STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The scoreboard read 13-3, Minnesota, as the Nittany Lions trudged back to the Beaver Stadium locker room at halftime on a dreary October Saturday.
Rain fell on the turf. A "fire Franklin" chant rang out, briefly, from a disgruntled student section, which had watched from afar the week before as the Lions got routed in Ann Arbor by No. 4 Michigan.
In that moment, it seemed Penn State had a long way to go before it could compete with the nation's top teams.
Combine the Michigan defeat with an earlier loss to intrastate rival Pittsburgh and there wasn't much hope in Happy Valley. That is, until some of Penn State's most talented young athletes started making plays and turning around the Nittany Lions' season.
In the second half of the Minnesota game, there was redshirt freshman Irvin Charles' catching an 80-yard touchdown pass from redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley. There was McSorley's score on a 6-yard keeper. And, in overtime, there was sophomore phenom Saquon Barkley's bursting through the line for a game-winning 25-yard TD.
Since that Minnesota comeback, the Nittany Lions have not lost a game. After starting the season 2-2, they upset second-ranked Ohio State, won the Big Ten East, and came back from 21 points down to beat No. 6 Wisconsin in the conference championship game on Dec. 3. While they just missed the college football playoff, they are set to take on Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
"That is the story of the year in college football," Kirk Herbstreit said on ESPN College GameDay after the Ohio State upset, "for the job that James Franklin has done and this Penn State team has done."
Many have tried to explain Penn State's sudden success.
Perhaps Joe Moorhead's offensive expertise, his up-tempo spread attack, provided the needed spark.
Perhaps the return of starting linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell jolted the defense just enough to overpower the Buckeyes.
Perhaps the team's chemistry, its cohesiveness built in those tough early weeks, kept them believing in every game, even when they were down late to Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Many factors contributed to the Nittany Lions' breakthrough. But one thing that's been largely overlooked was right there on the field all along: Penn State's post-Joe Paterno players.
An analysis of the last 10 years of Penn State recruiting found that, to some extent Bill O'Brien's recruits, but particularly Franklin's, topped Paterno's late classes. That statement is based on the rankings members of each class got from ESPN's analysts when he signed his letter of intent. The Inquirer reviewed that data and compared the Penn State classes against each other.
Recruiting played a particularly important role in the Penn State story because, after former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of child sex abuse in 2012, the NCAA hit the school with sanctions that reduced the number of football scholarships to as few as 65, down from the standard 85. That made depth a problem for the Nittany Lions. However, O'Brien's 2013 class was slightly better than Paterno's last class, in 2011. (The Inquirer did not factor in the 2012 class, which was signed just after O'Brien was hired and Paterno had died.)
O'Brien left for the NFL in late 2013, but he set the foundation for Franklin to elevate Penn State recruiting.
Among the key findings of the Inquirer's analysis:
Franklin's recruits in 2015 and 2016 had an average rating of 79.4 on the scale of 0 to 100 used by ESPN. Paterno's final recruiting classes in 2010 and 2011 averaged 77.5.
In the 2015 and 2016 classes, Franklin's recruits' ratings ranged from 71 to 89. Comparatively, in 2010 and 2011, Paterno's recruits ranged from 70 to 81.
In Franklin's 2016 class, defensive end Shane Simmons had a rating of 89, which made him the most highly touted recruit since defensive lineman Maurice Evans, a member of Paterno's 2006 class. Evans received a 91.
Only two other Paterno recruits were ranked above an 85 in those final six years. Franklin has brought three recruits to Penn State above an 85 in three seasons.
The other 13 Big Ten teams' recruiting classes were also analyzed. For the most part, they mirror the on-field performances, with few exceptions. Michigan's and Ohio State's recruiting classes were substantially better than their conference competitors' in the last five years.
Sitting in the back of a crowded media room in Piscataway, N.J., after Penn State shut out Rutgers, 39-0, last month, even defensive end Evan Schwan found it a little hard to believe how much the team had improved in just a few years.
Schwan, a redshirt senior, arrived at Penn State right after the NCAA sanctions, which originally included not only the loss of scholarships but a four-year bowl ban, a $60 million fine, and the vacating of some of Paterno's wins.
"I never thought as a freshman that we'd be in the position that we are now," he said.
Redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Sickels felt much the same way. "When I committed I wasn't expecting to play in a bowl. . . . We weren't going to be bowl-eligible," he said. "So I was just going to play for Penn State and my teammates. To have this opportunity is unbelievable."
White outs help
Three weeks after Penn State beat Minnesota, the Lions faced their next big test: the Buckeyes. More than 107,000 fans packed into Beaver Stadium. Scores of recruits lined the sidelines.
They watched the fourth-quarter thriller, which ended in a storming of the field by students that was met with virtually no resistance by stadium staff. Recruits ran toward the 50-yard line, holding their cell phones high in the air, taking video of the sea of white surrounding them.
Franklin and his staff know how important those white-out games can be for recruiting.
"I think if you talk to our players, a lot of the guys on our team were at Penn State for a white out," Franklin said. "I went back and looked at that Michigan, four-overtime white out, and somebody had posted pictures of all the guys that were at that game and a bunch of guys that signed with us. . . . They look like babies, it's amazing."
Junior tight end Mike Gesicki and junior safety Marcus Allen were in attendance at that quadruple overtime win in 2013. Afterward, Allen tweeted a photo of himself decked out in Penn State gear. Gesicki put it simply: "Oh.my.goodness." Gesicki, a New Jersey native, has credited that game with solidifying his decision.
Soon after the Ohio State win, assistant coach Terry Smith, Penn State's defensive recruiting coordinator, said he would be pleased with securing one or two of the 100-plus recruits who were on the sideline.
"If we turn around and lay an egg against Purdue," Smith said before the game against the Boilermakers, "then what good is that victory?"
But Penn State didn't lay an egg. Led by Barkley, the Lions thumped Purdue and then Iowa before McSorley shook off a couple of interceptions and brought Penn State back from a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter to beat Indiana. The next week, the Nittany Lions routed Rutgers.
In high school, Barkley made a verbal commitment to the Scarlet Knights, whom he rooted for growing up in the Lehigh Valley. But watching O'Brien's 2013 Lions come from behind and beat Michigan in quadruple overtime changed Barkley's mind.
After the running back's family talked to Franklin and his staff, Barkley signed on and hasn't looked back since.
"I wanted to come to a place where I can make an impact," the sophomore said. "We got something special going right now. We know that. We're aware of that. I'm just happy that I'm able to be part of that. . . . Coming to this school was the best decision of my life."
Franklin's arrival at Penn State in January 2014 marked the end of a tumultuous two years in State College.
Before the Sandusky case, Paterno had been at the helm for 45 years. In his later years, he seldom traveled to players' houses. Instead of living room talks with parents, there were conversations in his office.
O'Brien came in to mend and keep the program intact at a time when there were concerns about just trying to field a competitive team, let alone win football games.
Franklin, who in three years had vastly improved the football program at Vanderbilt, appeared a more permanent fix. His reputation as an aggressive and effective salesman to recruits preceded him.
At his introductory news conference inside Beaver Stadium, that focus was clear. He rolled out his "Dominate the State" slogan, a promise to amp up recruiting.
"I've worked at a lot of different institutions that tried to compete in recruiting against Penn State University, and it was always an unbelievable challenge," said Franklin, a native of Langhorne and an East Stroudsburg graduate. "I think with everybody pulling the rope in the same direction there is no reason why we can't take this program where everybody wants it to be."
Back in 2014, Franklin also spoke of uniting the community around football once again, a theme he raised after the team's Pinstripe Bowl win later that year.
The 2016 team did that, deflecting some attention away from several Sandusky-related developments in recent months.
"This is a foundation," Franklin said after the Big Ten championship. "And the fortunate thing is we get to continue building on that foundation this year."
Then he got back to work. After Saturday night's win over Wisconsin, where was the head coach this week?
Out on the recruiting trail, looking to sign the class of 2017. And 2018.