Top 10 Penn State Athletics Moments Of The Last Decade
November has turned to December, which means another year — and another decade — is drawing to a close.
The 2010s brought many challenges to Happy Valley as the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked the Penn State community to its core. Over the last 10 years, the Nittany Lions and their supporters have experienced the lowest of lows, but they also rose back up to dizzying heights. It took some time and collective healing, but Penn State’s darkest days were soon followed by some of its finest hours. Today, we’ll celebrate and reflect on the top 10 moments in Penn State sports throughout the decade.
Before we continue, these 10 moments were determined based on a number of criteria — including (but not limited to) championship implications, drama and context, and significance to the university as a whole. Individual skill and athleticism didn’t factor in as much when determining this list. For example, Evan Barratt’s goal against Arizona State and Juwan Johnson’s one-handed snag against Ohio State are both other-worldly in terms of athletic ability, but they missed the cut on this list because neither play helped Penn State win something.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the list, which is arranged in no particular order.
2016: Marcus Allen Blocked Field Goal, Grant Haley’s Scoop-And-Score Against Ohio State
The only way to begin this list is with the blocked field goal and subsequent return for a touchdown that put Penn State football on the map for good.
Chris Fowler saying “Tyler Durbin, who’s super reliable inside of 40. This is from 45, and it’s BLOCKED! LIONS SCOOP IT UP! GRANT HALEY… WILL SCORE!” is permanently etched into the memories of Penn State fans across the globe because of this signature White Out moment. The Nittany Lions held on for the remaining 4:27 of the game to take down then-No. 2 Ohio State 24-21.
It’s hard to argue against this moment as the best of the decade in Happy Valley for so many reasons. In the short term, it sparked a field-storming at Beaver Stadium, a riot in downtown State College, and a nine-game winning streak in which the Nittany Lions won their first Big Ten title of the post-sanctions era.
Penn State checked in at No. 24 in the AP Top 25 poll the day after the colossal victory, and it hasn’t left the rankings since. The victory sparked the beginning of the fifth-longest streak in the AP Top 25 in all of college football, but more importantly, Penn State football was back.
2016: Saquon Barkley’s Big Ten-Winning Touchdown
If the 2016 White Out officially put Penn State football back on the map, the team’s Big Ten championship a couple months later did the same thing in permanent marker.
We’ve singled out Saquon Barkley’s wheel route touchdown as the moment of Penn State’s 38-31 triumph over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, which took place exactly three years ago today. The 18-yard score from Trace McSorley gave the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game after Penn State went down 28-7 late in the first half.
As for the man who caught the ball, Barkley is a once-in-a-generation talent who played a huge role in putting the Nittany Lions back on the map. His 1,898 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns generated legitimate Heisman hype entering the 2017 season, and he eventually was picked No. 2 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.
2017: Liam Folkes’ Double-Overtime, Big Ten-Winning Breakaway Goal
Believe it or not, Saquon Barkley wasn’t the only No. 26 to win a Big Ten title for Penn State in the 2010s.
Penn State hockey entered the 2017 Big Ten tournament as the No. 4 seed, and it needed at least two wins to have a shot at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Guy Gadowsky’s squad dispatched Michigan 4-1 in its quarterfinal matchup to set up a date with Minnesota, the conference’s top seed, in the semifinal round the next evening.
The Nittany Lions found a way to grind out a 4-3 double-overtime victory over the Golden Gophers to set up their showdown with Wisconsin. Folkes’ double-overtime dagger capped off a weekend in which Penn State played almost four full games worth of hockey in three days — a daunting, grueling task for even the most well-conditioned players.
The goal was huge for Penn State, which has hovered right around the NCAA tournament equation ever since Folkes’ goal, but the wing from Scarborough, Ontario also became a more confident player after that. Folkes totaled just 13 points in his freshman year, but he steadily grew into one of the program’s most important players and a key cog on the Nittany Lions’ deadly top line.
2018: Bo Nickal’s Reversal, Pin Of Ohio State’s Myles Martin In NCAA Finals To Clinch The Team Title
“We win team titles at Penn State. That’s what we do!”
Bo Nickal’s insane reversal and pin of Ohio State’s Myles Martin was the culmination of an intense, one-sided “rivalry.” Nickal went 9-2 against Martin throughout their collegiate careers — including the Nittany Lion’s title-sealing fall in 2018. If the context of Nickal and Martin’s feud wasn’t enough, the fall clinched the 2018 overall team title for Penn State, holding off Martin’s Buckeyes.
The Nittany Lions claimed eight of the 10 national championships awarded in college wrestling throughout the decade. If Cael Sanderson’s program doesn’t define the word “dominant,” I really don’t know what else can.
2015: Penn State Women’s Soccer’s First-Ever National Championship
Penn State women’s soccer has garnered a bit of a reputation as one of the university’s truly elite athletic programs. The team’s first-ever national championship in 2015 is a pretty big reason why that’s the case.
Rocky Rodriguez’s left-footed strike in the 72nd minute was enough to take down Duke 1-0 in the national championship game, which was played in Cary, North Carolina. Goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom shut out every opponent she faced in the NCAA tournament as the Nittany Lions — that year’s No. 1 overall seed — dominated Albany, Boston University, Ohio State, and West Virginia on their way to the Final Four.
Penn State picked up a fairly comfortable 2-0 win over Rutgers in its national semifinal contest before capping off a magical 22-3-2 season with the first national title by a Big Ten team in women’s soccer history.
2018: Penn State Men’s Basketball Wins The NIT
Yes, Penn State men’s basketball was a major source of agony for fans in Happy Valley for most of the 2010s. However, the Nittany Lions broke through and captured glory under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden at the end of the 2017-18 season.
The Nittany Lions took down Temple, Notre Dame, Marquette, and Utah to capture their second NIT title in program history. To this day, the NIT is the only major piece of silverware won by Pat Chambers during his eight-plus years in charge of the program, but beating Utah at the World’s Most Famous Arena is easily his finest moment as a head coach.
Lamar Stevens scored 28 points en route to earning MVP honors for the tournament, and Tony Carr put up 15 points and 14 assists in what would be his final game as a Nittany Lion. Although the team hasn’t replicated its NIT success since capturing the title in 2018, very few teams in college basketball can say they’ve celebrated a title and cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden.
2014: Penn State Women’s Volleyball’s Then-NCAA Record Seventh National Championship
Penn State women’s volleyball head coach Russ Rose knows a thing or two about winning national titles, and he experienced just that three times throughout the 2010s. We’ve singled out his team’s 2014 national title as one of the 10 best moments of the decade.
The Nittany Lions’ final match of the 2014 season — a 25-21, 26-24, 25-14 sweep of unseeded BYU — may not have been all that special. But the victory gave Rose’s program its sixth title in eight seasons and a then-NCAA record seven national championships. Stanford has since broken the Nittany Lions’ record, but the 2014 national title was a crowning achievement for one of volleyball’s greatest legends.
Russ Rose and the Nittany Lions are gearing up for another national tournament run as the nation’s No. 11 overall seed. The team will take on Princeton at Rec Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 6.
2014: James Franklin’s Hiring As Head Coach
Bill O’Brien’s sudden departure from Penn State left the program in its second coaching search in three seasons. The university eventually settled on Langhorne, Pennsylvania native and Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin as the man to lead Penn State’s football program forward.
Franklin officially became the 16th head football coach in program history on January 11, 2014, and it’s safe to say that his hire has worked out fairly well. In six full seasons as head coach, Franklin’s posted a 55-23 record, won a Big Ten title, secured appearances in the Rose and Fiesta Bowls, and most importantly, brought Penn State football back to national relevance after crippling sanctions.
It might’ve taken two-and-a-half seasons for the Nittany Lions to return to the big time, but Penn State football emerged from the ashes in no small part to the culture and values that James Franklin has instilled in his program. He’s led the team to three 10-win seasons in the past four years, which hadn’t been done in Happy Valley since the mid-1990s, and he’s done so while improving the team’s graduation rate.
2014: Sam Ficken’s Game-Winning Extra Point In The Pinstripe Bowl
The 2014 season was a big one for kicker and noted legend Sam Ficken, who began and ended the year by winning games with his magical right boot.
Penn State football kicked off the year in Dublin, Ireland, and Ficken smashed home a 36-yard field goal to top UCF 26-24 and give James Franklin his first victory in charge of the Nittany Lions. His second game-winner at a neutral site, however, had an even bigger impact on the program.
Ficken forced overtime in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl by drilling a 45-yard field goal with 20 seconds left before converting an extra point in overtime to give Penn State a 31-30 victory — its first postseason victory of the post-sanctions era.
Although the Pinstripe Bowl doesn’t really line up with the Nittany Lions’ current aspirations, the victory over Boston College was another step in the healing process for Penn State.
2014-2015: Sanctions Lifted, Joe Paterno’s Wins Restored
We might be cheating a little bit, but we’re looping a few moments into this part of the post, but they’re connected for obvious reasons.
In 2012, the NCAA’s sanctions levied on Penn State football in the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal included a four-year postseason ban and vacating 111 of Joe Paterno’s victories earned from 1998 to 2011. As the team returned to action in 2012, 2013, and 2014, those sanctions were gradually washed away.
The Nittany Lions’ postseason ban was cut short in September 2014 after the university made “significant progress towards ensuring its athletic department functions with integrity.” Penn State officially became bowl eligible with a 30-13 victory over Temple on November 15, but Paterno’s wins were still vacated at that time.
The NCAA announced that it would gradually restore the 40 total scholarships taken away from Penn State as part of the sanctions and consider restoring Paterno’s wins in 2013. The legendary head coach’s wins were officially restored on January 16, 2015 after the NCAA settled a lawsuit brought by State Senator Jake Corman and Treasurer Rob McCord.
One of the victories that was restored was Joe Paterno’s record-breaking 409th victory — a 10-7 triumph over Illinois on October 29, 2011 — that’ll undoubtedly be remembered in Penn State folklore.
- Football’s Senior Day (2012): “This program was not built by one man, and this program sure as hell is not going to get torn down by one man.” Linebacker Michael Mauti’s iconic words immediately following the crippling sanctions handed down to Penn State football set the tone for a 2012 season in which the Nittany Lions stunned the college football world. Penn State went 8-4, and the seniors who stuck around during the toughest times in program history were rewarded with a thrilling 24-21 overtime victory on Senior Day.
- Cael Sanderson’s First National Title With Penn State (2011): Penn State wrestling head coach Cael Sanderson led his team to its first of eight (!!!) national titles won over the last decade in 2011, just two years after stunning the wrestling world by choosing to coach at Penn State.
- Aarne Talvitie, Evan Barratt play for Gold at the U-20 World Junior Championships (2019): The World Juniors might not be the most popular sporting event in the United States, but it’s truly the grandest stage an amateur hockey can play on. Talvitie captained his native Finland to a 3-2 victory over Barratt and Team USA while finishing the Gold Medal Game on a torn ACL. The two players were Penn State’s first-ever representatives at the tournament, and they both returned to Hockey Valley with a medal.
- Opening Night at Pegula Ice Arena (2013): The night of October 11, 2013 was the culmination of years of hard work by pioneers like Terry Pegula and Joe Battista. Nate Jensen’s slapshot from the point set the tone for Penn State hockey’s 4-1 victory over Army and years of high-flying, attacking-oriented hockey at Pegula Ice Arena.
- No. 2 Penn State 42, No. 19 Michigan 13 (2017): Happy Valley was well and truly the center of the college football world on October 19, 2017. ESPN’s College GameDay returned to Happy Valley for the first time in nearly 10 years, and the show preluded a dominant victory by James Franklin’s squad. Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley each scored three touchdowns in front of a then-record crowd of 110,823.
- No. 9 USC 52, No. 5 Penn State 49 (2017): Sure, Penn State came out on the wrong end of the 2017 Rose Bowl against USC, but there’s no denying the fact that the game was an instant classic and one of the best Rose Bowls ever played. Saquon Barkley announced himself as perhaps the very best player in college football with an electrifying 79-yard rushing score early in the third quarter.
- Penn State men’s basketball’s three-game sweep of Ohio State (2018): Aside from its NIT triumph, Penn State’s best basketball achievement of the 2010s was perhaps a three-game sweep of Ohio State in 2018. It all began with a Tony Carr buzzer-beater from the parking lot in Columbus before Pat Chambers’ squad destroyed the Buckeyes 79-56 at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Nittany Lions capped off their three-game sweep by bouncing the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten tournament with a 69-68 win at Madison Square Garden.
- Trace McSorley’s Commitment To Penn State (2014): Three-star quarterbacks committing to a football program usually aren’t the biggest news stories, but Trace McSorley is an exception. The quarterback quickly flipped from Vanderbilt to Happy Valley after James Franklin’s hiring by Penn State became official. McSorley messed around and broke the program’s records for wins (31), passing yards (9,899), and countless others while winning a Big Ten title and a Fiesta Bowl en route to becoming a Penn State legend.
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About the Author
As the days of the 2010s dwindle, we decided to look back at some of the changes that have shaped the decade and gotten us to where we are today.
The Nittany Lions and Happy Valley are common themes in many holiday classics.
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