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Blue & White Underdogs: Great Penn State Upsets Of The Last 20 Years

Penn State sports history is filled with stories of undefeated seasons, national championships, and dominant wins. But despite the Nittany Lions’ consistent, competitive presence at the top of several Division I sports, Penn State’s teams are no strangers to being labelled as underdogs — and have pulled off a number of noteworthy wins against highly-ranked rivals. We decided to take a look back at a few of the most memorable Nittany Lion upsets of the modern era.


2005: No. 16 Penn State 17, No. 6 Ohio State 10

Victory No. 349 for Joe Paterno announced the return of the Nittany Lions to the highest level of college football after a lengthy spell of little success. Big Ten rival Ohio State arrived at Beaver stadium as the highest nationally-ranked team to visit State College in four years, and were led by 2006 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith.

Penn State’s defense, encouraged by a memorable performance from linebacker Paul Posluszny, ultimately won the day for the Nittany Lions, limiting Ohio to 230 total yards according to ESPN. Touchdowns from quarterback Micheal Robinson and wideout Derrick Williams in the second quarter buried the buckeyes, who were held scoreless in the second half.

After its win against Ohio, Penn State was a win away from claiming first place in the Big Ten. But the Nittany Lions were defeated the following week by archival Michigan 27-25 — the only blemish on an otherwise perfect 2005 record. Penn State finished the season 11-1, defeated the Florida State Seminoles in the Orange Bowl, and finished the year ranked No. 3 nationally.

2013: Penn State 43, No. 18 Michigan 40

In what was one the greatest wins of the Bill O’Brien-Christian Hackenberg era, the Nittany Lions defeated perennial rival Michigan in quadruple overtime at Beaver Stadium.

A then 18-year-old Hackenberg threw for a total of 305 yards, and with he help of two athletic plays from wide-receiver Allen Robinson and a 43-yard field goal from kicker Sam Ficken, managed to force overtime on one of the last plays in regulation. Overtime was defined by traded field goal attempts, with Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons missing two. Lions running back Bill Belton eventually sealed the victory for Penn State with a 2-yard touchdown.

The rest of Penn State’s 2013 season failed to produce the same level of excitement, and featured losses to Nebraska and Minnesota as well as a 64-14 loss to Ohio State.

2016: Penn State 24, No. 2 Ohio State 21

In one of the most improbable wins on the list, the unranked Nittany Lions scored a white-out win against the Buckeyes in the team’s first victory against a ranked opponent under head coach James Franklin, paving the way for a conference championship and Rose Bowl appearance.

The offensive stars of Penn State’s 2016 season were on display from the start, with Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin and co. keeping the Lions within reach of Ohio State’s lead throughout the game. Linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda recorded 19 and 12 tackles respectively in a standout performance. But the play of the game belonged undoubtedly to Marcus Allen and junior corner Grant Haley. With less than five minutes remaining, Allen stretched to block a Buckeye field goal attempt and Haley recovered the ball, scoring a 60-yard touchdown to win the game.

The Lions defeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game later in the season, but suffered a last-minute Rose-Bowl loss to USC in January.

Men’s Hockey

2014: Penn State 4, No. 4 UMass Lowell 1

Two years after being named an official Division 1 program, Penn State’s Men’s Hockey team defeated northern powerhouse UMass Lowell in a dominant away-from-home display. The game marked the program’s biggest win of its history at the time, its most notable victory prior to Lowell coming against a No. 10-ranked Michigan side.

Junior forward Casey Bailey, the first Penn State player to play in the NHL, scored two first-period goals to give the Nittany Lions an early advantage before Eric Scheid and Tommy Olczyk added two more for the Blue and White, according to the Penn State’s official athletics website. Redshirt senior Taylor Holstrom had three assists on the night, and sophomore goalkeeper Eamon McAdam notched 24 saves to hold Lowell to one goal.

Women’s Basketball

2016: Penn State 70, No. 13 Tennessee 56

The Lady Lions performed convincingly in a sizable early-season win against historically competitive, non-conference opponent Tennessee.

The Lions started strong, continuing a shooting streak that had been building over the course of several games, and jumped to an 11-2 lead in the early stages before ending the first half with a 13 point lead. Tennessee gained on the Lady Lions in the second half, but were no match for Penn State’s continued accuracy from the floor.

The Lady Lions’ victory centered around a dominant performance from sophomore guard Teniya Page, who tallied a game-high 29 points, three triples, and four rebounds.

The Lady Lions ended their season with a loss to Virginia Tech in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Men’s Basketball

2001: Penn State 65, No. 2 Michigan State 63

Penn State faced defending champions Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament in 2001. Senior and State College basketball legend Joe Crispin scored 22 points, including a last second three-pointer, assuring victory for the Nittany Lions against the highest-ranked team they’d ever beaten. Titus Ivory added 17 points, according to the official website of the Big Ten.

Penn State lost eventual champions Iowa in the semifinals, but still earned a spot in the NCAA tournament where the Nittany Lions put together a memorable run to the Sweet 16.

2001: No. 7 Penn State 82, No. 2 North Carolina 74

March 18, 2001 — the day that produced, arguably, the men’s basketball team’s finest hour. Penn State’s 2001 NCAA tournament appearance was the program’s first in 5 years; few expected the team to beat Providence in the first round, let alone take down one of college basketball’s perennial powerhouses in the second.

An initial Tar Heel surge led by Julius Peppers seemed to confirm the inevitable, but the Nittany Lions were able to finish the half only a point behind North Carolina. Senior trio Joe Crispin, Titus Ivory and Gyasi Cline-Heard posted 21, 21 and 19-point efforts respectively. A series of late jumpers sealed Penn State’s victory in the final minutes.

They were unable to continue their improbable run, falling in the tournament’s Sweet 16 round to Temple. Penn State hasn’t won a tournament game since beating the Tar Heels 16 years ago.

Women’s Volleyball

2016: No. 15 Penn State 3, No. 1 Minnesota 2

Penn State’s Women’s Volleyball team is normally the team to beat, not a dark-horse possibility. But two title-less years following a string of national championships over the course of the last decade knocked the team out of the top spot. Their October 2016 match against Minnesota, however, suggested that they were still a force to be reckoned with.

The match’s first set saw an incredible late, Penn State scoring surge to deny Minnesota what seemed an inevitable early victory, led by Junior duo Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington who notched 16 and 14 kills respectively in a match full of Penn State comebacks. Junior setter Abby Detering was also instrumental, recording a career-high 61 assists. Trailing 2-1 later in the match, the Nittany Lions won back-to-back sets to claim one of the most notable victories in Rec Hall history.

Penn State’s season ended at the hands of 2015 national champion Nebraska in the regional round of the NCAA tournament.

Men’s Lacrosse

2016: Penn State 15, No. 1 Denver 10

Penn State men’s lacrosse has found success this year, going on a lengthy unbeaten run and earning a no. 1 national ranking in the first few months of the season. But one of its biggest wins to date came almost exactly one year ago, when the Nittany Lions took down defending national champion and top-ranked Denver in Dallas, Texas while playing in the 2016 Patriot Cup.

Penn State’s Brian Prestreau opened the scoring four minutes into the first period to begin what would be an exciting, back-and-forth battle between the two sides. Penn State trailed 8-6 at halftime, but overtook the Pioneers in the third with the help of the final goal of a hat trick from junior midfielder Dan Craig, who’s behind-the -back effort earlier in the game earned him a spot on SportsCenter’s daily Top-10 Plays. Three late goals from the Lions finished Denver off, securing one of the most notable upsets in the program’s history and snapping Denver’s 20-game winning streak.


Don’t see your favorite PSU upset on our list? Be sure to share it in the comments section.

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About the Author

Jim Davidson

Jim is a junior English and history major and the features editor for Onward State. He, like most of the Penn State undergraduate population, is from 'just outside Philadelphia,' and grew up in Spring City, Pennsylvania. He covers a variety of Penn State topics, but spends nine months of every year waiting for the start of soccer season. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @messijim.


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