We’re counting down the days until kickoff. So, every day, we’ll try to make that time tick by just a little faster by also counting down the top 30 moments of James Franklin’s tenure so far. Up next — with two days left — is the No. 2 moment since Franklin took the head-coaching job.
No. 2 moment: Penn State wins Big Ten Championship
To those who believe this is the No. 1 moment in James Franklin’s tenure, that is totally understandable. But given how it changed the landscape of the program, there’s a different game we have reserved for the top spot.
So here we are, nearly nine months removed from one of the biggest — and most thrilling — contests in Penn State football history.
On the back of Trace McSorley and a stringent defense, the Nittany Lions pulled off an all-time comeback, roaring back to beat Wisconsin 38-31 on Dec. 3, 2016, in the Big Ten Championship.
McSorley set records, Saquon Barkley scored the decisive touchdown, the Nittany Lions came up with a memorable fourth-down stop, and they all had a chance to lift the trophy — Penn State’s second-ever outright conference title.
But for much of the first half, it looked as if Penn State might be on the receiving end of a blowout.
Despite an eye-popping 33-yard touchdown grab by Mike Gesicki, Penn State trailed 14-7 in the second quarter.
A high snap fumbled and returned for a touchdown by Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly didn’t help. Neither did Franklin’s failed fourth-down attempt in Penn State’s own territory, leading to a Dare Ogunbowale score to make it 28-7 Wisconsin.
But Penn State wideout Saeed Blacknall cut the deficit right before halftime by turning and burning into the end zone on a comeback route for a 40-yard touchdown,
At 28-14, the second-half friendly Nittany Lions were within striking distance. And, of course, the rest were fond memories for Penn State and its traveling supporters.
McSorley opened the second half with a 70-yard bomb to Blacknall, Barkley scored on a 1-yard run to tie it at 28-28, and the back later caught a perfectly thrown 18-yard pass on a wheel route to put Penn State ahead 35-31.
Tyler Davis connected on a 24-yard field goal to push Penn State lead to 38-31 with 5:14 to go in regulation. All the Nittany Lions’ defense had to do was hold on.
And to their credit, it did.
On 4th-and-1 from Penn State’s 24-yard line with a minute to play, the Nittany Lions held firm. Wisconsin running back Corey Clement received the handoff, trying to get a first down and keep the Badgers’ hopes alive, but Grant Haley and Marcus Allen stopped him short.
The Penn State sideline erupted in celebration, and soon after, the confetti fell and the silver football trophy was passed around among the players.
There was a range of emotions on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium: shock, relief, pure bliss.
Franklin, along with his players, walked off the turf as Big Ten champions. After a 2-2 start, no one would’ve predicted that’d be the case.
But it happened, and it’s arguably Franklin’s greatest achievement as a coach.