Saquon Barkley held his helmet by his waist on a crisp Thursday evening, his back to the Lasch Football Building as teammates laughed during a post-practice catch. Days away from playing in a game that couldn’t be hyped enough, that couldn’t have more far-reaching ramifications, the Heisman Trophy front-runner was asked to reflect.
“We weren’t ranked,” Barkley said, recalling the lead-up to last year’s Ohio State game. “A lot of people didn’t think that we could stay with those guys.”
The narrative surrounding Penn State has changed quite a bit.
Since its dramatic, startling 24-21 upset over the Buckeyes, Penn State has been a different team, a different program. The Nittany Lions were reinvigorated when they needed a spark.
To a degree, they’re still riding that wave into Columbus for a war with No. 6 Ohio State.
“It was a huge win for our program and obviously it gave us confidence throughout the season last year and even coming into this year,” senior cornerback Grant Haley said. “We just needed that one game where we were able to go up against a top team and come out victorious.”
Added Barkley: “We’re definitely a way more confident team than we were last year.”
For the casual college football fan, it’s easy to forget where Penn State was before beating Ohio State. And for Penn State fans, it’s easy to ignore those less-than-ideal results.
In the 10 games prior to Oct. 22, 2016, the Nittany Lions were 4-6.
In the words of offensive tackle Ryan Bates, Penn State’s losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh were “devastating.” Following that 49-10 mauling in Ann Arbor, Franklin and his guys were home underdogs — to Maryland.
“We needed to turn around our season,” Bates said.
Ohio State was that opportunity.
“That was the game to make a statement,” Bates added.
And, as everyone knows all too well, Penn State capitalized.
Marcus Allen blocked the kick, and Haley returned it. A sea of white poured onto the Beaver Stadium field. Celebrations lasted into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Now 371 days removed from that magical night, the Nittany Lions feel as if they’ve moved on. Haley said he doesn’t really watch the 60-yard touchdown return anymore. They’re focused on No. 6 Ohio State, not No. 2 Ohio State — not reminiscing or living in the past.
But the electricity of that evening, the giddiness hasn’t subsided. It’s helped the Nittany Lions get to this point.
It was the catalyst for a memorable run to the Rose Bowl that generated a larger sense of self-belief within the locker room, within the program.
With Big Ten and College Football Playoff implications in-play, the No. 2 Nittany Lions will enter Ohio Stadium on Saturday a different team with a swagger that stems from Oct. 22, 2016.
“We take it one game at a time and things like that, but, yeah, I think that there’s definitely awareness from all of us, including me, that wins like that build confidence,” Franklin said, “and a confident football team has a chance to develop into a pretty good football team.”
Added Haley: “I think it just translated from the field to the locker room and back and forth. It’s just really gave us that confidence and leadership and maturity that we have today.”