Key Moments That Led To Penn State Football’s Turnaround After NCAA Sanctions

Today, Penn State football is preparing to make another run at a Big Ten Championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Ten years ago, though, this seemed impossible.

On July 23, 2012, the Penn State community was rocked when the NCAA imposed sanctions on the football program due to its involvement in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Many across the country thought that was the end of Penn State football, and if it wasn’t, it would take decades for the program to fully recover. But, against all odds, the Nittany Lions did it in just four years.

There were many influential moments between 2012 and 2016 that led Penn State back to national prominence. Many might think of the 2016 White Out victory over Ohio State or winning the Big Ten Championship that same year, but there were many more moments that helped keep Penn State together in a time when many thought it was the end of the Nittany Lions. Let’s take a look at some of the key moments on Penn State’s journey back to glory:

Hiring Bill O’Brien

Former Penn State football head coach Bill O’Brien doesn’t get enough praise for what he did at Penn State.

Leaving his offensive coordinator role with the New England Patriots, a team that was coming off a close Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, to coach a tainted Penn State football program was a massive gamble for him. But, he gave Happy Valley everything he had, and this turnaround doesn’t start without him at the helm. The 2012 season could have been a disaster, but O’Brien helped push the team forward and provided stability in truly unprecedented times, helping the Nittany Lions finish the 2012 season 8-4.

He also recruited many players on the 2016 Penn State football team, such as Mike Gesicki, Jason Cabinda, and Chris Godwin. He even laid the groundwork that got Saquon Barkley to flip his commitment to Penn State from Rutgers.

Michael Mauti And Michael Zordich’s Post-Sanctions Statement

Former Penn State running back Michael Zordich and linebacker Michael Mauti were arguably two of the most influential players in saving Penn State football following the NCAA sanctions, and this is the first example of why.

Just two days after the sanctions were announced, there were coaches already recruiting at University Park since players were able to transfer with immediate eligibility. At one point it felt like every single star on the football team could leave. But Zordich and Mauti, along with most of the team behind them, set the tone for the 2012 season and told the nation that they were going to stick it through the tough times ahead. That statement was echoed throughout Happy Valley and beyond and began what turned into a magical 2012 season for Penn State football.

Penn State’s 2012 Win Over Wisconsin

I mean, talk about something that feels like it was scripted right out of a movie.

From Sam Ficken’s kicking woes at Virginia to controversial calls that never went Penn State’s way, the 2012 season was an emotional roller coaster. But, the Nittany Lions capped it off in a spectacular way. For the first time since 1974, Penn State put No. 42 on the left side of its helmets in a touching tribute to team captain Michael Mauti, who suffered a season-ending injury the week before.

Bill O’Brien’s squad then prevailed in overtime to defeat Wisconsin 24-21 in an emotional victory. Who else but Sam Ficken, the kicker who struggled mightily at the beginning of the season after former starting kicker Anthony Fera transferred from Penn State, kicked what turned into the game-winning field goal.

The victory capped off an 8-4 season for the Nittany Lions, a feat that most thought was impossible. It gave hope to Nittany Nation and told the world that Penn State wasn’t dead. Plus, we got this legendary quote from O’Brien in his postgame interview.

Christian Hackenberg’s Commitment To Penn State

Many may have mixed feelings toward former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but he was the real deal. The Fork Union, Virginia, native committed to Penn State football in February 2012, a massive get for the Nittany Lions at the time. He was the top-ranked recruit in Virginia and the second-best quarterback in the nation.

Not only did Hackenberg commit to Penn State following the scandal, but he stayed committed to Penn State after the NCAA announced its sanctions on the Nittany Lions. His belief in Penn State showed other recruits and prospects that the team may not crumble like many thought, and it directly led to a few notable commitments, such as one from tight end Adam Breneman. Hackenberg went on to have a record-setting freshman year before staying stagnant in his final two years with the blue and white, but his impact on the team can’t be forgotten.

Penn State’s 2013 White Out Win Over No. 18 Michigan

It took a season and a half, but Penn State finally got its signature win under Bill O’Brien when it knocked off No. 18 Michigan in four overtimes to win 43-40. This was another game that felt like it was taken right out of a movie. From sudden lead changes to late-game heroics, this battle had it all. Allen Robinson’s catch at the one-yard line with under 30 seconds left will go down as one of the best plays in program history.

If that wasn’t crazy enough, overtime was even more chaotic. The highlight was Penn State’s special teams coming through and blocking a potential game-winning field goal from the Wolverines. Penn State then won the game on Bill Belton’s touchdown run, and Happy Valley was finally able to celebrate a big win for the first time in what felt like ages.

NCAA Scales Back Sanctions On Penn State

On September 8, 2014, the NCAA announced its sanctions on the Penn State football program would be rolled back. Suddenly, Penn State’s postseason ban was lifted and all of the scholarships that were stripped from the team were restored, per the recommendation of former Senator George J. Mitchell.

Mitchell was hired to monitor Penn State in the aftermath of the sanctions, and he felt the program and university deserved to have the sanctions dropped after its response to the scandal. Penn State got one step closer to being fully back and had its eyes set on the postseason.

2014 Pinstripe Bowl Victory Over Boston College

Penn State won its first bowl game in three years with a 31-30 overtime victory over Boston College in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl. It was another Penn State classic and come-from-behind win.

The Nittany Lions started hot with a Chris Godwin 72-yard touchdown reception from Christian Hackenberg, but Boston College’s three unanswered touchdowns put James Franklin’s squad in a hole. On the last play of the third quarter, though, wide receiver Geno Lewis caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to get Penn State within one score. After a Penn State touchdown followed by a Boston College field goal, the game came down to Sam Ficken with 20 seconds left in regulation as Penn State was down 24-21. Ficken then drove a 45-yard kick through the uprights to tie the game.

Boston College then started overtime with a 21-yard touchdown reception but missed the extra point. Penn State’s Kyle Carter hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass to set Sam Ficken up for the game-winning extra point, which he made with ease to seal James Franklin’s biggest victory with Penn State up to that point.

Penn State’s 2016 Overtime Victory Over Minnesota

Following the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl, things weren’t looking too great for the Nittany Lions. The 2015 season was mediocre at best, as Penn State finished with another 7-5 record and a 24-17 TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia. Nittany Nation had its hopes up for the program before the 2016 season, but the team started 2-2, which included a 49-10 blowout loss at Michigan. James Franklin was on the hot seat, and it felt like the season was going to be an inevitable failure until an undefeated Minnesota came to Happy Valley.

After trailing for most of the game, Tyler Davis nailed a 40-yard field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 23-23. The Gophers started overtime with a 46-yard field goal to go ahead 26-23. Then, Saquon Barkley called game on the first play of overtime as he deked through multiple Minnesota defenders to score the game-winning touchdown. The victory helped spark Penn State’s incredible 8-0 run to end the 2016 season.

Grant Haley’s Kick-Six Against No. 2 Ohio State

Heading into the 2016 White Out against Ohio State, there was a belief that Penn State could potentially pull off the upset. The last time the Buckeyes visited Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions fell in overtime after a few blown calls from the officials.

Penn State’s offense was quiet until a 20-yard touchdown reception by Chris Godwin got Penn State to within five points at halftime. But, Ohio State started the second half with a quick touchdown and safety to take the life out of Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions were able to regain some life with a quick touchdown, and an underrated blocked punt on the following drive brought Penn State back in the game. On the next drive, Tyler Durbin set up for a 45-yard field goal, and the rest is history.

2016 Big Ten Championship Victory

Of all these moments, this is the one you can point to and say this was the signature mark.

In another back-and-forth game, Penn State came back from down three touchdowns just before halftime to overcome No. 6 Wisconsin and march forward to a 38-31 victory. This game was filled with signature moments. From Trace McSorley’s numerous hail mary throws to Saquon Barkley’s famous wheel route, that game felt like a movie. Perhaps, the best moment came when Marcus Allen made the game-winning stop on 4th and 1 to secure the victory.

And just like that, Penn State football was back.

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About the Author

Frankie Marzano

Frankie is a senior accounting and economics major from Long Island, NY. You can probably recognize him as the typical Italian-American with slicked back black hair. He is an avid fan of the New York Rangers and Mets, along with every Penn State Athletics team. Follow him on Twitter @frankiemarzano for obnoxious amounts of Rangers and Penn State content or email him at [email protected].

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