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Penn State president Eric Barron and his wife, Molly, in the heap of chaos on the Beaver Stadium field, walked hand-in-hand smiling.
They stopped around midfield and watched from afar as James Franklin wrapped up his postgame ESPN interview, and as the scrum started to open, the two joined in the celebration.
The Barrons, Franklin and athletic director Sandy Barbour gathered together, taking a brief moment to enjoy what they all just saw unfold before their eyes.
The scene surrounding them was electric, the mood a mix between ecstasy and affirmation.
Throughout Penn State’s surge into the national rankings and conversation, just a few years removed from “unprecedented” sanctions that were supposed to cripple the football program, it was still up-in-the-air whether the success was here to stay.
Was the win against Ohio State a fluke?
Would this winning streak come to a halt Saturday?
Surely, Penn State couldn’t win a division with Ohio State and Michigan in the mix.
But as the university’s president, athletic director and football coach exchanged hugs and smiles, there was a sense that they, along with everyone in Beaver Stadium, expected the Nittany Lions to return to their past glory.
Penn State hasn’t completed its journey back, but Saturday night was certainly a step along the way.
With a little help from The Horseshoe, the No. 7 Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1) were crowned Big Ten East division champions after dispatching Michigan State 45-12 in front of 97,418. Penn State owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Ohio State, which defeated Michigan earlier in the afternoon, sending the Nittany Lions to Indianapolis next weekend for the Big Ten Championship.
“You couldn’t really write a better story than this,” Penn State senior linebacker Brandon Bell said with a smile, adjusting his black and blue Big Ten East champions hat. “It’s not over yet, but so far it’s what we’ve been preaching to the young guys, to put your head down and keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing and see where it can take you.”
Where’s it taking the Nittany Lions now? Lucas Oil Stadium, to face Big Ten West champions Wisconsin.
Before setting their sights on the Badgers, though, the Nittany Lions had to handle Sparty, and they did so with ease in the second half after a rough start to the game.
By the tears of joy and awe-inspired grins seen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, you couldn’t tell that two hours earlier the Nittany Lions were losing to Michigan State. Penn State trailed the Spartans 12-10 at halftime and didn’t have much to show for its effort (125 yards of offense, four-straight Michigan State scoring drives, etc.).
But the Nittany Lions, like they have all season, flipped the switch at halftime and came out firing all over the field.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley completed 17 of 23 passes for 376 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 22.12 yards per completion.
Junior wide receiver Chris Godwin, who led the Nittany Lions with four catches for 135 yards, hauled in touchdowns of 34 and 59 yards, while tight end Mike Gesicki outjumped a pair of Spartan defenders for a 45-yard score.
For good measure, McSorley threw his fourth touchdown, a 40-yarder, to Andre Robinson with less than four minutes to go in regulation.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense transformed mightily, tightening up after allowing 256 yards to Michigan State in the first half. The Spartans managed only 87 in the third and fourth quarters combined.
Bell was everywhere, making 18 tackles, while Penn State’s defensive unit totaled 10 tackles for loss and four sacks.
It was a galvanizing performance after Michigan State beat down the Nittany Lions 55-16 last season. Despite the slow start, Penn State poured it on, dropping 35 unanswered points on the Spartans.
Penn State played with the confidence of a team that wasn’t surprised to be in the position it was in.
Sure, the Nittany Lions needed some help from the Buckeyes, but this isn’t something they lucked into.
“We as a team expected ourselves to be here,” McSorley said. “Throughout the offseason — winter, spring ball, over the summer — I think if you asked anyone on this team if they’d expect us to be here, they’d say, ‘Yes.’ Those were the goals we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year, and you don’t set goals you don’t think you can’t achieve.”
Defensive end Evan Schwan agreed with the redshirt sophomore quarterback. Schwan said all week he and his teammates talked about where Penn State was, and how they wanted to shift discussion back to where Penn State is.
It was an emotional Senior Day for Schwan and his classmates — a group of players that came to and stayed at Penn State when they could’ve left with no problem.
The Harrisburg native said between seeing his parents during the pregame ceremony and ringing the victory bell, there was no time to really sit and reflect.
But he did make a point to say he didn’t believe the seniors “deserved” this kind of success. They weren’t going to be handed it because they stuck around at Penn State when most wouldn’t.
“The way I was raised and the way that we were all raised, when you commit to something regardless of the situation you don’t put your head down and walk away from it,” Schwan said. “The family is what brought us here.”
And it was a familial celebration at the end of the evening.
Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and defensive line coach Sean Spencer leapt into each other’s arms; offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead made a slow 180 spin, looking up into the bleachers and taking in the spectacle; kickers Tyler Davis and Chris Gulla were grinning cheek-to-cheek carrying the Land Grant Trophy toward the Beaver Stadium tunnel.
But one of the more lasting images was Franklin, choking up as he stood on the trophy-presentation stage in the south end zone flanked by his daughters and players.
His eyes welled up, thanking the Penn State community for its support in his three years at the helm before pointing to the crowd.
He left the Penn State fans with five more words.
“This is just the beginning.”
John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9