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Six Underrated & Important Penn State Football Games From The Past Decade

Now with a 7-5 record to finish the 2021 regular season, Penn State football is entering postseason play through a bowl that fans didn’t have circled on their calendars back in early October.

The Nittany Lions will face No. 21 Arkansas in the Outback Bowl on January 1. There’s no denying that this game might not be up to the New Year’s Six standard Penn State has set for itself over the past few seasons.

However, there’s plenty of games in which Penn State teams have played that haven’t necessarily been considered “sexy” or “important” by fans but ended up being extremely valuable for the Nittany Lions overall. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most underrated, important games for Penn State of recent memory.

October 1, 2016: Overtime Win Over Minnesota

Everyone loves to talk about the famous win over No. 2 Ohio State that launched Penn State to its meteoric rise, but what about the victory that kept the season alive entirely?

After Penn State opened the season 2-2 and came off a dreadful 49-10 loss to Michigan, fans at Beaver Stadium were quite literally booing Franklin and his team when it carried a 13-3 deficit to Minnesota into halftime. The Nittany Lions woke up, however, and scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter. Trace McSorley famously led a drive down the field during the final seconds of regulation that set up Tyler Davis for a 40-yard field goal.

That kick sent the game to overtime, and stud sophomore running back Saquon Barkley did the rest.

The 29-26 win over the Golden Gophers set off a nine-game win streak that culminated in a Big Ten Championship for Penn State. It was a cold, rainy day in Beaver Stadium, and attendance was plenty low, but the importance of this victory can’t be overstated.

December 27, 2014: Pinstripe Bowl Victory Over Boston College

Ah yes, the Pinstripe Bowl! Plenty of fond memories here for Penn State fans.

In their first bowl game since the NCAA’s sanctions were lifted, the Nittany Lions just snuck by Boston College in an electric victory at Yankee Stadium. In a back-and-forth battle with the Eagles, Christian Hackenberg paced the Nittany Lions with 371 passing yards and four touchdowns on 34 completions.

Kicker Sam Ficken — who used Derek Jeter’s locker at the stadium — was the other star of the day. Boston College managed to take the lead back down the stretch, but the stud special teamer hit a 45-yarder with 20 seconds left to send the game to overtime.

Boston College struck first in the extra period but missed the extra point. Hackenberg responded by hitting Kyle Carter for his fourth touchdown pass of the day, and the rest was history for Ficken.

The win was emotional on so many levels. Ficken had a brutal start to the 2012 season and tough moments in 2013, but that extra point was the culmination of his journey to becoming a folk hero for the Nittany Lions. It was also a perfect finish to James Franklin’s first season in Happy Valley and locked up a 7-6 record for his group.

Finally, it was the beginning of Penn State’s journey back to national prominence. It wasn’t a massive win in a New Year’s Six Bowl over a national powerhouse, but it sure meant a whole lot to a team and a university that was still getting back on their feet.

August 30, 2014: Win Over UCF In The ‘Croke Park Classic’

On the other end of that 2014 season, James Franklin started his tenure as Penn State’s head coach across the pond in Dublin, Ireland.

The Nittany Lions battled UCF in the Croke Park Classic and managed a narrow 26-24 victory to open the season. Penn State took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter thanks to a 79-yard connection between Hackenberg and Geno Lewis, but the Knights managed quite the comeback that gave them a one-point lead with a minute remaining.

Sensing a trend here, folks?

The Nittany Lions earned a 55-yard drive that set Ficken up for a 36-yard field goal, and that teed up another legendary moment in No. 97’s Penn State career.

Again, based on the standard Penn State has set up for itself over the past few seasons, fans may not think about this win all that often. But still, it set up a four-game winning streak to open Franklin’s time at Penn State, and was a flat-out awesome victory. Seriously, check out the highlights here.

September 12, 2015: Week Two Win Over Buffalo

Considering this was a mediocre season sandwiched between Franklin’s first year and the Big Ten Championship, there’s a lot of 2015 games that likely get forgotten.

This 27-14 win over Buffalo was on a rainy fall Saturday at Beaver Stadium and came one week after a historically embarrassing loss to Temple in which Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times. On the surface, there wasn’t a whole lot that was memorable about this win, as Penn State’s offense did just enough to slide by an interior opponent.

Carl Nassib led the way on defense with three sacks, which was the start of a record-setting season for the former walk-on run-on defensive end. Along with that, a young freshman running back named Saquon Barkley led the Nittany Lions with 115 rushing yards and a touchdown. The kid out of Coplay, Pa. impressed when he hurdled a Buffalo defender to set Penn State’s offense up in the red zone — something fans become accustomed to over the next three seasons.

This performance set up quite a freshman season and Penn State career for Barkley. He totaled 195 rushing yards against Rutgers the following week and finished the year with five total 100-yard performances. Barkley had a pretty solid next two seasons in Happy Valley, to say the least, but that rainy day against Buffalo was the first Nittany Lion fans got to see of No. 26.

October 25, 2014: Double-Overtime Defeat To Ohio State

It was a loss, but man was this a fun game to watch.

In James Franklin’s first White Out as Penn State’s head coach, the Nittany Lions fell to No. 13 Ohio State 31-24 in a double-overtime thriller. In a crazy defensive effort, star linebacker Mike Hull made a ridiculous 19 tackles, while the Nittany Lions held the Buckeyes to just under 300 total offensive yards. Brandon Bell, a young Marcus Allen, Anthony Zettel, and a host of other Penn State defenders added value on that side of the ball.

Zettel’s electric pick-six was what sparked a 17-point comeback for Franklin’s team, while Saeed Blacknall and Ficken made big plays to send the game to overtime. Eventually, it was some questionable refereeing and a Joey Bosa bull-rush sack that would take down Penn State in the second overtime period.

Despite the tough defeat, the Nittany Lions proved a lot by hanging with the eventual national champions that season. While Penn State was throttled by the Buckeyes the following year, 2014’s White Out served as a bit of a pre-cursor for what was to come in 2016. Check out the highlights here.

November 30, 2013: Season Finale Win Over Wisconsin

The Senior Day (bunch of f***ers) win over Wisconsin in 2012 gets plenty of shine as one of the greatest moments of the Bill O’Brien era — and for good reason. But the 2013 win over the Badgers, which ended up being O’Brien’s final game as Penn State’s head coach, was pretty awesome in its own right.

With bowl-game sanctions still in effect, the late November game at Camp Randall Stadium would be Penn State’s final of the season no matter what. The Nittany Lions certainly acted like it, as the Badgers entered the game ranked No. 14 in the country with a 9-2 record and BCS aspirations. Penn State, who entered the game as 24-point underdogs with a 6-5 record, went toe-to-toe with a talented Wisconsin team.

True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for four scores and 339 yards, while the Nittany Lions’ defense made timely stops and grabbed three interceptions. Hackenberg’s biggest scores of the day were a 68-yard toss to Adam Breneman to open the afternoon and a 59-yard bomb to Geno Lewis that put Penn State up 17 in the fourth quarter.

The Nittany Lions finished 2013 7-5 with a couple of brutal losses, but this win epitomized how important Bill O’Brien was to the program. Those teams battled hard over those two seasons — with no bowl game to play for — to keep Penn State football alive. That win over a high-ranked Wisconsin team was the perfect example of the grit and never-give-up attitude that O’Brien instilled in his players.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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