When coach James Franklin stood in front of a cheering throng of fans last weekend at Beaver Stadium after Penn State's 45-12 rout of Michigan State, he talked about how his team had overachieved to win a share of the Big Ten East crown and a spot in the conference championship game.
The Nittany Lions certainly raised their level of achievement from September, when their season stood at a crossroads after a 39-point pounding at Michigan left them at 2-2 and wondering if victories from that point would be hard to come by.
The Lions (10-2) haven't lost since that Sept. 24 trip and will take an eight-game winning streak into Saturday night's matchup against West winner Wisconsin (10-2) for the Big Ten championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"I think all good teams across the country overachieve," Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly teleconference. "That's what you're trying to do. You're trying to maximize the opportunities you get, the talent you have. You do that with great chemistry, relationships, trust and love for one another. You prepare like crazy so when opportunities come, you can take advantage of them. You're striving to be greater than the sum of your parts."
Franklin said it's also a matter of learning from past mistakes and growing from them, but not doubting decisions that had been made.
"I don't second-guess anything," he said. "I don't look back and say, 'I wish I did this, could have done that.' I think all those experiences the last three years, including this year, have led us to where we are now. We wouldn't be the same type of team without the highs and the lows. I wouldn't be the same person, the players wouldn't have the same experiences. You learn from all those things."
Linebacker Jason Cabinda said the Nittany Lions didn't overachieve as much as they pointed toward a goal that they had been discussing since the last offseason began and were determined to fulfill it.
"This is really a vision we had from the get-go," he said. "Through all offseason, we've been talking about winning a championship here. This is always a goal and always a vision for what we planned to do. There were so many guys, so many young guys, looking for ways to improve. I think you've seen it this season. Guys have really improved and gotten better and really have grown over the season."
Cabinda, who suffered an injury to his left wrist or hand in the season opener, returned in mid-October for the Ohio State game and has solidified the defense since then.
The maturity of a young defensive line also has contributed. Franklin pointed out the Lions' rushing defense has gone five straight games holding opponents to an average of 2.7 yards or fewer per attempt, including 2.6 yards against Michigan State. He liked the way the unit withstood several injuries at the linebacker position earlier this season, and credited the players and first-year defensive coordinator Brent Pry.
"They never blinked. They never panicked. They never pointed the finger," Franklin said. "They never made excuses. They just kept training guys, getting guys ready to play. Our players saw that in our coaches, in Coach Pry, the confidence that he had, his leadership, his command, his demand for guys to play up to our standards. It's remarkable."