A misty-eyed James Franklin, minutes after Penn State’s biggest win in recent memory, made it abundantly clear.
His Nittany Lions couldn’t have pulled a massive upset over then-No. 2 Ohio State without a support system.
“It was going to take the lettermen, it was going to take the fans, it was going to take the students,” Franklin said late Saturday night. “It was going to take this entire community coming together to get this win.”
As thousands flooded the field at Beaver Stadium, even more watched from afar on ABC — and some of them would’ve been in that celebration had it happened a year or two ago.
As Grant Haley returned Marcus Allen’s blocked field goal for an upset-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Penn State lettermen across the country lost their minds, jumping off their couches, yelling at their TVs, and later reflecting on what the Nittany Lions’ return to the national conversation meant for Franklin and the program they left behind.
“That win really does hold a lot of meaning for all the lettermen,” former Penn State wide receiver Matt Zanellato said. “For the lettermen it kind of solidified why we stayed, and why we fought so hard to keep the program together.”
Zanellato, a Nittany Lion from 2011-15, was there for everything that’s happened to the Penn State football program in recent years. From the sanctions levied on July 24, 2012, to the Nittany Lions’ 2014 overtime Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College after their postseason ban was lifted, Zanellato remembers it all.
And despite sanctions — the bowl ban, scholarship reductions, removal of wins, and $60 million fine — he was certain that the Nittany Lions would be back.
That belief has been ingrained in his former teammates, too.
That win is as big as it gets...There’s going to be tremendous momentum for the program going forward.
Miles Dieffenbach, former Penn State offensive lineman
Former Penn State offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach, a 2014 captain in his final season, watched the thrilling win over the Buckeyes at home in Pittsburgh.
He, like most fans at Beaver Stadium, sensed momentum swing in Ohio State’s favor in the third quarter. A 74-yard touchdown run by Curtis Samuel and, shortly after, a high snap-turned-safety was suboptimal.
As the weather worsened and Beaver Stadium fell into a lull, Ohio State led 21-7 heading into the fourth quarter.
“It would’ve been easy for them to fold,” Dieffenbach said. “But they held strong. The coaches kept them going, and they fought.”
Fellow 2014 captain C.J. Olaniyan was thinking the same thing.
Olaniyan, a disruptive defensive end in his time with the Nittany Lions, was tempted to travel to State College for the White Out affair.
But he made a promise he couldn’t break.
“My daughter wanted to go to the movies on Saturday,” Olaniyan said. “I didn’t want to disappoint her.”
However, he took her to an afternoon showing; he needed to be home in time to watch the game.
And when he saw the play that has highlighted Penn State’s season and Franklin’s tenure so far, he couldn’t help but think back to a few years ago.
“It brought back memories of the Michigan game,” Olaniyan said, referencing Penn State’s wild quadruple-overtime win over the No. 18 Wolverines.
Olaniyan said he wasn’t surprised that Penn State managed to take down the Buckeyes. He saw the players exude the same fight his team had in 2013.
“I’ve seen them play like that before,” Olaniyan said. “I was just excited and really proud to be a Penn Stater.”
So too were Dieffenbach, Zanellato, and hundreds of lettermen expressing their elation across social media.
Ultimately, the former Nittany Lions were overjoyed for the current players. Zanellato said it felt weird not being on the sidelines for the first White Out since he graduated, and Dieffenbach noted he still has plenty of friends on the team.
But in terms of national perception, the win was arguably more important for their former coach.
Franklin, now more than halfway through his third season at the helm, entered Saturday with an 18-14 overall record as Penn State’s head coach. He had yet to defeat a top-25 opponent, as the Nittany Lions beat the teams they should and vice versa.
But Saturday was an opportunity seized to quiet critics — and a reaffirmation of the lettermen’s faith in their former head coach.
“It’s easy for every fan and bystander to sit back and critique when they don’t understand the conditions he’s been coaching under,” Zanellato added. “This means so much to him, and I couldn’t be happier for him. Finally getting a win over a top-five program, that’s really an accumulation of all the years he and the rest of the staff have put in.”
“That win is as big as it gets,” the former lineman said. “There’s going to be tremendous momentum for the program going forward.”