Now, more than 700 days removed from Penn State’s 2016 upset of Ohio State, James Franklin and his players insist that they have moved on. But with Franklin’s No. 9 Nittany Lions hosting Urban Meyer’s No. 4 Buckeyes in Saturday’s primetime White Out game, it’s hard not to recognize how far Penn State’s program has come.
Since Oct. 22, 2016, Penn State has amassed 22 wins. The only two programs in the country with more W’s in that span? Alabama and Clemson. The Nittany Lions captured the Big Ten title, lit up the scoreboard at the Rose Bowl and won the Fiesta Bowl in the last two years. In doing so, they joined ‘Bama, Clemson, Ohio State, USC and Washington as the only teams to win a conference title and reach back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls the past couple seasons.
After posting an 18-14 record in Franklin’s first 32 games on the job — after listlessly losing to Michigan 49-10 three weeks prior — Marcus Allen and Grant Haley’s blocked field goal touchdown was a turning point. So was Trace McSorley’s fourth-quarter touchdown dive, and the defense’s late-game stop.
This week, ahead of Ohio State’s return to Beaver Stadium, we spoke to those involved that night — from players to lettermen to broadcasters. And they all know the same thing to be true: Since that upset in 2016, Happy Valley hasn’t been the same.
Marcus Allen, former Penn State safety
“Man, I think about that game all the time. I was just talking to some former teammates over the phone about watching games on TV now and thinking about how incredible it was, what we did at that place. It gives me chills. ... It brings back memories, of the drive that the blocked kick came. It brings back flashbacks of what happened that game. All the excitement, the sharing and the celebration that was going on in the locker room after.
“I’ve never experienced something like that in my life. And I may never experience anything like that again. The camaraderie, the brotherhood with a team like that, having a fan base like Penn State and Nittany Nation always being there, a part of the football tradition. It just means a lot. Once everyone ran on the field, it felt like a dream. You dream of things like that. For it to come true, everybody praising you and happy, it was amazing.”
Grant Haley, former Penn State cornerback
“It doesn’t feel like two years ago, that’s for sure. It was a time where Penn State, we were 4-2 and didn’t know what our identity was. We hadn’t had a big win, and people were talking and talking and talking. After, it was a time where everyone could see a unit and a team come together. Going out there, winning that game, was the start of that.
“And it wasn’t just that we won a football game. It was like a big sigh of relief for Penn State. It was a universal, ‘We’re back,’ type of thing. It wasn’t just for that 2016 season. It was for the community. It was for the fans, past lettermen, players, everyone. It felt like everyone was a family at that moment.”
Steve Jones, Penn State Radio Network play-by-play voice
“I saw right away that it was Marcus Allen who blocked it. And the ball took a perfect bounce to Grant Haley. When he scored, the stadium was starting to shake again. Which was the same feeling Jack Ham and I had in 2005. It felt like the press box was moving because of how loud it was.
“I felt like after everything Penn State had gone through, as a fan base, that that moment when he scored, there was this release of pure joy where they were happy about something. They felt that pure joy of winning, something that I don’t think had captured the fan base in a while. ... They could legitimately feel great about something. It was their moment.”
Chris Fowler, ABC play-by-play broadcaster
“To back up a second, I watched the Michigan game on tape, and I was horrified. You thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re not physical at all. They’re getting mauled.’ And they didn’t respond to adversity very well. They didn’t show a great deal of resolve, in my opinion. So we’re going through the motions preparing for the game, I’m not expecting Penn State to win the game. I was hoping they could hang, hoping the White Out environment would inspire. I liked what I saw from the team the week leading into the game, but you never really know. The Buckeyes were coming in there as a serious force and favorite.
“Then Allen and Haley and the kind of spontaneous release of energy — explosive noise — that only comes from a sudden-change special teams play. That kind of play is unique. ... The delirium of that play was something I’ll never forget. It was the first game I called there. It was an unforgettable scene, the White Out rushing the field. It was phenomenal.
“Every new regime that comes in, especially one who comes in with hype and inherits difficult circumstances, always needs that signature win. You need something to show that your way will work. That your methods will pay off. ... For it to come together in a game against a top-flight opponent in a big moment, after that, Penn State was a different team.”
Terry McLaurin, Ohio State wide receiver
“It felt like we had a good command of the game. I remember (Ohio State tight end) Marcus (Baugh) making a big play in the end zone across from the student section, spinning in and scoring a touchdown. ... We were about to go up two scores after kicking a field goal, and they blocked it. I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Wow, that never happens.’ Seeing the field, it felt like it was shaking, and the momentum shifted.
“When they blocked that kick, it gave life to the players.”
Juwan Johnson, Penn State wide receiver
“That’s kind of what changed this whole program around — that game. It brought the whole community together. It brought us all together, kind of like as a team and as a program.”
Trace McSorley, Penn State quarterback
“It skyrocketed us on the track we’ve been on the past couple of years. That was the moment as a program that we really grew up and realized that we could compete at the top level of college football. ... That was a growing moment for our program.”
Adam Taliaferro, Penn State letterman
“I remember I was on the trustee board when all that stuff came down with the sanctions, and when it hit, I was thinking, ‘Man, is Penn State football ever going to be what it was? Is this going to change the face of Penn State football?’ And you weren’t sure.
“But you started to see things turn around. And when that game hit, that was validation for not only the Penn State community, but for the entire country saying that Penn State is back. They overcame everything that happened. The way the NCAA basically tried to take down football, and it was back. It was that moment. It was Penn State football of old.”
Michael Mauti, Penn State letterman
“We were at Kansas City (as a member of the New Orleans Saints), and I remember the night before our game — I always watch the games Saturday nights in our hotel — and I had to run to this special teams meeting. I was sitting there, foot was tapping, trying to get out of that meeting as fast as I could. I knew the game was tight. I knew it was a good game, and that White Out — that environment — it just doesn’t get any better than that. ... It was one of those that you just wish you could have been there. You feel like you missed out.
“And that was a big part of why we did what we did in 2012. It was to give kids like that an opportunity to have what we had, to come in and be a part of Penn State, and have those moments in their career. That was a validation for me, a validating feeling, that in such a short period of time — four years removed from where we were with that program — it’s incredible how quickly it turned, and how it was just a small speed bump in the road. It tells you the kind of character those guys in the program have, the kind of players they bring in, and the way Coach Franklin has continued that legacy.
“It’s why Penn State is such a special place.”