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Penn State once again overcomes the odds

12/27/2014



There was a time when even the loyalist Penn State fan discounted Sam Ficken. There was a time when even the wisest sports pundit believed the Nittany Lions wouldn’t survive past 2014.

Not anymore.

In the midst of unprecedented sanctions, the Nittany Lions (7-6) clinched their third straight winning season with a 31-30 overtime victory against Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. After a poor kicking start in 2012 -- so bad it led to death threats -- Ficken became all-conference and ended his career with a game-winning kick. The moral of the story? Don’t underestimate Penn State or its players.

“I think we’ve been fractured,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “We’ve been fractured for the past three years. But experiences and games like this have restored the hope.”

This game was a microcosm of the past three seasons all rolled into one. Penn State wasn’t supposed to win; it trailed 21-7 late in the third quarter. It wasn’t supposed to rally; PSU didn’t score 20 points in regulation all season against a Power 5 team.

But just as fans might have wanted to turn away, just as the hope of something good clung to its last thread, this team bounced back. Christian Hackenberg -- the struggling player whom some PSU fans labeled a bust -- rallied the Lions offense with one of the best games of his career. He threw for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He marched PSU downfield with two minutes in regulation to tie the game. Then he led PSU to a touchdown in overtime.

This game seemed lost, but Penn State won. The program seemed on the verge of death two years ago, but Penn State survived.

“There’s a lot of similarities in this game, compared to our whole careers,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “It’s only fitting we get a win in Yankee Stadium in overtime after the roller-coaster career we had. It’s pretty crazy how that works. It just goes to show we’re never going to give up. That’s what this program is all about.”

On Sept. 8, 2012, Ficken missed 4-of-5 field goals and a PAT against Virginia in a 17-16 loss. On Saturday night, he knotted the game at 24 in the closing seconds with a 45-yard field goal -- then he nailed the game-winning extra point after the Boston College kicker missed his.

“It’s a storybook ending, really,” Ficken said. “I couldn’t have written a better way to go. This team has worked so hard and fought so hard. And to say we went to a bowl, first of all, and then won that bowl. It’s just really incredible.”

The Nittany Lions didn’t expect to have great moments during the past three seasons, not when the sanctions were initially handed down. Some of those players, such as Hull and Ficken, still remember the eerie silence in the players’ lounge while awaiting the sanctions announcement of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Hull nearly transferred to Pittsburgh -- he informed Bill O’Brien he was moving on before reconsidering -- and most believed Ficken never deserved a scholarship in the first place.

They endured five different head coaches -- two interim, three full-time -- during their careers. They never thought they’d see the postseason, as Penn State was set to miss four years worth of bowls before the ban was rescinded three months ago.

This team lingered on the field after the game, and it seemed as if most fans clad in blue and white didn’t budge from their seats. Franklin took the microphone, thanked the seniors and boomed that this was Penn State culture. Fans’ screams drowned out the Frank Sinatra tune played through the PA system.

This wasn’t just a bowl win for Penn State. It rang in the end of the worst of the sanctions. PSU was the second-youngest team in the FBS this season and had just 64 recruited scholarship players on the roster. It had seven seniors compared to 31 freshmen.

Safety Malik Golden tweeted from the locker room, “Right back like we never left #NewEra.” Running back Akeel Lynch told reporters, “The sanction era is definitely over.”

Penn State was never supposed to make it to this point. It was never supposed to win this game, and it was never supposed to boast three winning seasons and a bowl victory this early. But Penn State has made it a habit these past three years of proving the prognosticators wrong. Saturday night was just them getting the last word.

“You can’t take us away,” Lynch said. “They tried to. They tried to talk about culture. But this is Penn State, man. This is what we do."