HEISER: A journey that PSU fans should never forget

Steve Heiser
  • Penn State finished the 2016 season at 11-3, including a Big Ten championship.
  • The Nittany Lions' season ended with an entertaining 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to USC.
  • The Rose Bowl has been described as 'epic,' 'iconic' and 'unforgettable.'

Don't anguish over the gut-wrenching finale.

Rather, revel in the inspiring journey that got you there.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley celebrates after a touchdown with head coach James Franklin against Southern California during the second half of the Rose Bowl in 2017. Franklin begins his fourth season as PSU's head coach on Saturday against Akron.

That's the best piece of advice for Nittany Nation today, mere hours after Penn State's heartbreaking 52-49 last-second loss to Southern California in a wildly entertaining Rose Bowl that's being described as “epic,” “iconic” and “unforgettable.”

Seasons like the one we've just witnessed from the Nittany Lions don't come along very often — if ever.

That's why the Blue and White faithful should thoroughly enjoy it.

A group of young men, many not old enough to drink legally, took PSU fans on a thrilling joyride that left them drunk with exhilaration.

These young Lions may not finish as the best team in college football, but they were definitely the most fun to watch.

What longtime PSU follower ever thought that they would read that statement?

Joe Paterno was an accomplished coach who built the PSU program into a national power, but few ever described his best teams as “fun.”

Tough? Absolutely. Smart? No doubt. Disciplined? Certainly. Talented? Sure.

Fun? Not so much.

Paterno's teams won with fundamentals, not fun.

These Lions were a completely different breed. Fundamentally, they were sometimes lacking.

The offense: The quarterback was occasionally prone to devastating, game-losing mistakes (see the Pitt and USC games), but Trace McSorley was also fearless, a leader and a winner. He sparked the Lions to so many seemingly impossible comebacks in 2016 that it's hard to remember them all.

In other words, he's the perfect man to guide the PSU program into the future.

PSU's McSorley went off 'reservation' on final pick

McSorley performed his magic behind a banged-up line that was average at best. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, however, provided some magic of his own in finding ways to hide the line's obvious deficiencies.

It helped tremendously that McSorley could consistently get the ball to one of the best backs in the nation. Saquon Barkley, put simply, is as a good as they come. If you doubt that, just check out his mind-blowing 79-yard second-half TD run against USC, which left the field littered with Trojans grasping at air.

McSorley's receivers, meanwhile, weren't exactly speedsters, and sometimes had difficulty gaining separation, but they were big and strong and agile — and they came up with more than their fair share of 50-50 balls.

PSU's Barkley shines brilliantly on national stage

Add it all up, and you had an offense that produced game-breaking plays and pivotal touchdowns with stunning regularity.

Defense, special teams: The defense, wounded for much of the year, was another story. It didn't remind anyone of Paterno's best units. The better offenses continually gashed Penn State for big plays, long drives and a barrage of touchdowns. Still, for the most part, the PSU defensive players hung tough, played hard and provided a few game-changing plays at critical junctures to make this unlikely 11-3 season possible.

The same could be said of the PSU special teams, which improved dramatically from 2015, when they were glaring weaknesses on a 7-6 team. Punter Blake Gillikin and placekicker Tyler Davis were both revelations, and rotund kickoff specialist Joey Julius became a cult hero with his big foot and bigger hits.

You also could argue that the two blocked fourth-quarter kicks in a 24-21 upset of Ohio State were the two most critical plays of the season.

Coaches: Finally, the coaches deserve every accolade they've received in guiding a flawed team to a conference crown and a major bowl.

Head coach James Franklin likely made his important decision just after the 2015 season ended when he fired offensive coordinator John Donovan and hired Moorhead, who transformed the Lions' attack from predictable to prolific.

Franklin's unending optimism and never-wavering belief also kept the Lions focused and on track in late September when the season was teetering on the brink of going off the rails.

After a brutal 49-10 shellacking at Michigan that left the Lions at 2-2, some were calling for Franklin's head. Athletic director Sandy Barbour, to her credit, stepped in and gave Franklin a vote of confidence. Franklin vindicated her decision by winning nine straight games and the Big Ten championship.

That was an outcome that practically no one saw coming.

Unexpected gift: That's also what made this season so utterly fulfilling. It was an unexpected gift for a fan base that was starving for real success.

These Lions delivered that in droves.

They also delivered a ton of fun along the way.

A disappointing, season-ending loss can't change that.

It's much sweeter to remember the unforgettable journey that got them there.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.