In the moments after it all ended in Columbus, following Ohio State star Curtis Samuel’s mad dash to the end zone and the overtime conclusion of a game against Michigan that will be talked about maybe forever, a calm, nervous Beaver Stadium erupted with applause.
Fans stood up, high-fived each other. Most players and coaches on the Penn State sideline knew what this must have meant, considering the jubilation came in those early moments of the game with Michigan State experiencing its best offensive success of the night.
There was a moment during this impromptu celebration when an ESPN camera caught Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin standing on the sideline next to his quarterback, the sophomore Trace McSorley. McSorley, the video showed, asked Franklin what this all could be about.
“I assume,” Franklin told him, “Ohio State won.”
He stared straight ahead. At the field.
In the few seconds before the camera panned away, McSorley said nothing. Didn’t pump his fist. Didn’t jump into Franklin’s arms. Didn’t flash a stunned look.
And maybe, that’s the first moment we should have realized that for as big a cliché as most everyone assumed it is that this team “always believed” no matter what really is what got this team as far as it has.
In unexpected territory: It seemed as if everybody in blue and white stuck to that story Saturday, after they crushed Michigan State, 45-12, and punched their ticket to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. They’ll face Big Ten West Division champion Wisconsin there for the Big Ten title Saturday in a game that, frankly, no logical person — inside the program or out of it — would have predicted they’d have a legitimate shot to reach.
“When I came here,” senior center Brian Gaia said, “I didn’t think I’d ever play in a bowl game. ... I don’t think I ever thought of this moment.”
You all know the backstory by now. This team needed a furious rally Sept. 10 to avoid getting embarrassed out of Heinz Field by Pittsburgh. Two weeks after that, it walked into Ann Arbor and got TKO’ed by a Big Ten heavyweight, Michigan. The following week, it trailed so-so Minnesota by 10 points at halftime. Four-and-a-half games into this season, there were no signs this type of result would come.
None. That’s not a gross miscalculation of this team’s potential, either. That’s a fact. Even knowing how it ended, who could have blamed a fan or a critic or a reporter following this program or any other for thinking this season would turn out just like the last few for Penn State?
And yet, the players never bought that.
Well, it started long before Pitt. Long before the leaves changed colors and kicked off about the unlikeliest fall of football in Penn State history.
This started in the summer.
Belief started in summer: During Big Ten Media Days in July, when representatives from every team gathered in Chicago to talk up their respective programs and chat more about dreams than realities, Penn State players largely got ignored when they spoke about Big Ten championship goals.
But, they spoke about them even then. With the expressed purpose of planting the idea that anything less would be considered a disappointment.
The team’s leadership council met to discuss what the message should be at those meetings with the press, and in the locker room once preseason practice began a few days later. That’s when Nyeem Wartman-White, the senior linebacker from Valley View, suggested a twist on one of Franklin’s long-held tenets.
“He has never really been an outcome-oriented guy, talking about championships and whatnot,” Gaia said of Franklin. “He was more going on a one-game-at-a-time basis. But we said, we can go at a one-at-a-time basis and still have that end goal of a championship to talk about. I think that was one of the most important things for us this year.
“So, we just kept talking about it. And every week, it kept getting more and more realistic.”
Basically, instead of seeing where one-game-at-a-time gets you, use one-game-at-a-time as a path to where you want to go. It’s the difference between playing without a goal and playing with a big one.
It’s a daring move. Rebuilding teams in any sport are usually reticent to set expectations at an unreachable level, and frankly, Penn State players saying in July that they felt they could get where they’ve gotten seemed so unreachable for them, it was largely ignored.
What happened against Pitt and Michigan made those statements even more ridiculous, it seemed.
Then came the comeback against the Golden Gophers. And the blowout of Maryland. And the shocking win over Ohio State, the win that didn’t give the Nittany Lions confidence as much as it provided them a direct path to Indianapolis.
Talent and luck help: Back to the guy who heard that path had opened wide for his team, like the end of a construction zone on the Autobahn. Ohio State taking care of Michigan put the future in Penn State’s hands. Win, and it clinched a Big Ten Championship Game berth. Lose, and it was over.
“People say all the time that the stars align. It has kind of been like that for us,” McSorley said.
But this team has changed quite a bit since halftime of the Minnesota game. It beat Ohio State, which nobody else has done. It pummelled Iowa, which hasn’t lost since. It stormed past Indiana, which Michigan struggled to beat. It overwhelmed Michigan State which, a week earlier, came within a failed two-point conversion of beating Ohio State.
There’s more to it than belief, it would seem. There’s talent here developing quickly. There’s confidence that didn’t appear to be there early. There’s luck, too, because it took luck for Iowa to beat Michigan out of nowhere, and for the Buckeyes to come back against those same Wolverines on Saturday to set this whole thing up.
But players kept coming back to belief. In their coaches. In their system. In themselves. And as abstract as that seems, who’s to argue with the success?
“We really did, as a team, expect ourselves to be here,” McSorley insisted. “I think if you asked anybody on our team if they expected we’d be here, they’d say yes. These were the goals we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year, and you don’t set goals for yourself that you don’t think you can achieve.”