While James Franklin ran to the gargantuan press room for his postgame remarks, the doors to Penn State’s locker room opened.
Moments after the Nittany Lions celebrated their Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin on Saturday night like a scene from Animal House, media members flooded the room to see it in a more subdued state.
There were plenty of smiles and hugs, no doubt, as 300-pound linemen cradled the trophy like a baby. While many still wore goofy grins, others sat at their lockers, keeping to themselves in a brief period of reflection.
Penn State safety Marcus Allen was hanging out in front of his locker; the junior finally took his cleats off, fixed his white skull cap, looked up from the ground, and smiled.
“We’ve been in dogfights like this a lot,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t say it was the hardest game we’ve ever played. We’ve been here before. We know situations like this, and that’s when we step up.”
Before securing a 38-31 win over the Badgers, Penn State was, at one point, down by 21 points. It was the largest comeback win by a Power 5 team in conference championship game history.
It was the team’s mindset, in this example embodied by Allen, that allowed Penn State to walk away Big Ten champions.
The Nittany Lions believed they’d be in Indianapolis for the title game in winter workouts, and despite a 14-point deficit at halftime they knew they belonged.
Now, they’re going to the Rose Bowl.
There are dozens of key plays from Saturday night, but here I’ll point out four that shouldn’t be overlooked.
▪ DaeSean Hamilton, the oft-overlooked member of Penn State’s wideout corps, re-emerged. He was Trace McSorley’s favorite target, hauling in eight catches for 118 yards.
One grab in particular stood out — his David Tyree-esque, ball-against-the-helmet snag to close out the third quarter. Hamilton jumped between two Wisconsin defenders to haul in a mind-boggling 38-yard catch, one that he’ll remember for quite some time.
With the likes of Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall and DeAndre Thompkins, people tend to forget about Hamilton. But this is a guy who hauled in 82 catches as a redshirt freshman; he’s done it before, and he’ll keep making monumental plays for Penn State.
▪ Brandon Bell busted through the gap like he was shot out of a cannon, hurdling a Wisconsin blocker and barreling into Wisconsin quarterback Bart Houston.
Bell stripped Houston, and even though the Badgers recovered, it was a critical play for the Penn State defense. The Nittany Lions were still down 28-21 at the time, so the stop forced a necessary Wisconsin punt.
The offense certainly gained momentum throughout the second half, but Penn State’s defensive adjustments in forcing quick Wisconsin drives played into its comeback.
▪ Speaking of defense, Jordan Smith made an incredibly important tackle.
On 3rd-and-8 from Penn State’s 10-yard line as the third quarter waned, Houston connected with Jazz Peavy on a quick slant. Peavy caught it in stride and could’ve glided into the end zone.
But Smith recovered and grabbed the pass-catcher, wrestling him to the ground before he picked up a first down.
Wisconsin had to settle for a chip-shot field goal, going up 31-28 instead of 35-28.
▪ Saquon Barkley quietly had a fine evening. He was overshadowed by his backfield mate, but the sophomore star had 108 all-purpose yards (88 rushing, 20 receiving) and two touchdowns.
His second score was a wheel route to put the Nittany Lions up 35-31 early in the fourth quarter. It was a perfect throw by McSorley, but also a crisp route run by Barkley, who torched Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt.
▪ Wisconsin’s secondary was lit up by Penn State in the second half — the same group of defensive backs that entered the evening with a nation-leading 21 interceptions.
Eleven of those came in the final three games (Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota), so there’s one of two ways you could’ve viewed Wisconsin’s form coming into the Big Ten title game: the secondary was either on a hot streak, or benefited from facing poor competition.
You can be the judge there.
▪ Going for it on 4th-and-2 from your own 42-yard line in the second quarter was a panic move by James Franklin. The Nittany Lions were down 21-7, but it was too early to try something like that.
That decision and Brian Gaia’s botched snap were forgettable moments for the Nittany Lions.
If they lost, the pair of mistakes would’ve loomed large. Thankfully for Franklin and Gaia, Penn State won.