The Penn State football team’s season was voted the top story of 2016 in Centre County sports by the CDT sports staff.
1. Penn State football wins Big Ten title
There isn’t one moment that encapsulates Penn State football’s unexpected season.
Sure, the blocked kick returned for a touchdown against No. 2 Ohio State is the easy choice, but there are dozens of plays that have helped re-establish the Nittany Lions as a member of college football’s elite.
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And those monumental plays have translated into unfathomable celebration.
After starting the 2016 season with a 2-2 record, fresh off a 39-point defeat at the hands of Michigan, it looked like the year was lost. Penn State still had Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa ahead. A 7-5 record was looking kind of nice.
Then the Minnesota game happened. Irvin Charles ripped off a shocking 80-yard touchdown catch, Trace McSorley led the Nittany Lions down the field in the final minutes for a game-tying Tyler Davis field goal, and Saquon Barkley, after being bottled up the whole night, broke loose for an overtime score that brought life back to Penn State.
The team proceeded to pummel Maryland in a game in which it was an underdog, and of course the Ohio State game will never be forgotten, and neither will Grant Haley or Marcus Allen. Those two cemented themselves into the hearts and minds of Penn State fans forever with the biggest special teams play of the college football season — and they likely won’t ever have to pay for a beer in State College again.
So there the Nittany Lions sat, 5-2 with a winnable schedule ahead of them. The players knew what was possible, and so did the fans that rushed the field at Beaver Stadium on the night of Oct. 22.
To Penn State’s credit, the team did not let that win get to its collective head. The Nittany Lions might have coasted through the first half against Purdue, but a 62-24 win over the Boilermakers, followed by a 41-14 drubbing of Iowa and a 45-31 victory at Indiana had Penn State sitting in a cushy spot.
For the most part, Rutgers was a cakewalk, putting the Nittany Lions at 9-2. If it defeated Michigan State, and Ohio State beat Michigan earlier that afternoon on the final weekend of the regular season, Penn State was going to the Big Ten title game. Obviously, both of those happened, and the Nittany Lions traveled to Indianapolis to compete for a Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin.
Thanks to plays like Mike Gesicki’s leaping touchdown grab over two Spartan defenders or the flea flicker to DaeSean Hamilton in Bloomington, the Nittany Lions generated contest-altering moments when they needed them most.
And they did the same at Lucas Oil Stadium, raging back from 21 points down to beat the Badgers 38-31 in the conference championship game.
McSorley put on a show with four touchdown passes, Barkley showed up with a deciding touchdown, and the Penn State defense stopped Wisconsin on fourth-and-one with a minute to go in regulation.
What a difference two months can make, huh?
Four games into the young season, the Nittany Lions looked beaten and battered.
They were destined for another trip to a mediocre bowl to play another mediocre team.
Now, the No. 5 Nittany Lions are set to play No. 9 Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
No one thought Pasadena was possible after a 2-2 start. Except the Nittany Lions.