The Perfect Storm: How Penn State Shocked The World
On Sept. 24, if you thought Penn State would finish the regular season 10-2 and represent the Big Ten East in Indianapolis, even the most rabid Nittany Lion fans would have hung you out to dry.
Penn State had just dropped an embarrassing 49-10 road tilt in Ann Arbor and calls for James Franklin to be ousted heated up like wildfire. My, how the tables have turned.
Ohio State came through in a big way for the Nittany Lions, knocking off Michigan in the Horseshoe 30-27 in double overtime. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Amani Oruwariye described what it was like on the sidelines, coincidentally right around 4:09 p.m.
“Nittany Nation, it was just screaming and cheering,” Oruwariye said. “Once that happened we kinda knew and we just locked in, like, ‘Let’s get what we’ve gotta do done.'” The Tampa, Fla., native picked Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” during his postgame chat with the media as the song he would use to describe this season.
Eight wins and a Big Ten Championship berth later, the Nittany Lions are headed to Lucas Oil Stadium next Saturday. Not since the 2005 Orange Bowl run has the deck been stacked against the Nittany Lions like it was heading into this season.
With everything this school has gone through the last five years, this is arguably the most spectacular feat we’ve seen in college football for decades. 2016 was supposed to be Penn State’s first year of bowl eligibility according to the sanctions. Instead, the College Football Playoff is in the Nittany Lions’ crosshairs. Standing in their way is No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten).
“I wanna thank the lettermen who flew in from all over the country,” Franklin said after the win. “The fact that the students drove back in, with this being Thanksgiving break, was significant. I wanna thank the best coaching staff in the country. We spend a lot of time together, care about one another, support one another. I wanna thank the players. We’ll enjoy this win for about an hour, then we’ll get started on Wisconsin.”
Alabama is a shoe-in for the No. 1 seed after finishing a 12-0 regular season. It’ll play Florida for the SEC Championship. Clemson rolled South Carolina 56-7 in Death Valley and will square off with Virginia Tech. Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, who sit at 11-1 but won’t play for a conference title, could still make the Playoff. Washington put on a show in the Apple Cup to claim the Pac-12 North, but has to face a hot Colorado squad. Wisconsin, who has losses to both Michigan and Ohio State, has a chance to finish in the Final Four with a win next weekend. Those are the only teams with a realistic shot to keep Penn State out.
If the Nittany Lions prevail next Saturday, there’s simply no argument against putting them in that makes sense. The Playoff Committee is tasked with picking the “best four teams.” With wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin, you can’t tell me Penn State doesn’t fit that distinction.
To even think that this discussion has become reality is fairly jarring, to be honest. Senior linebacker Brandon Bell, who walked out the Beaver Stadium tunnel for the final time Saturday, summed up what it took for Penn State to reach this crossroad.
“The older guys have been here three, four, five years. We’ve been through those lackluster seasons and we knew we had to do more,” Bell said. “I’m just thankful for my teammates, my coaches — it takes everybody to pull the ship in one direction to get to a point like this.”
No one thought a pair of first-year coordinators could orchestrate this type of turnaround. Rather, Joe Moorhead and Brent Pry have more than earned their salaries this fall. Penn State’s offense is averaging a blistering 46.4 points per game following its decade-defining win over the Buckeyes. Conversely, the Nittany Lion defense has held its opponents to an average of 16.2 points during that same five-game stretch.
Let’s remember that this is one of the youngest teams in the nation. Penn State returned just 40 lettermen from 2015. Only nine Nittany Lions among the current three-deep are graduating (two specialists). Everyone else will be back.
On to Indianapolis. No matter what happens next, this is only the start for James Franklin and Penn State.