STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin smiled one last time as he trotted beneath the tunnel, waving goodbye and shouting, "Thanks for coming" to the lingering fans who leaned over the railing.
There's been a lot of reasons for Franklin to smile lately. At the start of the fourth quarter, the PA announcer boomed that a little more than 72,000 fans attended the spring game, which featured fan favorite Christian Hackenberg for just three short series. So far, no scrimmage has garnered a higher attendance. And, before the game, ESPN 300 defensive lineman Adam McLean committed to Penn State -- and half of the scouting services move the Nittany Lions' 2015 class to No. 1 in the nation.
Franklin, the "Pennsylvania boy with the Penn State heart," arrived in Happy Valley just three months ago. And, as the past weekend showed, he hasn't wasted much time in making an impact.
"I don't think there's any doubt that we're special," Franklin said, referring to Penn State, "and one of the big reasons that we're special is because of the support we get from the community. ... I couldn't be more excited."
Fans fired up their grills and began tailgating as early as five hours before the 1:30 p.m. kickoff. Some opted to stay in the parking lot during game time; about half the crowd left by halftime, once the skill players traded in their helmets for a spot on the bench. Hackenberg ended up appearing for about eight minutes, the top three running backs combined for five carries and the starting offense never once took on the defensive starters. The first team suited up in Blue and, unsurprisingly, beat the White team of backups 37-0.
But the sense of excitement surrounding Franklin and this program was unmistakable. Hundreds of fans, maybe a dozen deep, lined up for the arrival of Penn State's blue buses while several recruits pressed their noses close to the glass from the comfort of the lounge overlooking the scene. "No vacancy" signs dotted the hotels in the surrounding area. And fans literally took off in a sprint to greet players during a 45-minute autograph session; with a crowd of about 5,000, the line more closely resembled a mosh pit.
It was the biggest crowd for the Blue-White Game since 2009, when the Nittany Lions were just three months removed from a Rose Bowl appearance. Because of the current sanctions, Penn State still can't appear in the postseason for another two years -- which really made the excitement surrounding Saturday all the more surprising.
"I can only imagine what a regular season game is like," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. And a minute later: "We're trying to take this program to the next level and compete for Big Ten and national championships."
That last line is likely a big reason for the optimism in Happy Valley. Franklin took the dais on Day 1 and vowed a return to national prominence, in addition to dominating the state and region in recruiting. The staff has reminded the media and fans so much of those intentions that Franklin doesn't even need to finish his sentences once he broaches the topic.
Once Penn State's first-year coach talked Saturday about hitting the recruiting trail hard, he stopped abruptly. "We are going to ...," he said, pausing. "Dominate the state," recruits mumbled from the balcony above press row.
"Exactly right," Franklin said.
Franklin's first game at Beaver Stadium almost seemed secondary to the atmosphere surrounding it. There was some "Wildcat," a formation Vanderbilt loved last season but former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien loathed, and a 56-yard double-reverse pass that wideout Geno Lewis swore wasn't rehearsed in practice.
Conversely, some concerns only became magnified. The offensive line -- seemingly the weakest unit on the team -- surrendered nine sacks and the offense failed to find much rhythm. But the thin-rostered line also lost center Wendy Laurent and Brian Gaia to injury in the first half. Counting that pair, the Lions were missing four OL starters in the final two quarters.
But, as is usual with these scrimmages, the game wasn't as much an indicator of the future as it was a show for the fans. And, with Franklin as its ringleader, the game generated as much hype as offseasons filled with BCS aspirations.
"Great crowd, unbelievable support from this community," Franklin said in his opening statement. "I'm not surprised one bit."