Penn State players paced back and forth on their sideline, while Appalachian State’s mascot used a hat to cover his eyes. They couldn’t bear the wait of overtime.
Four quarters in the books, Penn State’s 2018 season — and perhaps its College Football Playoff chances — hung in the balance. And the Mountaineers were poised to do what they did exactly 11 years prior: Slay a giant. But 12 minutes after overtime began, the Nittany Lions flooded the Beaver Stadium grass, and the typically stone-faced security guards cracked a smile. The same can’t be said for Yosef, the Mountaineers mascot.
The Nittany Lions — the No. 9-ranked team in the country and a 24-point favorite with national title dreams — narrowly avoided a crippling upset thanks to Amani Oruwariye’s game-sealing interception. And as the Penn State patrons breathed a sigh of relief before losing their minds, the players celebrated a gutty 45-38 win that could help define them.
“Being able to push through that adversity is a great opportunity for us to use this as a platform and continue to build on that and get better and better in the coming weeks and use this as a springboard,” Penn State QB Trace McSorley said. “You push through and you face it head on. And then through that adversity, you’re able to grow from it.”
Surely, there is a lot of room for growth. Penn State head coach James Franklin, the ultimate optimist, admitted as such at the media room dais.
Penn State surrendered a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter at home to a Sun Belt opponent. It was out-gained 266 to 127 in the final period of regulation. Zac Thomas, no doubt a talented passer for the Mountaineers, ended with a better quarterback rating than McSorley in his first career start.
Now, Appalachian State isn’t Georgia State, a Sun Belt bottom-feeder canned by the Nittany Lions 56-0 last season. The Mountaineers are known for upsetting Michigan in 2007, but Appalachian State played College Football Playoff runner-up Georgia well in last year’s opener and should have beaten Tennessee in overtime at Neyland Stadium the season before.
But for the Nittany Lions to look so vulnerable, especially in the secondary, in what could and probably should have been a tune-up game before facing Pitt next week, ought to be concerning.
“I thought our offense looked really good sometimes, and other times we just looked like a young team with inexperienced players making the same mistakes,” Franklin said. “It was one player each drive or each play that didn’t do what we needed them to do consistently. It was the same with the defense. Our experience showed a few times, and we didn’t play the way we were capable of playing. And I did not think we played well on special teams.
“I started the game at 46 years old, and I ended it at 51.”
Franklin wasn’t alone, either. Oruwariye — the blossoming ballhawk who dashed a David versus Goliath triumph — was stoic as his teammates mauled him and “Zombie Nation” blared over the Beaver Stadium speakers.
“It was kind of just like, thank you, God. We can just sneak out of this one with the win,” Oruwariye said. “I’m just happy to come out of this one with the win.”
Still, when asked if they experienced relief or joy after Oruwariye’s pick, his teammates were all smiles. In the postgame interviews, there wasn’t a doom and gloom viewpoint after barely beating an overachieving, undertalented team. The Nittany Lion sideline was on edge in overtime, but never did nervousness creep into Penn State’s psyche. At least, not according to the players themselves.
Miles Sanders — who scored the game-winning touchdown in his first career start — said it “shows a lot about our team” that in overtime, with inexperienced contributors like KJ Hamler, Jan Johnson, Antonio Shelton and Yetur Gross-Matos on the field, Penn State prevailed. McSorley seconded his backfield mate and believes it was a hard, but beneficial situation for the young Nittany Lions to go through so early in the campaign.
When asked if he ever gets nervous, McSorley replied, “No, not really.” And he doesn’t think his teammates do, either.
“Our coaches harp on us about preparation, Sunday through Friday so that you can sleep like a baby Friday night knowing you’ve done everything,” the Heisman Trophy candidate said. “You’re not nervous. You’ve done everything you can to prepare yourself as much as you possibly could have. ... So when it gets into game time, when it gets to crunch time, you’re not nervous. You’re prepared and ready for this opportunity.
“We learned that when everyone is doing their job, everyone’s working together, everyone’s on the same page, we can be extremely successful.”