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The Day It All Changed: The Last Time Penn State Played Minnesota

Before there was a blocked field goal, a wheel-route touchdown, or a 51-week-long run inside the AP Top 25, there was a rainy day in early October and one fateful 3rd and long.

On October 1, 2016, 2-2 Penn State trailed 3-0 Minnesota 13-3 with ten minutes remaining in the third quarter of what had been an all-around ugly day at Beaver Stadium.

The Nittany Lions were short-handed on defense, unproven on offense, and fresh off a 49-10 ass-whooping at the hands of Michigan, which seemed destined to run full-steam ahead to Indianapolis and the College Football Playoff. Chants of “Fire Franklin!” and “We want Les!” rang out through Beaver Stadium after what had been one of the most boring halves of football you can imagine: 429 yards of total offense, six punts, a combined 2-for-9 on third down, and three field goals accounting for nine of the 16 points scored.

The poor showing on the field, discontent among fans, and blustery rain made for an overall miserable gameday atmosphere — a far cry from Beaver Stadium’s purported pomp, circumstance, and grandeur that had been evangelized to freshmen at the time like me.

As my underwhelming introduction to Penn State football, I had watched the Nittany Lions hold off Kent State, get overpowered by Pitt, squeak out a win against Temple, and get embarrassed by Michigan. Five minutes into that third quarter against Minnesota, it seemed like it’d be more of the same, as Trace McSorley lined up in the gun on 3rd and 11. The Nittany Lions’ first third-down conversion of the day seemed about as unlikely as the thought that they’d find a way to make it to the Big Ten Championship.

On the previous play, McSorley had made an errant, weak throw while trying to find wide receiver Irvin Charles, thanks to the wet conditions and the team’s overall lack of rhythm on offense. On third and long and with the Nittany Lions deep in their own territory, Minnesota getting the ball back with good field position and a chance to add to its commanding 10-point lead appeared inevitable.

But for the first time all season, there was a shimmer of magic.

McSorley stepped up in the pocket and looked ready to run right into a trio of approaching Gopher defenders. Instead, though, he tossed the ball just before he crossed the line of scrimmage to Charles, again, who was cutting across the middle of the field. This time, he caught the ball around the 45-yard line, shook off safety Adekunle Ayinde, and sharply turned downfield to outrun a legion of Gopher defenders en route to the end zone.

When you go back and watch replays of Charles’ 80-yard touchdown, you can hear an audible difference in the crowd before the play and as he’s running toward the end zone, as somewhat of a perfect metaphor for the team. The previously dismissive and restless fans were on their feet, cheering, and rocking Beaver Stadium in a way that they hadn’t all season and probably hadn’t for a while.

The touchdown was the flash in the pan that Penn State had been looking for all day. It cut Minnesota’s lead to 13-10, sparked a memorable comeback, and breathed new life into a previously dead Penn State team. With it, came a sense of vitality, confidence, and momentum that’s yet to be smothered more than three years later.

After Tyler Davis’ extra point made it 13-10, the Nittany Lions forced a three and out on defense, which set the offense back up in Gopher territory. On first down, McSorley again went deep with a home-run ball — this time to Chris Godwin, who brought it down to the 6-yard line. Minnesota responded by stuffing Penn State on three straight plays, which forced Davis back onto the field to kick his second field goal of the day. He made an easy chip shot to tie the game 13-13.

Following another quick Gopher drive, Penn State again got the ball back, and McSorley again took a big shot downfield, as he would grow accustomed to doing in crucial situations that season and throughout his career. He found tight end Mike Gesicki deep for a 53-yard completion that brought the ball back to the Minnesota 6. Two plays later, the Wizard of Camelot was jogging into the end zone with the go-ahead score to cap off a 17-0 third quarter for the Nittany Lions.

On the ensuing drive, Minnesota would even it up at 20 with a big 38-yard run for a touchdown by Shannon Brooks to start the fourth quarter. However, for the rest of the game, the two sides buckled down into an old-fashioned, gritty defensive showdown. Neither side would score again until Minnesota’s Emmit Carpenter drilled a 37-yard field goal with 54 seconds remaining.

That kick should have been enough for the Gophers to hold off the Nittany Lions. It should have handed them their first losing record this late in the season since 2004. It should have dialed up the temperature on James Franklin’s seat and sent each of the 95,332 fans in attendance that day home regretting they had been foolish enough to ever have a glimmer of hope.

Instead though, it set up an epic drive where McSorley began to etch his name as an all-time Penn State great, not just Christian Hackenberg’s backup.

Penn State got the ball at its own 25-yard line and with less than a minute to work with. After the drive’s first two plays resulted in incompletions, Penn State again faced a pivotal third and long.

The pocket collapsed around McSorley, who backpedaled all the way to the 12-yard line before throwing up a desperation pass to Godwin, who somehow laid himself out to keep the drive alive and move the ball to around midfield. McSorley then kept the offense moving with a short completion to DeAndre Thompkins that pushed the Nittany Lions into Minnesota territory.

With 20 seconds remaining and Penn State still well outside of Davis’ field-goal range, McSorley stepped up with yet another gutsy play. He scampered for a huge 26-yard pickup that put the Nittany Lions just outside the red zone with 11 seconds remaining. Then out came Davis, who tied the score at 23 with his third field goal of the game, this one a 40-yarder.

In overtime, the Nittany Lions defense forced the Gophers back three yards with a three and out, but Carpenter again made a big kick to put his team ahead.

Moments after Carpenter’s field goal put the Nittany Lions’ backs against the wall once again, Saquon Barkley, who had been relatively quiet all game, took control and called game.

On Penn State’s first play in overtime, the rising star burst up the middle untouched, before juking out Ayinde, outrunning four Gopher defenders chasing him, and skipping into the end zone for the walkoff score. The high-stepping Barkley secured a 29-26 for the Nittany Lions and pushed them north of the .500 mark — a benchmark they have yet to drop below since that game.

From there, the Nittany Lions went on to rattle off eight consecutive wins.

They blew out Maryland at home the following week. Then, they knocked off No. 2 Ohio State with the legendary Marcus Allen x Grant Haley blocked field goal touchdown and made their long-awaited return in the AP Top 25 poll. They then rolled past Purdue and Iowa with a pair of beatdowns, before narrowly pulling out a win over Indiana despite a late scare. Next, they blew past cellar-dwellers Rutgers and Michigan State to close out the regular season and earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship game — with a bit of help from Braxton Miller and The Game’s officiating crew, of course.

Against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, Penn State fell behind early, but the team again landed big punch after big punch to climb its way back before eventually winning the game and conference.

After being snubbed by the College Football Playoff selection committee, Penn State was relegated to the Rose Bowl where, unsurprisingly, the Nittany Lions dug themselves an early hole, but managed to fight all the way back. Unfortunately for James Franklin’s side, the well of second-half team magic seemed to have run dry for the Nittany Lions, as they fell to USC 52-49 in a heartbreaker.

Something changed with 10 minutes left in third quarter against Minnesota when Irvin Charles scored. It was evident with McSorley’s big throws down the stretch and his and his teammates’ conviction and knack for the big moment. It’s where the 2016’s team’s moniker as a second-half team was born. And that swagger spilled over to the remaining games and has carried over to the current team.

Since it broke into the poll in 2016, Penn State has yet to drop out of the AP Top 25 — something only four other teams have been able to do. Barkley, McSorley, Gesicki, Godwin, and pretty much every other impact player from that 2016 season have all left for the NFL. They’ve been replaced by a new crop of Nittany Lion stars who have upheld that same standard of success and same level of excitement, which was born out of Penn State’s ugly, but monumental win over Minnesota in 2016.

That touchdown by Charles was one of the most important plays in Penn State football history — even if the end product was still weeks or months away. Or years, if you consider a national championship to be the desired end product.. Ironically, though, as significant as it’s proven to be, Charles’ touchdown was one of only three catches he made as a Nittany Lion and his only score.

When you think of the 2016 dream season, you think of the big plays by Barkley, McSorley, Godwin, and Gesicki, and of course, all four were instrumental in the comeback against the Gophers. But none of them would be in position to do so without Charles’ brief moment in the sun.

Three years later, he announced he was transferring 94 miles and about just as many worlds away to Division II Indiana University Pennsylvania after being removed from the Penn State roster before the 2017 Fiesta Bowl. However, he was ruled ineligible this summer and returned to Penn State to finish his degree. His legacy still lives on — even if he’s far from the first player who comes to mind when remembering the Big Ten Championship season.

When Penn State plays Minnesota this weekend for the first time since the 2016 comeback, it’ll be a meeting between a pair of unbeaten teams and perhaps a preview of the Big Ten Championship.

Minnesota is a team much like that 2016 Penn State squad: an unexpected contender that’s rejuvenating its fanbase and continually finding ways to win in exciting fashion. Penn State, on the other hand, once David, has grown to become somewhat of a Goliath largely in part due to that 2016 game.

This weekend can be a turning point of sorts for Minnesota like that game was for Penn State three years ago. Or it can be the latest display of continued success by a team that was on the right side of the chain of events one day three years ago.

Either way, we’ll all be well aware of the impact that can come from one play one moment of greatness one shimmer of magic and grateful for the promise that comes with a program-changing play always potentially being one third and long away.

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About the Author

Anthony Colucci

Anthony Colucci was once Onward State’s managing editor and preferred walk-on honors student who majored in psychology and public relations. Despite being from the make-believe land of Central Jersey, he was never a Rutgers fan. If you ever want to know how good Saquon Barkley's ball security is, ask Anthony what happened when he tried to force a fumble at the Mifflin Streak. If you want to hear the story or are bored and want to share prequel memes, follow @_anthonycolucci on Twitter or email him at [email protected]. All other requests and complaints should be directed to Onward State media contact emeritus Steve Connelly.

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