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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - No. 10 Penn State football (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) returns to Beaver Stadium for its regular season home finale, hosting Nebraska (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten) Saturday at 4 p.m.
Amidst a stripe out crowd set to blanket Beaver Stadium in blue and white, for Franklin and staff, Saturday marks a final farewell for 23 defining Nittany Lions.
"A lot of these guys were either committed to Penn State when I got the job or we brought with, and a lot of these guys played as true freshmen or redshirt freshmen or whatever it may be and have had a significant impact," Franklin said.
There are stories of patience, stories of persistence and adversity among the group. Above all though, it's a senior class responsible for a now impermeable standard set for not only those who return in 2017, but for the legacy of the program.
"You think about their time here, those guys could write a book," Franklin said. "They've seen it all and done it all and experienced the lows and the highs and everything in between. The thing that I'm most proud of, they're going to leave here to go be great fathers and husbands and businessmen and leaders of society."
It's an extraordinary mix of individuals who will leave behind everything from re-printed records to a host of "remember when" moments spanning generations of fans.
Perhaps the real story of the senior class is more than the moments, the Big Ten Championship, the Rose Bowl or any of the many honors and awards. Rather, it's about a group that opted to buy in rather than bail out.
"We had guys who had four or five different head coaches and then guys coming in just knowing coach Franklin's staff and that's all they knew," senior cornerback Grant Haley said. "Over the last two years, it seems like coach Franklin's method, there's a method to the madness and everything that he preaches and what he has done over the years, it works. Guys like me, guys like Jason [Cabinda], DaeSean [Hamilton], these upperclassmen really bought into that and being leaders on the team, we reiterate that to the younger guys on the team and it's really made us progress in these last two years, but it's been overall a four-year process."
Come Saturday, the Nittany Lions will take to the field with one final chance to send the senior class out with a victory. It's also fitting of course that the 2017 senior class has just one Big Ten opponent left to defeat, giving Penn State a win against all 14 conference teams across Franklin's tenure.
In a meeting placing a pair of programs among a group of only 10 schools with at least 800 all-time wins, Penn State and Nebraska square off for the first time since 2013.
"I wouldn't have wanted to go through this experience with anyone else," senior defensive tackle Parker Cothren said. "It's kind of sad that it's coming to an end but it's a start of a new era and we're just trying to go out on top in our last game at Beaver Stadium."
What to Watch For -
1. Running back Saquon Barkley enters Saturday's matchup just 101 yards shy of becoming just the second Nittany Lion in program history with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Among several program records he's currently scaling, Barkley also needs just two more career rushing touchdowns to match Lydell Mitchell's nearly 50-year-old record.
As postseason national awards are narrowing their lists to the semifinalists, Barkley was most recently named a semifinalist for both the Doak Walker Award (nation's premier running back) and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award this week. In the weekly stats standings, Barkley's also slated second in FBS and first in the conference averaging 184.60 all-purpose yards per game.
2. When asked about areas of improvement headed into the final two games of the season, quarterback Trace McSorley noted a few things the Nittany Lions are working on offensively.
"Our running game is something that we really want to get going, really trying to create more balance for our offense," McSorley said.
Franklin preceded McSorley with the same mention in his weekly press conference, especially when it comes to balance.
"I don't know if we're ever going to be a team that lines up and runs the ball down your throat for 300 yards, but we don't need to be," Franklin said. "We do need to be able when we get the right look, we need to be able to run the ball consistently and into the right look and into the right situation, and we need to win our one-on-one battles from a protection standpoint in the passing game and in the running game in terms of creating space."
3. Penn State's defense is ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 18th in FBS in total defense, allowing opponents fewer than 14 points on the year, which ranks second in the conference and fourth in FBS. In three of four wins for the Huskers this year, Nebraska has outrushed its opponent, despite being significantly out-gained in a the most recent loss at Nebraska.
What To Watch For - Nebraska
1. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley noted earlier this week that quarterback Tanner Lee is in concussion protocol, but the Nittany Lions aren't counting him out.
Outside of Lee, Smith noted that Husker quarterback Patrick O'Brien might not have the same experience as Lee, but is still a threat in the pocket with the ability to deliver throws.
"He was 12-for-18 last week which means he's efficient," Smith said. "The difference is, I think he doesn't have the experience of playing as many snaps, which caused him to take a couple extra sacks last week."
2. Nebraska wide receiver JD Spielman has emerged for the Huskers in his redshirt freshman season, currently needing fewer than 70 yards to reach the 800 receiving yards mark this year. With two 100-yard receiving games on the year, he made nine catches for 141 yards on the road at Minnesota last week, having also set a single-game record with 200 receiving yards against Ohio State.
Spielman has also been effective for the Huskers on third and fourth down opportunities, with a combined 27 receptions on third and fourth down, tied for first nationally.
3. Franklin noted earlier this week that there's a clear benefit in the familiarity of Nebraska's 3-4 style of defense that the Nittany Lions saw last week against Rutgers.
Among the Nebraska defense, senior linebacker and team captain Chris Weber is leading the team with 82 tackles. With four double-digit tackle outings this year, Weber also leads the team with 8.0 tackles for loss and five pass breakups.
The Final Word -
As Franklin pointed out earlier this week, Nebraska leads the all-time series at 9-7, with wins in all three outings against the Nittany Lions since the Huskers joined the conference in 2011. Outside of the all-time series with Nebraska, the Nittany Lions enter Saturday's matchup with 13 consecutive wins at home, marking its longest home winning streak since a 14-game stretch from 1990-92.