With latest victory, debates of “Is Penn State back?” are starting to happen

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) scores on a 81-yard run against Purdue during the second half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016. Penn State defeated Purdue 62-24. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) scores on a 81-yard run against Purdue during the second half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016. Penn State defeated Purdue 62-24. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A caste system, featuring the halves and the have nots, has generally existed in college football for decades.

Fast forward to the year 2050, and it’s a pretty safe bet Alabama will still be pretty good.

And Purdue probably won’t be.

There may be some trends at either place that say otherwise, even for stretches of several years, but the traditional pattern was on display Saturday afternoon as Penn State rolled to a 62-24 victory before at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Unless the Boilermakers have a Drew Brees, or one of the great quarterbacks they have featured occasionally through their not-so-descript history, they usually take their place among the have nots.

Evidenced by the 33,157 on hand Saturday.

Penn State, on the other hand, was once a card-carrying member of the halves — before the dreaded NCAA sanctions dealt the Lions an unfair hand and forced them into the Big Ten’s second tier of have nots.

That miserable trip included losses to Ohio U. and Virginia, Indiana and Illinois, Maryland and Temple and a close call with Rutgers.

Consequently, for the last four-plus years, they were a have in name only — until now.

Through the last month, Penn State is playing like its old, old self and as if all the adversity it has endured is finally — finally — in its rear-view mirror.

The slow start here in the wake of last week’s stirring victory over Ohio State was not unexpected as the Lions tripped over themselves defensively, missed tackles left and right and committed seven first-half penalties in falling behind 14-7 and 17-14.

“We knew we were going to have a battle,” James Franklin said. “They did the same thing to Nebraska (last week) on the road.”

What was also unexpected, however, was the way the Lions came out after halftime and destroyed the Boilermakers.

They forced four second-half turnovers and unleashed their big-play offense that racked up 315 yards and six touchdowns after intermission.

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit,” offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead tweeted moments after the carnage.

The slow start bothered the Lion defenders — “we still have to come out faster,” senior safety Malik Golden said — but they also clearly wore down Purdue with the waves of depth Penn State has recruited.

“We got some young guys stepping up and some older guys leading them,” Golden said. “The older guys are trying to set the foundation.”

Golden committed to Penn State in 2011 after being recruited by Joe Paterno, Tom Bradley and Kermit Buggs. He then recommitted to Bill O’Brien, and he’s now trying to pass along the lessons he learned.

“It started with the older guys — Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Mike Zordich, and it trickled down,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

On the other side of the ball, the Lions are flashing scary potential as every skill position player, led by future Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley, has 2017 and beyond eligibility.

All 515 yards that the Lions racked up Saturday were made by underclassmen.

“I’m not going to say we should have put up 80 (points), but we’ll go in the film room and make corrections,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “This is a good statement for us.”

Saturday’s victory stopped a streak of seven-straight losses in true road games dating back to the 2014 season.

Franklin claims he didn’t address it, saying “it’s important to win each week, whether you’re at home or on the road,” but regardless, it was a hurdle that had to be cleared.

While the slow starts have been notable, they have not overshadowed the strong finishes. Penn State has now outscored its four Big Ten foes by a staggering 102-40 after halftime.

Further, the Lions have scored 30 points in five straight games.

The coaching staff obviously is making solid adjustments, and the Lions’ four-game win streak now includes one in overtime (Minnesota), the monster upset via defense and special teams (Ohio State) and two second-half bludgeonings (Maryland and Purdue).

“We’re a young team, but we’re handling things well,” Franklin said. “We’re maturing every single day. We still can get a lot better. We keep finding different ways to win, and I think that’s what you have to do if you’re going to develop into a good team and a good program.”

His comment on the “program” was telling because Franklin is definitely building something for today and the future.

“We’re going to keep this thing rolling,” Golden said.

Golden and the Nittany Lions are easily believed right now as no one could have envisioned them arriving at November’s doorstep with this much of a head of steam.

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