Penn State Football: A New Beginning

Opinion/Story posted December 29, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Matt Lawrence

The first chapter of the narrative has been written. A once proud and storied program, crippled to its core by a deviant former coach, and a corrupt organization looking to put it away for good.

Saturday night, under the bright lights of a sold-out Yankee Stadium, the page turned, and a new chapter began. A glimmer of hope for a team and fan base that just three years ago, sat amidst its darkest of days.

It seems like yesterday that I sat outside Gate A of Beaver Stadium, on a cold November night that would change the shape of Penn State football forever. At the time, I was a freshman, gathered amongst hundreds of others camping out at the formerly named “Paternoville”, where the Nittany Lions were set for a weekend showdown with Nebraska.

But this Wednesday night was different. Joe Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees and the eyes of the sports world shifted towards Happy Valley.

The hits kept coming over the next 24 months for the Nittany Lions. After Bill O’Brien had appeared to quickly turn the corner with recruiting commitments from Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman, the NCAA announced a four-year bowl ban and loss of 20 scholarships for the football program in July of 2012.

But like a heavyweight fighter, taking blow after blow, they fought back.

With Saturday’s win in the New Era Pin Stripe Bowl over Boston College, Penn State recorded its 10th consecutive season with a winning record. That’s a longer such streak than Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama and Notre Dame. All while playing the past three seasons with severe roster limitations.

In many ways, the win over Boston College epitomized the rollercoaster that was the 2014 season. Christian Hackenberg sent the largely Penn State crowd into a frenzy with a first quarter 72-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin.

However, the Eagles would score the next 21 points and James Franklin’s club faced a two-touchdown deficit late in the third quarter. And as they have done so many times, the Nittany Lions clawed back.

Hackenberg tossed two more touchdowns and with 25 seconds remaining, Sam Ficken lined up for a 45-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Just as he did against Central Florida in the opener, and at the end of regulation against Ohio State, the senior, dawning the locker of Yankee great Derek Jeter, calmly knocked it through.

A botched extra point allowed Ficken, for one last time in his career, to be the hero. His extra point after Hackenberg found Kyle Carter for his fourth touchdown pass of the evening, gave the Nittany Lions a 31-30 win, and their first bowl victory since the 2010 Capital One Bowl.

When this team started preseason practice in August, the possibility of Saturday night wasn’t even an option. The NCAA lifted the bowl ban in September and after defeating Temple, they picked up their 6th win to become bowl eligible.

Now, with the sanction-era in the rearview, Franklin and the Penn State community look to the future.

Monday’s announcement that offensive lineman Donovan Smith would be forgoing his senior year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft marks the lone departure amongst offensive players that saw significant playing time this season. That loss becomes easier to replace with top JUCO lineman Paris Palmer set to enroll in January.

It was a night that meant much more than an average seven win season. It was a demonstration of what James Franklin hopes the future holds, and a reminder that the program that many said would be dead for a decade, has put its worst days behind.

Matt Lawrence is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and economics. To contact him, email mdl030293@gmail.com.