Penn State Football: Nittany Lions usher in new era at spring game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa — James Franklin wasn’t afraid to challenge Penn State fans during his introductory press conference.

But he hedged his bet, and  knew what the response would be.

Three months after challenging Nittany Lion nation to pack Beaver Stadium to capacity for the 2014 season, one of the largest fan bases in the country packed Penn State’s annual spring game to the tune of 72,000 strong.

Apparently waiting until September when Akron comes to town wasn’t quite enough. The final attendance figure north of 70K will no doubt be among the top numbers for programs across the country once all spring games are concluded.

What was there to see for those fans who made the trip to Happy Valley on Saturday? Well plenty.

For one, there is the new coach, James Franklin, who has promised Keystone state dominance on the recruiting trail as well as on the football field. The 42-year-old coach has taken the torch from Bill O’Brien running (he’d say sprinting). He’s already made waves doing more with less at Vanderbilt and appears headed to even greater heights with the amenities that Penn State can provide.

If one of the hottest young coaches taking over the program doesn’t move the needle, there’s always the star quarterback. Enter Christian Hackenberg, the true sophomore who spent last season as the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year while learning on the job.

Hackenberg led the Blue team, which was comprised of the starters on both sides of the ball while the White team was made up more of No. 2’s. The Blue team won 37-0, rather expectedly. The crowd saw little of the star quarterback, who played just a handful of series for the Blue team.

On the field the starters did what was expected and blew out the backups. The offensive line, already thin at best, lost a pair during the first half and struggled against a deep, talented group on the defensive line. The offensive line also pulled double duty by playing on both teams.

But more so the day was about actually ushering in a new era of Penn State football. It’s about moving on from the bridge from Joe Paterno and his great legacy to Bill O’Brien’s miraculous work in navigation NCAA sanctions the past two seasons. It’s a fresh start with a man leading the charge that seems comfortable with staying in one place for a long time.

It’s really about the self-proclaimed “Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart.” It’s about James Franklin. The buzz surrounding the Penn State program since Franklin took over on January 11th has been constant. Recruits around the country have taken notice of Franklin’s presence and responding with commitments galore. Heck, Franklin even earned a commitment before he even stepped inside Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

He’s that good. And with a trickling amount of scholarships coming back to the program in the next couple years, in addition to being halfway through the postseason ban, he’s only going to get better.

Well after the Blue/White game ended on Saturday Franklin could be seen greeting eager fans in the tunnel, giving high fives and thanking them for coming.

The crowd was the biggest for the Blue/White game since 2009, when the Nittany Lions were coming off of a Rose Bowl berth just months earlier. That didn’t go unnoticed by the new czar of Penn State football, though.

“Great crowd, unbelievable support from the community,” said Franklin following the game. “I’m not surprised.”

The Penn State Nittany Lions open the 2014 season in Ireland, where they face the UCF Knights on August 30th at 8:30 am.