STATE COLLEGE — Penn State never had a chance. Then the game started.
It couldn’t compete, not the way a formidable team could against a team that gifted. Then, mighty No. 2 Ohio State couldn’t pull away.
It couldn’t stay close. Then Trace McSorley, somehow, someway, found the end zone the hard way, after failing to convert the easy way.
It couldn’t hold off a seasoned offense. Then Marcus Allen blocked kicker Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt that would have iced the whole thing for the Buckeyes.
It couldn’t take the lead. Then Grant Haley, as if placed on the Ohio State 40-yard line, right where that blocked kick bounced, picked it up and sprinted 60 yards for a Penn State touchdown.
It couldn’t win.
No, it couldn’t possibly win.
Not against a team streaking to the national championship game. Not against a coach with three national titles on his resume. Not against a starting quarterback who had lost twice in his collegiate career. Not against a defense that good or an offense that quick or a program with that much aura.
Then, Penn State did. It really did, 24-21, in front of the nation and a White Out crowd and a college football landscape that officially has been served notice.
This program isn’t all the way back, because one win doesn’t get you that far.
But a win like this sure does get a team like Penn State close.
Closer than anyone thought. Closer than anyone — even those who have watched it most closely — could ever have imagined.
Game looked lost in second half: Because so often in the second half of this game, it looked as if Ohio State was about to muscle past Penn State on talent and experience alone. The Buckeyes led, 21-7, with 23 minutes to go after a Tyler Yazujian snap sailed laughably high over punter Blake Gillikin’s head, stopping in the end zone for a safety.
Penn State did what it could do to that point, for sure. It stayed close as long as it could, most figured. Even the white-clad fans at quiet Beaver Stadium seemed resigned to that much.
Hey, this game wasn’t about pulling the upset. Because statistically, it would be the biggest upset the Nittany Lions have ever pulled off at Beaver Stadium even if they could do that. They went off as 18 1/2-point underdogs in Las Vegas, after all.
This game was about these Nittany Lions, young as they are, showing they learned enough in the last month to narrow a chasm that seemed to widen under coach James Franklin’s leadership.
Showing that they learned from what happened against Michigan, when they were beaten from goal post to goal post just four weeks ago. Outgained 515 yards to 191 by the Wolverines. Losers in the turnover battle. Their quarterback sacked six times. Never in the game. Never competitive against a highly ranked foe, a top-five team the likes of which they hadn’t beaten in 17 years.
Play better than that against the Buckeyes — which wouldn’t have taken much, for sure — and Penn State could have taken so many positives out of this game. A nine-win season would have been within reach. Maybe a decent bowl game. Maybe, some of the fans who demanded Franklin’s ouster after the Michigan debacle would quiet down, if only for a little while.
A most unlikely win: Beat the Buckeyes? It seemed so unlikely, the possible impact remained difficult for most to put into words. Defensive end Garrett Sickels, who missed the first half because of an apparent academic issue but recorded nine tackles and 2½ sacks in the second half, reminded reporters that when he came to Penn State as a member of the 2013 recruiting class, he did so thinking he’d never get a chance to play in a bowl game.
Offensive tackle Brendan Mahon, who engaged in a teary-eyed embrace with injured fellow tackle Andrew Nelson after the final gun sounded, pointed out that so many of the players who committed to Penn State back then, thinking the same way Sickels thought, played a significant role in the upset. They, he said, simply wanted to leave the Penn State program a tad better when they left than the tattered state in which they joined it, shaken to its core by the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and reduced to rubble by since-rescinded NCAA sanctions.
“I think back to something (senior Brandon Bell) said after the game,” junior linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to see any of that crying stuff, because this wasn’t a fluke.’ This wasn’t a fluke. This is who we are. This is who we can be and will continue to be.”
Everything changed over four hours: In a span of four hours, everything advanced years in Happy Valley. Penn State’s young, untested team is no longer young and untested. This is not a team that will struggle to break .500 this season; it’s a team that will be expected to win 10 games. Their’s is not a coach whose status is tenuous at best; he’s a coach who bought himself another 10 years, and maybe more, by taking the outmanned, outtalented, outgunned and out muscled and turning them into the talk of college football, at least for one night.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” an emotional Franklin said. “This is for everyone. This is a big step in the right direction toward healing.”
Healing a program. And a community.
Franklin has long pooh-poohed the idea that he needs a signature win, or that signature wins even exist.
But how can anybody deny him now? Or the program’s future? It’s bright. It’s thriving. And now, it has its springboard.