Brandon Smith — with a stunned look as he peered around the University of Phoenix Stadium locker room with an open smile — still couldn’t believe it.
Thirty minutes after Penn State pulled out a 35-28 win over Washington at Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, 30 minutes after the end of his storybook career, he couldn’t believe that Huskies wide receiver Dante Pettis, in the process of a desperate hook-and-ladder, tossed the football in his direction on the game-clinching play.
“It was right to me,” Smith said, still gawking with his shoulder pads and jersey covered by a navy blue “CHAMPIONS” shirt. “But once it came down into my hands, I was so happy to finish the game that way and finish my career that way. It was a special moment.”
With five seconds and a kneel down to go, it was the moment that secured the Nittany Lions’ shaky win. It secured back-to-back 11-win seasons and a righteous sendoff for Penn State’s seniors.
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And it put a bow on Smith’s previously unexpected career.
A former walk-on tight end who had to beg the coaching staff for a move to linebacker, Smith did not appear in his redshirt freshman campaign and made one tackle a year later. It wasn’t until a rash of injuries at linebacker in 2016 that Smith saw action. The Lewisburg graduate made eight tackles after Nyeem Wartman-White went down against Temple, started his first-ever game at No. 4 Michigan and finished the season with the sixth-most tackles on the team (54).
Smith began the 2017 campaign as kind of a fourth-man at linebacker — but started the final four games of the season following Manny Bowen’s suspension and eventual dismissal. In those four games, he tallied 35 tackles to bring his season total to 62 (third on the team).
And after making seven stops in Arizona, it was his instincts that polished off a rollercoaster career, one that now won’t soon be forgotten.
On fourth-and-10 at their own 27-yard line with 15 seconds left, the Huskies needed a first down to continue the game and get quarterback Jake Browning within reasonable Hail Mary range. On a 12-yard in route, Washington wideout Aaron Fuller caught Browning’s pass — but flipped it to Pettis on a hook-and-ladder. Pettis bolted down the sideline to the 50-yard line, and with eight seconds left, he could have stepped out of bounds to give Browning that Hail Mary prayer.
Instead, Pettis — who was surrounded by Marcus Allen, Grant Haley and Amani Oruwariye — threw it backward, apparently targeting center Coleman Shelton.
But Smith was there.
“I saw that they already pitched it once. Maybe they were going to try it again,” Smith said shrugging. “I tried to get in a throwing lane.”
Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer saw Pettis pitch it backward but couldn’t tell who came up with the ball.
“And of course it would be Smitty,” Farmer said shaking his head. “It’s a testament to him and how much he’s been through at this program. For him to come up with the game ball with seconds left, it would just be him.
“With everything he’s been through, I couldn’t be more excited and more grateful for him.”
Smith expressed similar gratitude for the opportunity he was given at Penn State. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry played a major role, and so did the teammates who vouched for him as a walk-on. Smith also made sure to give credit to God and thank his wife, Andrea. “She’s been through so much with my busy schedule, and I love her,” the linebacker said.
Smith — a member of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team as a volunteer in the community — is a “role model to everyone on the team,” according to Hamilton.
“For him to seal the deal for us,” the senior wideout added, “it marks the end of his career on the right note.”
Smith couldn’t have agreed more.
“Without my faith in Jesus, I don’t think it would’ve went the same way,” Smith said. “To have peace and joy through harder times as a walk-on, it’s a tough journey. To come out and finish this way, it’s amazing.
“I’m just glad I had this experience.”