In a three-day period in early December, 2016, Penn State got a verbal commitment from an extraordinary high school sophomore quarterback named Justin Fields, and defeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game with a comeback scintillating enough to cause Fox play-by-play man Gus Johnson to bellow, “Penn State has some ballers, man!”
Nine weeks previous, the Nittany Lions had been demolished by Michigan to fall to 2-2. Now, somehow, they were in the discussion for the college football playoff.
Four weeks later, they held a 42-27, second-half lead over USC in the Rose Bowl.
The future, as someone once sang, was wide open. But narratives don’t matter to scoreboards.
The Lions lost the Rose Bowl, 52-49. Soon they lost Fields, to Georgia.
In 2017, Penn State went to Ohio State ranked second in the country, led for 58:12 of a possible 60 minutes, and lost, 39-38. A week later, they took a lead into the fourth quarter of a goofy, rain-soaked game at Michigan State that included a three-and-a-half-hour weather delay. And lost, 27-24.
In 2018, at home vs. Ohio State, they led 26-14 with eight minutes left. And lost, again, by one point.
The following week, also at home, they again led Michigan State into the fourth quarter. The Spartans somehow got 89 offensive snaps despite averaging less than four yards per rush and six yards per pass, hit a big play at the end and won, 21-17.
The program has three 11-win seasons in the last four years, a Big Ten title, four New Year’s Six bowl berths and wins in the Cotton and Fiesta.
And it feels like an opportunity has been barely missed.
Comparisons have been made between the arc of James Franklin at Penn State and that of Dabo Swinney, who now sits atop college football at Clemson.
For Franklin to get to the sport’s top shelf, he must get past Ohio State in the Big Ten East Division, as Swinney had to get past Florida State in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
Florida State changed coaches after the ‘17 season and imploded. Ohio State changed coaches after the ‘18 season and, if anything, got better.
Justin Fields could have been to Franklin and Penn State as Deshaun Watson was to Sweeney and Clemson. Fields is now a Heisman candidate at - this part is almost cruel - Ohio State.
Franklin’s remarkable roll as a recruiter has ebbed, he’s admitted. Part of that may be that the coronavirus has taken away the bucolic campus visits that are his trump card.
“We’ve got to be able to adjust,’’ he said Sept. 17. “We’ve got to be able to make some strategic changes and find a way to get it done, but up to this point, we have not lived up to our normal standards, … and the end of the day, you get the job done or not.’’
The glass-half-empty take is that Penn State surged, but got as far as it could, and the surge is over.
Glass half-full? An eight-game regular season starts Saturday. The Lions could be favored in seven of them. The eighth, against you-know-who, is just 14 days from now, at the Beav, when both sides will still be finding themselves.
Scoreboards don’t care about narratives. It works both ways.