Column: Senior class brought Penn State football back



Penn State will close out its 2017 home season today against Nebraska.

The Nittany Lions are 8-2 overall (5-2 in the Big Ten) and are expected to enter the bowl season riding another two lopsided victories.

Penn State is a four-touchdown favorite against a Cornhusker program that limps in as a shadow of its former self — a long way from the days of Tom Osborne, Turner Gill, Mike Rozier and Co. — and the Lions will also be spotting 20-plus points in the regular-season finale next week at Maryland.

It’s been an interesting season on multiple fronts, one that so far has produced routs of Pittsburgh and Michigan, one of the most clutch last-second victories (at Iowa) in school history, and gut-wrenching close losses in Columbus and, following an unprecedented weather delay, at Michigan State.

Most predicted in the 10-2 range for the Lions, and that’s exactly where they are.

But it’s also been a season that has raised some questions about a Nittany Lion offense that entered the season with almost no questions.

Presuming wins over Nebraska and the Terps, to what degree of success this season is ultimately judged may hinge on Penn State’s performance in its bowl destination as that will provide another big-name opponent and opportunity to cap 2017 at either 11-2 or 10-3.

As for today, though, no such hair-splitting will be necessary in the evaluation of a senior class that will make its curtain call at Beaver Stadium after the traditional pre-game Senior Day introductions.

Simply put: This senior class brought Penn State football back.

“They’ve seen it all here in their Penn State career and have done wonderful things on the football field,” James Franklin said.

Franklin’s not quite right in his first comment.

A few of last year’s fifth-year seniors saw it all. They were the ones who were recruited at the end of the Paterno era, who stayed through the sanctions and endured the coaching transition from Bill O’Brien to Franklin.

It’s undisputable, though, what this group of seniors accomplished on the field, delivering the Lions’ first outright Big Ten championship since 1994 and their first-ever victory in the conference title game.

“Thinking back over my last four years, I could have never imagined that the team that I was playing on and the guys that I was playing with could have ever made the memories that we’ve made here,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “It’s been unbelievable.”

Over the last 20 games, the Lions have lost three games by a total of seven points and put the program squarely in the national conversation.

“There’s been some guys on these teams that played for a few coaches,” Gesicki said. “So, finally over the past two years, we’ve had complete buy-in by all 125 players on the team. We all have the utmost respect for Coach Franklin and trust him, the scheme and what he preaches to us day in and day out.

“I think that’s the most growth that I’ve seen from our team. There’s a lot of continuity from the brotherhood and the family. So, in my four years we’ve grown close together and been able to get Penn State back on its feet and rolling again.”

Among those set to be recognized today include:

– Gesicki, whose 114 catches are the most ever for a Penn State tight end and whose performance has put him in a class previously limited to Ted Kwalick and Kyle Brady;

– DaeSean Hamilton, who will leave as the Nits’ all-time leading receiver with his total at 200;

– Safety Marcus Allen, currently sixth in career tackles with 308 and the highest non-linebacker on the list, and Grant Haley, whose 60-yard return of Allen’s blocked field goal last year against Ohio State was the signature victory of Franklin’s tenure;

– Jason Cabinda, a three-year starting linebacker and one of the team’s best leaders;

– Placekicker Tyler Davis, who set a school record with 18 consecutive field goals last year;

– Saeed Blacknall, whose one-handed touchdown catch as a freshman in 2014 helped force overtime against Ohio State and who was a standout in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.