Jan. 2—LOS ANGELES — Penn State played the last several weeks of the regular season without the amount of depth it would have preferred at some key positions.
There's a good chance the Nittany Lions will get much of it back for Monday's 109th Rose Bowl against No. 11 Utah.
Head coach James Franklin confirmed during a press conference from the Sheraton Grand Los Angeles hotel that running back Keyvone Lee will be available to play against the Utes for the first time since suffering an undisclosed injury at Michigan on Oct. 15. He also updated the health status of star left tackle Olu Fashanu, a sophomore who hasn't played since limping off the field against Ohio State two weeks later, calling him "a game-time decision."
Penn State has been playing short-handed at both running back and along the offensive line for a good portion of the season. Lee will give them their former rushing leader who averaged 3.8 yards per carry in five games and caught the game-winning touchdown in the season-opening win at Purdue on Sept. 1, depending on how he is used in the rotation, Franklin said.
It will also give Lee the opportunity to finish what he called a "frustrating" season on a positive note, and healthy.
"Everyone who deals with injuries has to deal with it," he said. "You have to wake up extra early for treatment. You have to deal with all the other things that come with an injury. You're not able to be on the field and perform and play. It's kind of frustrating mentally. You just have to keep your head up and get through it. You can't be hurting forever."
Following a dominant campaign before the injury and talk of him being the top-rated draft-eligible tackle in the nation, Fashanu surprised many around college football when he announced in November he'll return to Penn State for a fourth season. Franklin never ruled him out for the season after the injury, and in December, he said there was hope Fashanu would be available for the Rose Bowl.
The decision evidently will come down to Fashanu's comfort level playing two months after the injury.
"We've had conversations with him and his family," Franklin said. "Part of Olu making the decision to come back was also about him being physically ready to play but also mentally ready to play. He does not want to rush back from this injury, and that was really what was discussed.
Even if Fashanu winds up sitting the game out, Penn State should have some reinforcements up front.
Right tackle Caedan Wallace, who has been out since the win over Minnesota on Oct. 22, said he'd be available to play Monday. Penn State could also use two promising guards, freshman Vega Ioane and former Lackawanna College star J.B. Nelson, without compromising their redshirt status, too.
The No. 11 has become a bit of a legendary number for Penn State linebackers. College football Hall of Famer Lavar Arrington wore it during his days with the Nittany Lions. NaVorro Bowman had a dynamic career wearing it, too. And, it's the number Micah Parsons gladly donned when he joined the program in 2018.
It's what Abdul Carter is wearing now for Penn State, and the true freshman's 6.5-sack, 10.5-tackle for loss breakout campaign has fans thinking he'll be the next great No. 11 for the Lions.
Even if he would have preferred to continue another numerical legacy.
"I really wanted 22, but it was retired," Carter said. "So I figured, why not step into 11 and build my own legacy wearing this number?"
Carter said he wore No. 22 since he was 8, playing in the youth leaguers around his native Philadelphia. He wore it during his sterling career at La Salle College High School, too. But, at Penn State, that's the lone uniform number that is retired, in honor of Heisman Trophy-winning running back John Cappelletti.
It might be all for the best: "22" doesn't have the same ring as "11," which has become Carter's de facto name all week leading up to the Rose Bowl as far as Utah coaches are concerned.
"No. 11, the linebacker, is a premier player in the country, and he wreaks havoc in everything he does," Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "That would be the one player that I would single out that jumps off the screen at me."
Allar in, again?
If there's a plan to get him some experience in a huge bowl game, in the national spotlight, Penn State freshman quarterback Drew Allar said he hasn't been made aware of it.
The first-year backup to veteran Sean Clifford has appeared in nine games this season, some in which Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich made efforts to play him as early in the action as possible for developmental reasons. But he expects his role Monday will be to stay ready in case he's needed.
"I'm just out there, and we're all out there, supporting Sean," Allar said. "Last go around for Sean, so we're going to do everything in our power to help him and just communicate what we're seeing on the field. And I'm super excited for Sean."
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