Only halfway through a four-year postseason ban, Penn State began the season with a new coach trying to get his feet under him and its players taking the field mostly for pride.
When the NCAA surprisingly threw it an early season lifeline, the Nittany Lions did just enough to clear another hurdle in their recovery from scandal.
Making its first bowl appearance in three seasons and taking another step toward normalcy following the Jerry Sandusky saga, Penn State (6-6) heads to Yankee Stadium to play Boston College (7-5) in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday.
"It's a huge step for so many different reasons," said Nittany Lions coach James Franklin, who came over from Vanderbilt in the offseason to continue the rebuilding job began so expertly by Bill O'Brien. "I think it's a part of us getting back to where we belong in college football. ... We couldn't be more excited."
In addition to having its bowl ban lifted in September, the school also recovered all of its scholarships for next season, something Franklin needs to take the next step in reestablishing Penn State as one of the sport's preeminent programs. Getting some extra December practice time will help rebuild that foundation, and judging from the team's struggles down the stretch, it can use it.
The Nittany Lions finished their Big Ten schedule 2-6 - their wins coming against conference lightweights Rutgers and Indiana by a combined nine points.
"I know how important these practices are on a lot of different levels," Franklin said. "We get to prepare to play a tough opponent and continue to get better as a team and a program. From a program perspective, it's valuable."
With the postseason finally a possibility, Franklin's team became eligible with a 30-13 win over Temple on Nov. 15, a victory that pushed it to 6-4. But a disappointing setback to Illinois and a regular season-ending loss to Michigan State has Penn State looking to get back on track in its 45th bowl appearance.
To do that, a stifling defense will be key. That Nittany Lions' unit ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing defense (84.8 yards per game) and No. 2 in total defense (269.8) and pass efficiency defense (99.71). It was one of just two schools to rank in the top 10 in those categories as well as scoring defense (17.7 ppg) and defensive third-down percentage (30.1).
Mike Hull, who was named the conference's linebacker of the year, anchors the group and will be tasked with slowing down an Eagles squad highlighted by the dual-threat capabilities of quarterback Tyler Murphy.
Murphy finished the year with 1,079 rushing yards, setting a single-season ACC record for a quarterback. He not only directed Boston College to a second straight bowl appearance, but took the Eagles to the verge of a truly breakout campaign. Three of the team's losses came down to the wire, the most noteworthy a 20-17 defeat at No. 2 Florida State last month thanks to a game-deciding field goal with three seconds left.
Included in its wins was a 37-31 early season upset of then-No. 9 Southern Cal.
"Last year was great because it was the first time we were able to become bowl eligible and get there," said Steve Addazio, who took the Eagles' coaching job a year ago with the intent of breaking a three-season postseason drought. "(This year), sure, we'd love to have nine wins right now, and that wouldn't have been a stretch."
Murphy, an admitted Yankees fan, will do something his favorite baseball team did not this season: Play a postseason game at the Stadium. He'll be joined in the backfield by freshman running back Jon Hilliman, who paired with his quarterback for 22 touchdowns on the ground.
That should present a throwback battle of strengths between these two formerly independent Northeastern powers who both seem to be on the upswing.
"Good programs get better because they play in bowl games and they're able to extend their practices. It's like another spring," Addazio said. "You're developing your football program, the culture of your team. Success breeds success. You're playing in a meaningful, big-time bowl."
BC will be making its 24th bowl appearance, and comes into the matchup trailing Penn State 19-4 in the all-time series. The Eagles, however, have taken the last three games, the last a 21-7 win in 2004.
This year's contest will mark the fifth edition of the Pinstripe Bowl. For the Nittany Lions, the trip to the Big Apple represents the culmination of an unwavering commitment to a program that stood tall in the face of the most extreme challenges.
"I'm particularly pleased that our senior football student-athletes will have a chance to play in a bowl game, and that as a community we will have one more opportunity to honor and thank them," athletic director Sandy Barbour said.