Trace McSorley looked a little shell-shocked when he faced reporters about a half-hour after Penn State was mauled at Michigan in late September. Yet the Nittany Lions quarterback was determined to let fans know that every player would work his hardest to prevent a repeat of what happened.
"It's an embarrassment," he said. "I'm sorry to all our fans, how we came out and played. It wasn't the Penn State that we want to be, it's not the Penn State that we need to be, and the Penn State that we are. That wasn't us out there today. It hurts, but we'll get in the film room tomorrow, start correcting the mistakes, learn from it, move on, and get ready to bounce back next week."
A lot of questions followed that 49-10 loss at Michigan. Was this going to be another 7-6 season, Penn State's record in each of its previous two years under James Franklin? Would the Lions ever defeat a team from the Big Ten elite, something they hadn't done over that time? Was Franklin on the hot seat?
The Nittany Lions recovered in a big way. The demoralizing loss to the Wolverines would be their last defeat of 2016. What followed was nine consecutive victories on a giddy climb up the Big Ten East standings, a run that culminated Saturday night in their 38-31 victory over Wisconsin for the conference championship.
The improvement from that day in Ann Arbor to the trophy presentation inside Lucas Oil Stadium was nothing short of remarkable. Franklin, who received a vote of confidence from athletic director Sandy Barbour in the days after the Michigan loss, has been named national coach of the year by the Sporting News and Big Ten coach of the year by the conference and the Associated Press.
Franklin said the success is not a three-month journey leading to the Rose Bowl, but a three-year trip. The lingering effects of the 2012 NCAA sanctions limited Penn State's scholarships, from 65 in his first season to 75 in 2015 to the NCAA maximum of 85 this year.
"There were the challenges, the lack of scholarships, a lot of turnover in personnel when it came to coaches and things like that," he said. "Then obviously to take it to another level and winning the Big Ten East and then the Big Ten championship, that's special. It shows how special this place is, and it's one of the few programs to handle the adversity that we've had."
For the players, the 2016 turnaround began literally minutes after they left the field at the Big House, to change the way they prepare for games so that something like that doesn't happen again.
"Everyone in the locker room could see that wasn't the performance that we wanted, and that we were a lot better than that," McSorley said in a late November conference call. "We didn't come out with the right mentality playing a team of that caliber. So we started to do the things we needed to do during the week in order to have the success that we wanted to have on Saturday, and not have a performance like that again."
The players would come in on Monday, their day off, to watch film of the next opponent. They would sharpen their focus at Tuesday's first practice for the next game and build on that on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Friday's walk-through would be crisp.
The first test came the next week, an Oct. 1 home contest against Minnesota. It didn't look good. The Lions trailed by 13-3 at the half and even though McSorley electrified the crowd with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Irvin Charles in the third quarter - the longest pass play of the season - Penn State struggled to finish.
The Lions trailed by three before Tyler Davis forced overtime with a 40-yard field goal with two seconds left, and again trailed by three in the extra period when Saquon Barkley ended the game on a 25-yard touchdown run.
That helped, but the pinnacle of the transformation came against No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 22 in front of a Beaver Stadium whiteout. The play of the year - Marcus Allen's block of a Buckeyes field-goal attempt that Grant Haley scooped up and carried 60 yards for the decisive touchdown - not only gave the Lions a signature win but immense confidence.
"We haven't been able to get those wins against those programs, so to see all your hard work be validated through that win was huge," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "Really, the biggest part of that win was the confidence. We really knew we were able to hang in with anybody. So it was awesome, a really special moment for us."
Penn State has been successful for a number of reasons, but two stand out: reduced turnovers and explosive plays. After committing 10 turnovers in their 2-2 start, the Lions have had six during their nine-game winning streak, and a plus-8 turnover margin.
As for explosive plays, McSorley has 46 completions of 20 or more yards during the streak, including five last Saturday, three for touchdowns.
The improvement has been significant. When all-Big Ten running back Barkley looks back on his team's success, he can go back to his postgame comments after Michigan.
"We still have however many games left to prove ourselves," he said. "Our goals are still in line. It's the Big Ten. Anything can happen."
And it did.
Another honor for Barkley
Barkley, the winner of Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, was named a second-team all-American by the Sporting News.
Barkley, a sophomore from Coplay, Pa., rushed for 1,302 yards this season. He is first in the Big Ten with 19 total touchdowns.