good place right now, we really are, but what I don’t want is for people to take a deep breath and feel like we’re back. We’re not where we need to be yet, but we are heading in that direction.”
How close is Penn State? Franklin wants to see incremental improvement in every element of the program, from recruiting to facilities to branding to how players eat and sleep.
“Everything matters,” he said.
One area not lacking is fan investment. Penn State’s average attendance increased by 6.4 percent this season, which included the largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history (110,823, for the Oct. 21 Michigan game).
Franklin knows there was a “wait-and-see” portion of the fan base when he arrived. He had to deliver results that resonated, which started last season with an overtime win over Ohio State; and it continued this year, as Penn State posted undefeated home records in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1985 and 1986, when it went 23-1 overall. While Penn State’s Big Ten title came well ahead of schedule, according to the post-sanctions forecasts, Franklin wonders whether the surge would have started in 2014 if the team had outlasted Ohio State (the eventual national champion) at Beaver Stadium in two overtimes.
“You can’t do it unless everybody’s on board,” Franklin said. “One of our biggest challenges in getting here is, how do you embrace the history and the traditions but still move the program to make it maybe a little more current or maybe a little more sexy? How do you attract the kid in ninth grade to want to come to school here? How do you attract the 22-year-old fan who wants to buy season tickets and also keep the 65-year-old fan who’s been a season-ticket holder for 45 years to feel like this is still the Penn State he identifies with and recognizes?
“It’s all of that.”
The challenge for Franklin and athletic director Sandy Barbour, both outsiders to Happy Valley, is modernizing a program with championship standards — and a program that had been rocked by scandal — but a reluctance to change. Barbour has tried to emphasize the why — why facility upgrades are needed, why coaching salaries and resources must increase to keep pace — and being transparent about “a relatively modest pace of change,” she said.
Barbour also is candid about the program’s position 5½ years after the NCAA penalties.
“After two double-digit win seasons, particularly our fans want to put the probation and the scholarship limitations and all of that completely in the rear-view mirror,” she said. “But I would say depth is certainly something that we’re not there yet. You see it probably in our offensive and defensive lines mostly, and that’s just a matter of time. Nobody was going to wave a magic wand and that was going to disappear.”
Recruiting gains should soon fill the lingering personnel gaps. ESPN ranks Penn State’s 2018 class fourth nationally, and four of the school’s top seven recruits are linemen, headlined by five-star defender Micah Parsons. Although rankings will change with the second wave of signings, Penn State hasn’t signed an ESPN top-10 class since 2006.
While Franklin’s predecessor, Bill O’Brien, maximized the players he inherited amid historic sanctions, Franklin and his staff have enhanced Penn State’s regional presence while picking off a few recruits from the Southeast, such as 2018 cornerback signee Jordan Miner. After consecutive 7-6 seasons devoid of signature wins, Penn State doesn’t struggle to match up with top-shelf programs, including Washington.
“We were determined to build a winning environment around here,” fifth-year senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Seeing how it’s transformed, the whole the chemistry with the Penn State community, it’s become a way, way more fun place to be. I think I’m leaving the program at one of the highest possible places, compared to a couple years ago.
“Anyone that’s on the outside looking in is really jealous of what we have here.”
Saturday’s game is significant for a Penn State team with only one win over a currently ranked opponent. But no matter how PSU’s seventh Fiesta Bowl appearance goes, there will be an element of regret for the 2017 Lions. They opened the season at No. 6 and rose to No. 2 before a 39-38 loss at Ohio State. They lost by a field goal the following week in a weather-delayed game at Michigan State, essentially falling out of the Big Ten East division chase.
Despite outscoring opponents 499-186, the nation’s second-highest average victory margin behind Alabama, Penn State wasn’t in the College Football Playoff discussion on Selection Day.
“It tells us a little bit about where we are,” Barbour said. “A double-digit win season, four points away from having those two losses go a different direction, and there’s a little bit of disappointment, a little bit of a feel that we didn’t quite get there. That’s what you want. You want a program that continues to be hungry and continues to strive for more.”
It will feel like old times for some Penn State fans today in Glendale, Arizona. They will recall Reggie Givens’ takeaways against Tennessee, Todd Blackledge’s 52-yard touchdown strike to Gregg Garrity against USC and, of course, Vinny Testaverde’s pass sailing into Giftopoulos’ hands nearly 31 years ago.
Yet this is a new era for Penn State, built differently for a different time, trying to take the next step and recapture national glory.
“It’s not these grand moments that happen, like these ‘aha’ moments when it all clicks,” Franklin said. “Do I think we’re close? Yeah. If we just keep pecking away at it and stay positive and keep everybody motivated and working toward a common goal, then good things can happen.”