Before beating Ohio State, Penn State already notched a season-changing win
That’s the play that’s going to be remembered for years in Happy Valley. For the next decade, when people ask “remember when?” that’s going to be the moment most Penn State fans are going to respond with.
How could it not be?
It gave the Nittany Lions a 24-21 lead over No. 2 Ohio State after trailing by 14 points entering the fourth quarter. It was the most improbable game-winning touchdown against a team that doesn’t make mistakes. It was the play that resulted in the biggest win for the program in nearly a decade.
Somehow, though, it’s not the most significant play of the season. Saturday’s win over the Buckeyes wasn’t the most important win of the season.
That game has already come and gone. It happened on Oct. 1 when Penn State came from behind to beat Minnesota 26-23 in overtime to notch its first conference win of the season.
If Tyler Davis doesn’t knock home a 40-yard field goal attempt and if Saquon Barkley doesn’t run in the game-winning TD in overtime, Penn State falls to 2-3 on the year. The frustration surrounding the program continues to grow and James Franklin’s job looks less secure with each passing second. Most importantly, though, if the Lions don’t win that game, Saturday night doesn’t happen.
No blocked field goal. No celebration in Beaver Stadium. No program-changing win.
Something happened on that first weekend in October. Penn State made plays down the stretch, something that really hasn’t happened much in the recent past. At a time when most fans were probably thinking “here we go again,” the Nittany Lions were poised and drove down the field without any issues, like they had done it all before.
McSorley ran a two-minute offense flawlessly. Davis’s kick was as straight as an arrow. Barkley looked like the best running back in the B1G. Finally, Penn State was playing with confidence. That game – or at least in the second half – Penn State hammered down a brick wall with a sledgehammer. It was the type of game the program needed to win and Franklin knew it.
“It was not pretty at all, but we found a way to win a game,” Franklin told an on-field reporter after game. “We’re gonna grow from this.”
Did they ever.
You can’t really compare the Minnesota win to the victory over Ohio State. They’re on two separate levels, significant in their own way.
Beating the Buckeyes – and a top-five team – is something that can completely redirect a program. It’s evidence that Franklin has things headed in the right direction even if it took longer than expected to pick up steam. That game is evidence that Penn State can recover from enormous depths and reconfigure a winning culture in the post-Joe Paterno era.
A win over Minnesota doesn’t carry the same weight. It’s hard to entice high-caliber recruits when the highest accolade on the resume is a victory over a middle-of-the-road B1G foe. Fans don’t respond in the same way as they do when you defeat a perennial power, no matter how exciting the game.
On Oct. 1, Penn State saved its season. On Saturday, it altered the trajectory of the program.
A few weeks ago Penn State was staring a losing record in the face. the nails were being hammered into the coffin and the Nittany Lions’ hopes of turning things around in the third year of the Franklin era were about to be buried.
Now, Penn State has the shovel and is burying its past.
The Nittany Lions haven’t just grown after beating Minnesota, they’ve exploded.