Sports

Penn State takes down Ohio State

Penn State football coach James Franklin celebrates with the Penn State crowd after the 24-21 win over Ohio State on Saturday, October 22, 2016 game at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State football coach James Franklin celebrates with the Penn State crowd after the 24-21 win over Ohio State on Saturday, October 22, 2016 game at Beaver Stadium. adrey@centredaily.com

The sea of white normally reserved for the metal bleachers of Beaver Stadium flooded the field, as fans jumped down from the steel rails behind the goalposts of the south end zone.

Penn State cheerleaders, smiles forged on their faces, huddled up by security officers for safety as much as unity.

And students linked arms with players, looked up into the brisk night sky, and belted the alma mater.

It was a scene unlike any other — and it was accomplished in the most chaotic of ways.

Penn State, a three-touchdown underdog, pulled off a highly-improbable 24-21 upset of No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday night in front of a White Out crowd of 107,280 at Beaver Stadium. Highlighted by a Twitter-exploding, crowd-igniting blocked field goal returned by Grant Haley for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-1) secured their first win over a top-two opponent since their win over No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990.

Penn State head coach James Franklin, voice hoarse and drenched in sweat and gratefulness, didn’t want to necessarily talk about “signature wins.”

“I don’t want to think about the big picture right now. I just want to soak this all in,” Franklin said, before banging on the podium with both hands. “I just want to enjoy tonight.”

Franklin though said he understood the significance of defeating the Buckeyes (7-1, 3-1). Penn State’s last top-five win was against No. 4 Arizona in 1999, so by ranking, this was the Nittany Lions’ biggest win in nearly two decades.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said even after a 49-10 loss to Michigan last month, he knew his team could manage to knock off the Buckeyes.

He felt especially sure when he saw his teammate stumble into the end zone with just minutes to go in regulation.

After a blocked punt by freshman linebacker Cam Brown set up a field goal to pull the Nittany Lions within four points of Ohio State with 9:33 left to go, Penn State again stepped up on special teams.

The Buckeyes tried to milk a bit of clock on their ensuing possession, driving into Penn State territory. A third-down stop forced Ohio State to send out its placekicker Tyler Durbin to attempt a 45-yard field goal.

The kick, a bit low, didn’t make it past the line of scrimmage. An emotionally-charged Marcus Allen, Penn State’s swift safety, jumped and batted the kick to the ground.

Haley, a fellow defensive back, scooped it up and ran it back 60 yards to the house for a touchdown. Tyler Davis’ extra point awarded Penn State a 24-21 lead with 4:27 left in regulation.

When Allen blocked the kick and saw Haley gallop toward the north end zone, he couldn’t help himself.

“It felt so good,” a wide-smiled Allen said. “I wanted to cry. We did it man. We did it.”

Haley reflected on the play, as well.

“It’s something that people dream about,” Haley said of the return and subsequent atmosphere. “It put Penn State back on the map. We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight.”

Meanwhile, his teammates watched from the sidelines. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley joked that he wouldn’t let Haley ever live it down if he was caught by Ohio State’s kicker or long-snapper, which almost happened as the cornerback barreled into the end zone.

But there was no postgame ribbing necessary. Haley helped cap the thought-to-be-impossible upset.

“It was like a movie,” Barkley said. “It won the game.”

But Haley wouldn’t have been in that position if it weren’t for a resurgent Penn State offense early in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions weren’t moving the ball at will by any means — they finished with 276 total yards to Ohio State’s 413.

At the start of the fourth quarter, Penn State trailed Ohio State 21-7 with little working in its favor. The Nittany Lions gathered in a huddle during the commercial break before the final period got underway.

McSorley chronicled an impassioned rally.

“We have 15 minutes left in this game to make history,” the quarterback recalled. “We can give all that we can for 15 minutes, and that’s going to define tonight and define the rest of our season.”

Without any real offensive momentum, Penn State’s opening drive of the fourth quarter was brought to life by a 37-yard Barkley run, followed by a 35-yard pass from McSorley to Saeed Blacknall down to Ohio State’s two-yard line.

Two plays later, McSorley scrambled right and dove for the pylon — after review, his two-yard touchdown run stood, and the Nittany Lions were back in it.

McSorley, also chipping in a 20-yard, back-shoulder touchdown throw to Chris Godwin with seconds to go in the second quarter, completed 8 of 23 passes for 154 yards and contributed 63 yards on the ground.

Barkley had 99 rushing yards on 12 carries, and Mike Gesicki led the Nittany Lions with four catches for 46 yards.

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense didn’t click like it did against Maryland, but it ultimately didn’t matter.

The Nittany Lions generated enough momentum-swinging plays — McSorley’s run, Brown’s block punt, and most importantly, Allen’s blocked field goal picked up and ran home by Haley.

And in a memorable performance by the defense — in which linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell returned from injury and combined for 31 tackles — it was a pair of sacks, one by Cabinda and the other by Kevin Givens and Evan Schwan, on third and fourth down of Ohio State’s final drive that allowed Penn State to run out in the victory formation.

In the mind of Franklin and the players, none of it was possible without the Beaver Stadium crowd and support throughout State College.

“We weren’t going to beat the No. 2 team in the country by ourselves,” Franklin said. “This community has been through so much the last five years, and this is a big step in the right direction in terms of healing … A win like tonight, I believe that football has the ability to bring a community together like nothing else.”

The coach also thanked Penn State president Eric Barron and athletic director Sandy Barbour, who “came out strong” supporting Franklin and the program in recent weeks.

But ultimately, all Franklin wanted to do was leave the media room and re-join his players. There was a celebration in the locker room.

It was a scene to behold on the field — and he promised it was the same behind-the-scenes.

“I’ve been to some pretty good parties,” Franklin said with a grin. “But there’s no party like the one in that locker room right now.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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