In August, nobody at Penn State expected a scene like the one on Saturday at Yankee Stadium. Not a single person associated with the Nittany Lions program -- from players to coaches to administrators -- predicted a bowl win in 2014. After all, winning isn’t an option when you can’t play.
Penn State entered the season banned from the postseason as part of lingering NCAA sanctions, which stemmed from the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal that rocked the school two coaching staffs ago. First-year coach James Franklin inherited a roster facing scholarship reductions as well as nothing tangible to play for. How’s that for motivation?
But that’s what made Saturday’s 31-30 win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl so memorable. In September, the NCAA decided to drop Penn State’s postseason ban. Suddenly the program had a purpose again. And on Saturday, when Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg found Kyle Carter for a touchdown in overtime, and kicker Sam Ficken knocked in the game-winning PAT afterward, that journey was complete.
Penn State didn’t just return to the postseason, it emerged victorious.
That win didn’t look likely at the end of the regular season. Franklin’s squad entered the postseason with two straight losses, an embarrassing 16-14 stumble against Illinois and a 34-10 rout at the hands of Michigan State. For one half of the Pinstripe Bowl, it looked like Penn State’s trip to the Big Apple would likewise end on a negative note. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy ran in a 40-yard touchdown with two minutes to play in the third quarter, which gave the Eagles a 21-7 lead.
But as coaches often say, the team that wants it more usually wins. During the preseason, Penn State was like a stubborn teenager -- when you tell them they can’t have something, they usually want it more. The Nittany Lions weren’t allowed to have a bowl game, but on Saturday they showed how much they wanted it when they finally got the chance. After Boston College took its double-digit lead, Hackenberg (371 passing yards, four touchdowns) threw two straight touchdown passes to tie the contest, 21-21. Both teams hit field goals late in the fourth quarter, including Sam Ficken’s 44-yarder with 20 seconds left to knot the game at 24.
In overtime, Murphy hit David Dudeck for a touchdown to push the Eagles ahead, but like an answered Penn State prayer, Mike Knoll’s point-after attempt somehow sailed right. Hackenberg then answered with a touchdown pass of his own for a 30-30 tie. Then Ficken stepped up and drilled the PAT, completing the journey most in Happy Valley thought impossible in the preseason.
Franklin is the program’s second head coach since the Sandusky scandal. He’s also the most recent figurehead tasked with rebuilding a Penn State brand still reeling from scandal. Saturday marked the program’s first bowl win since Sandusky’s crimes cast a dark shadow over State College. Healing can take many forms, and winning is one of them. This was a victory no one saw coming during the preseason, which makes it that much sweeter for Franklin. For the first time in a long time, Penn State can -- and should -- celebrate.