For most of us, going bowling means renting some ugly, stinky shoes and rolling bright-colored ball with sticky finger-holes down a slick alley at 10 pins.
Comedian Gallagher once described the sport this way: Bowling is an excuse to get drunk and drunk is an excuse for your bowling.
Going bowling has quite a different meaning when it comes to college football.
It means one more football game, the reward for a winning record. It hopefully means playing someplace nice (and warm) away from home.
Penn State fans have had 44 opportunities to go bowling in the program’s history. A bowl appearance under Joe Paterno’s reign became something that a you could budget for annually.
Would it be Florida, California, Arizona or Texas?
But then came the summer of 2012 and the NCAA made sure the Nittany Lions wouldn’t be going bowling anytime soon. In the wake of the Freeh Report on the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, the NCAA levied a four-year bowl ban as part of the sanctions.
Cancel the calls to the travel agent.
Better make a reservation at Bellefonte Lanes.
But my how things have changed.
Fast forward to a cold Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
Facing a team they have always dominated, the Nittany Lions earned a chance to go bowling again.
Thanks to its ball-hawking defense, Penn State whipped Temple 30-13.
By improving to 6-4, the Nittany Lions guaranteeed that they would finish the regular season without a losing record. That makes them bowl eligible.
With the Big Ten’s bowl affiliations, they could be heading anywhere from New York to San Francisco and several places in between.
But given what has happened to the program since the fall of 2011 when the charges against Sandusky were announced, even Detroit sounds pretty good right now.
And even though it was win over a team it has a 39-3-1 record against, Saturday was a special day — especially for the program’s seniors.
They were the ones that could have bolted after the sanctions.
They were the one who had to deal with the firing of Paterno and his death only months later.
They were the ones who are now playing for their third head coach.
“I think it means a lot to the senior class and everyone who has lived through everything that has gone down here,” said linebacker Mike Hull, who had 10 tackles against the Owls. “It’s a big step for the program to get back where I think it should be.”
“We love the fact that we were able to find a way to get a ‘W,’ but it does mean something a little bit more special — the fact that we had 49 seniors that stayed around this program when this university, this community and this football program needed them the most,” Coach James Franklin said in opening his postgame news conference. “The fact that we’re going to be able to send them out the right way and be able to continue this season and keep our family together for a month or so after the regular season ends is special. I’m really happy for those guys.”
Some of those seniors chuckled when asked if they ever thought that after the summer of 2012 that they’d be playing in a bowl game to end their careers at Penn State.
“Ah, there would probably be a lot of doubt in that statement, given everything that had happened that year,” said kicker Sam Ficken, who booted three field goals against the Owls.
“No, not at all,” added Hull. “I honestly thought once everything happened that we’d be playing 12 games a year, just going out there every Saturday and playing for each other.”
Still others believed that somehow something would work out.
“That’s the reason we stayed,” offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “We knew that we were going to bring this university and this team back.”
The Nittany Lions got the break they needed this fall. Thanks to integrity monitor George Mitchell and his glowing report on Penn State, the NCAA rolled back some sanctions, including the bowl ban.
“There was a lot of speculation out there,” Ficken said of the bowl prospects at the start of the season. “We’re trying to focus on what we can control. At that point in time, it was winning football games.”
And with a 4-0 start, Penn State appeared to be a lock for the postseason. Then came a four-game skid, before the Nittany Lions pulled out a 13-7 win last week at Indiana.
That put Penn State in position for bowl eligibility
“It was in the back of everyone’s minds,” Dieffenbach said. “We knew we were going to have that opportunity, but we were focused on Temple.”
After a yawner of a first half Saturday, the Nittany Lion defense got things going for the offense with turnovers. It would finish the day with four interceptions and a fumble recovery with Grant Haley taking one of the pickoffs for a score.
The offensive line — buoyed by Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith — opened up some holes and Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton, who combined for 231 of the team’s 245 rushing yards.
And with 24 second-half points, the bowl eligibilty was secured.
“It’s terrific,” Dieffenbach said. “I’m so happy for our fans and our team. It’s been a long time coming. It was a terrific victory and a great team win. I couldn’t be happier to make it to a bowl game.”
Players were quick to point out that there’s still plenty of football to play. The Nittany Lions travel to Illinois next week and conclude the season with Michigan State.
“We’re excited that we can go to a bowl game now, but we want to keep winning games so that we can get to the best bowl game possible, just like every other year,” Hull said. “Some of the older (guys) who have been to bowl games, we’ll calm the younger guys down.”
Of course, Penn State still has to be invited to a bowl game. But given how well the fans travel, there’s no doubt the Nittany Lions will have a postseason game.
And they’ll have the extra two weeks of postseason practice that they’ve been missing, too.
The total package makes going bowling again something to celebrate.
“It’s a feeling I will never forget,” Dieffenbach said of the locker room after the triumph. “Those wins are special. Being in there with the guys that you love and especially being able to go to a bowl game with what all of the fifth-year guys have gone through, it is a special moment.”