Mike Gesicki has been around James Franklin and the Penn State program for four years, so he knew that nothing was going to change in his team’s preparation this week even though the Nittany Lions were coming off a disappointing one-point defeat at Ohio State.
Then again, it’s been so long since the No. 7 Lions, who visit 24th-ranked Michigan State on Saturday, prepared for a game coming off a loss the previous week. You’d have to go back to their 49-10 loss at Michigan more than 13 months ago to find that same scenario, since its last-second Rose Bowl loss to Southern California closed out the 2016 season.
As Gesicki, the Nittany Lions’ 6-foot-6 senior tight end, said this week, “There’s no worry, there’s no panic.”
“There’s nothing honestly to worry or panic about,” he said. “We can control whatever we can control. We’ve got four guaranteed games left in the regular season, and one guaranteed game this Saturday against Michigan State. It’s an opportunity we’re all really excited about.”
A loss to Michigan State, or to any of the Lions’ regular-season opponents, would almost certainly eliminate them from the College Football Playoff race. Gesicki said the team’s “worry or focus” isn’t on the playoffs, but on the next game.
That’s the way it’s been for Gesicki and his teammates since Franklin took over as head coach in Happy Valley in 2014. Over those four years, the players have bought into Franklin’s philosophy, and coaches and players alike have created a solid chemistry.
“My freshman year, some guys had played for different coaches and different staffs,” Gesicki said. “Now all they know is coach Franklin and the message that he preaches to us each and every day, so that’s been a consistent message for those guys.
“I think when you have that many guys that have committed and bought in to the overall message that our head coach is giving us each and every day, there’s no divide, there’s no ‘me before we.’ It’s all team and he’s the reason why. We have great team chemistry and I think that’s a huge reason why we’ve had the success that we’ve had over the past two seasons.”
Gesicki, who has caught at least one pass in 22 consecutive games, tied a season high with six receptions against Ohio State and now has 30 for the season, third on the team. He has caught four touchdown passes but none since the season’s second game against Pittsburgh on Sept. 9. He said he hasn’t seen any adjustments in opposing defenses designed to stop him in the red zone.
“For the most part, not really,” he said. “I think that this offense, one week you can have a huge game, the next week you just take what the defense gives you and that kind of stuff. It’s all about opportunity. I know speaking for myself, I’m going to be ready the next time my opportunity is called out there.”
There are few more reliable targets than Gesicki, a high school basketball and volleyball player whose jumping ability was on full display when he vaulted over Trace McSorley after the quarterback ran for a touchdown against Michigan.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio knows. Gesicki made a leaping catch of a 45-yard touchdown pass from McSorley in last year’s 45-12 win over the Spartans.
“He’s a big target,” Dantonio said. “He’s a mismatch guy. The thing that I think he does, he’s a vertical threat, a definitely vertical threat. He’s difficult in that capacity but we’re going to have to defend him.”
By the numbers
The average of tackles for losses on offense for Penn State this season, tied for last place (127th) in the FBS statistics with Kent State and Texas State.
Consecutive games in which Saquon Barkley has scored at least one touchdown, the longest active streak in the FBS.
Average rushing yards allowed by Michigan State, first in the Big Ten and fourth in the nation.
Three things to watch
Penn State has forced at least one turnover in nine consecutive games and is plus-14 in turnover margin, second in the nation. Michigan State has committed 14 turnovers, including 10 fumbles lost.
The Spartans may elect to kick away from Saquon Barkley, who returned his second kickoff for a touchdown last week, because they have the worst coverage unit (24.5 yards per kickoff) in the Big Ten.
The inability of Barkley to gain some rhythm in the Penn State rushing attack against Michigan and Ohio State has been frustrating, so it will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will deal with that.