With a towel draped over Miles Sanders’ head in the steady rain, and a uniform caked in so much mud it was hard to tell where his jersey started, the Penn State running back said he came to a realization.
This felt like home.
Not just because his high school sat 11 miles from Heinz Field. Nor that his mom and “20 or 30” other family members sat in the crowd. But because, when he stood on the visiting team bleachers and turned to the crowd, only Penn State shirts greeted him.
“We love the rain!” they chanted toward the end of Saturday night’s 51-6 Penn State win, when the Pitt fans had already left scowling. “We love the rain!”
Sanders looked at them, took it all in and smiled. He rushed for a career-high 118 yards and set the offensive tone. He finally won on a field he lost twice before, as a high schooler in the WPIAL championship and in 2016’s Pitt contest. In a lot of ways, this game felt like it was made for Sanders.
“It was awesome,” Sanders said after the win. “We took over the stadium. ... Just felt like Penn State. All I heard was ‘We Are’ at the end.”
Said cornerback Amani Oruwariye: “Miles, he puts in such hard work. He’s been so patient over these years and for him to come out and play like that in front of his home city, all the credit to him.”
This was the best game of the junior’s young career. He averaged 7.4 yards per carry, punished would-be tacklers and electrified a poncho-wearing crowd of 68,400. But his performance was even better than those numbers indicated.
A 72-yard carry was called back due to a block in the back. The stat sheet instead recorded it as a 41-yard scamper. A 64-yard swing-pass touchdown was also nullified by an offensive pass interference.
“Miles Sanders probably has 200 yards rushing if it wasn’t for the penalties,” James Franklin said.
The Pittsburgh-area product carried the ball just twice in the fourth quarter before coaches told him he had done enough. He was finished for the day. Still, he carried his helmet by his side, just in case the staff changed its mind.
But, with Penn State’s score going up and the clock ticking down, it didn’t need to. Oruwariye embraced Sanders on the sideline, Sanders dipped his left hip and swayed to the stadium’s hip-hop music, and then he walked over to his sitting offensive linemen and offered his thanks.
He remembered telling them how physical they were, how they helped him run for 74 yards in just the first half. How they helped make this a memorable night. But offensive guard Steven Gonzalez told reporters afterward that Sanders’ thanks might’ve been a little misplaced.
“He was really physical throughout the whole game,” Gonzalez said, referring to Sanders, “playing downhill, putting his shoulders down, trying to get whatever yards he could get. I really do applaud him for that. He was really physical today, and that kind of set the tone for us too. ... He was kind of a motivator.”
Sanders would’ve preferred to linger on the field a little longer, maybe go home with mom and her famous jerk chicken. But he didn’t mind basking under the lights and celebrating with fans.
Once the final whistle came, and he obliged for an on-field ESPN interview, he rushed over to the Penn State fans who stayed behind. He high-fived every single one who leaned over the railing. Then he stood in the steady rain again for the alma mater — this time, without the towel.
It didn’t matter. He was wet. He was muddy. And it was perfect. This was a scene he intimated he wouldn’t forget.
“I feel like I play every game with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I’m just happy it paid off.”