UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s business as usual for Penn State this week, and what that means is simple: It’s Super Bowl II of the 2018 season.
Each week is a championship game for head coach James Franklin and his Nittany Lions whether that’s Akron, Appalachian State or even this week’s opponent, Pitt.
“This is the biggest game in the world. This is the Super Bowl for us,” Franklin said at his weekly press conference inside Beaver Stadium on Tuesday. “It is the most important game on our schedule. Why? Because it’s the game we’re playing this week.”
It’s been a mantra of Franklin’s arriving in Happy Valley five years ago, and for the last two seasons, it has worked rather well. Penn State has lost a total of five games the past two years, with four of those five losses being by three points or less.
And it’s not only Franklin ranting and raving about every week being the biggest game in the universe or that week’s Super Bowl, it’s the players too. Take it from two Pittsburgh-area guys in running back Miles Sanders and safety Lamont Wade, both of whom were recruited by Pitt and grew up only a short drive away from Heinz Field.
You’d think those guys would be amped up and ready to go for a game in their hometown at a facility where they both played in high school as part of the WPIAL Championships, but, much like their head coach, they’re saying all the right things as far as the game not being bigger than it is.
“We just like to treat every game, our goal is to win every game each week, so every game is important,” Sanders said. “We don’t see it as, we’re playing Pitt this week, or we’re playing App State, like last week. We’re just focused on getting better each week and becoming 1-0 each week.”
That might be, but the fans see it so much differently, that has to mean at least something to the players, right?
“We really don’t see it how other people see it. It’s hard for us to see it how other people see it. We see it as week-by-week,” Wade said. “We take the same preparation, the same mentality, the same focus as if this game was a championship game, because every game is a championship game. That’s just how we see it. That’s just how it is for us.”
For those counting at home, the words championship game were said four times during the players’ availability, and Franklin mentioned it being the Super Bowl four times himself. So to say everybody has bought in would be an understatement.
Of course, things change once the buses enter the stadium and the pads are tightened and strapped up. And Penn State is well aware of the hostile environment that was home to one of their five losses the last two seasons.
“We know we’re going into a hornet’s nest,” Sanders said. “It’s going to be a real hostile environment: night game, ABC network, primetime.”
Of course neither of these two programs are quite the same as they were in 2016, but there are a lot of similarities between the 2018 edition of Penn State and 2016 edition. In 2016, there was the adjustment of the new coordinators, as well as a rather young team, much like what’s going on in 2018, but the Nittany Lions will be much more prepared for the Panthers this time around than they were in 2016.
“When we made the change and went to the spread-style offense, you’ve gotta be really disciplined now that your defense gets enough work during spring ball, during training camp and throughout the entire year, that you’re getting enough 12-personnel and 21-personnel work. Because if you think you’re going to be able to go from only seeing spread and prepare for a pro-style offense that’s going to line up and pound you in a week’s period of time. That’s challenging,” Franklin said.
After escaping an upset this past weekend against Appalachian State, this game will be the first road test of the season for Penn State as they look to continue momentum in the rivalry after their 33-14 win over Pitt at Beaver Stadium last season. And for that to happen, the Nittany Lions are going to have to come ready to play.
“Got so much respect for the University of Pittsburgh and their program and Coach Narduzzi and what he’s been able to do throughout his career,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be a tough place to play. I think we’ll get really good support. I think our fans will show up strong as well. But it’s a tough place to play, there’s no doubt about it. So we have to be ready for that.”
Make no bones about it, this is a rivalry game to the greatest degree. However, the way the two teams handle it couldn’t be more different. And that preparation could end up being the difference maker when these two teams square off Saturday night.
OTHER PENN STATE NEWS AND NOTES
• Penn State fell to No. 13 in the AP Top 25 poll after being No. 10 prior to their overtime win over Appalachian State. The Nittany Lions now sit at No. 10 in the Amway Coaches Poll, dropping from No. 9 last week.