Saturday, October 10th, 2020


Simon Clancy

Lead Feature Writer


Simon Clancy College Football

This article originally appeared in Issue XXXIV of Gridiron magazine, back in 2017 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

The date is September 24 2017. The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions of Penn State are on the road to play the 3-0 Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s midway through the fourth quarter and PSU, who dominated the first three, now lead by only two. Momentum has changed. Iowa’s Akrum Wadley has just gone 70 yards for a touchdown and the capacity crowd of more than 66,000 can sense a huge upset. Better still, Penn State face a third-and-six at their own 16.

It is loud. Very, very loud.

Built in 1929, Kinnick Stadium has seen a lot of big moments, including a National Championship in 1958. What comes next on this balmy night may be the biggest.

It may also be the most symbolic.

The story of Penn State is well told, the return from a place no school had ever been.

The nation was stunned by the indictment of legendary former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in November 2011, charged with sexually abusing boys he’d met through his charity for at risk youth. The arrest was the first in a series of shocks: Joe Paterno, the untouchable head coach, was given the boot after Sandusky’s arrest, with the Big Ten deciding to remove his name from the conference championship trophy; he died from lung cancer two months later. Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of child sex abuse and will spend the rest of his life in prison. In 2017, three university officials, including former president Graham Spanier, were sentenced to jail time for failing to alert authorities to allegations against him.

The NCAA issued a four-year postseason ban to Penn State and reduced scholarships.

For the first time since 1966, there was a new head ‘ball coach at State College in Bill O’Brien, who was tasked with the almost impossible: help cleanse the community of what had gone before but do so gently. Paterno, despite what he did or didn’t know of Sandusky’s heinous acts, was still viewed as a legend.

Simply put, he was Penn State.

“His likeness was reproduced on coffee cups and on life-size cardboard cut-outs and on rubber Halloween masks,” writer Michael Weinreb, a long-standing Nittany Lions obsessive brought up a stone’s throw from Beaver Stadium, says. “The deli at the student union named a sub after him [The Joegie]. At the stadium, students young enough to be his great-grandchildren chanted his name in rhythm. When I mentioned Penn State to people who knew nothing else about it, they invariably said something about Joe Paterno.”

It was his very ordinariness that elevated Paterno into mythology. And until November 2011, as Joe Pa neared the end of his 46th season at the helm, the consensus was that, while imperfect, his so called ‘Grand Experiment’ – reconciling academic and athletic prowess – had been a rousing success.

“And then,” Weinreb muses, “in a matter of days, everything went straight to hell.”

“It was the Michigan win under O’Brien that changed everything for Penn State, setting in motion a chain of events that resonate today.”

After the fall came rehabilitation. O’Brien delivered two restorative seasons, including a memorable quadruple overtime victory against Michigan, before James Franklin took the reins. By the end of 2016, the school was five years removed from the scandal and on the brink of regaining at least some of their former glories: after a pair of 7-5 campaigns, the Lions went 11-3 and earned an invitation to the Rose Bowl.

But it was the Michigan win under O’Brien that changed everything for Penn State, setting in motion a chain of events that resonate today as they sit at 8-1 and still very much in the College Football Playoff picture despite a gut-wrenching Week 9 loss to Ohio State.

Watching on the sideline that night was a young running back from Whitehall, Pennsylvania who’d initially committed to Rutgers but was swaying. “I think the kid came to that game as a Scarlet Knight and left basically saying, ‘Hey, look, I’ve changed my mind. I’m coming to Penn State’,” reveals O’Brien.

‘The kid’ was superstar tailback Saquon Barkley.

Which brings us back to the fourth quarter against Iowa, third-and-six, clock running. Lions quarterback Trace McSorley is set up in a tight formation with two receivers to the left and one to the right, and tight end Mike Gesicki a step off the line of scrimmage in the slot. Flanking McSorley is the best player in college football and the key to the Nittany Lion revival: Barkley.

The time from snap to pass is less than two seconds. McSorley has a terrific pocket, standing as he does at the 10-yard line, but Iowa are playing tight man coverage to the free side and, on the strong side, both wide receiver Juwan Johnson and Gesicki are doubled in a short zone. No-one is open. So McSorley goes safe. Some would say he gives up. He throws backwards to Barkley at the nine with the line to make at the 22. In the commentary box for ESPN are Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit.

Fowler: “McSorley. Flips it backwards to Barkley… HURDLES A MAN AND MAKES A FIRST
DOWN. What did you say before? Superman? COME ON!”

Herbstreit: “It was the only thing that was left for him to do.”

Both know they have just seen something special. But, as the replay flips to a head-on shot, they see the true nature of what has happened: Barkley leaps over Joshua Jackson, who’s diving forward into nothingness, powerless to stop a man who has already passed him by, way above his head. As Barkley soars, the 6ft, 203lb safety Amani Hooker hits him with everything he has got, right in the thigh. By most rules of physics, Barkley should be down, well short of the first down. Penn State should be punting.

And yet.

Herbstreit, awe in his voice as he sees clearly for the first time what happened, pronounces: “By the way, he takes a hit and lands it. He lands it. He was down and then he wasn’t. That is absolutely extraordinary!”

He was down and then he wasn’t. Knocked to the ground but somehow still balanced. The end was nigh and yet suddenly not.

Barkley’s run, in the seven seconds it took from snap of the ball to running out of bounds and keeping the drive alive, sums up Penn State’s revival. Against all the odds, and the backdrop of comparative disaster, a strength and will brought them back from the brink. And somehow lifted them somewhere stronger.

“Who’d have thought in November 2011 that the Nittany Lions would be back on the brink of a possible National Championship? Frankly, who would, or should, have cared?”

Gridiron will ruminate long and hard over Barkley’s brilliance as the draft gets closer. He looks a sure bet to win the Heisman and could easily be the No. 1 overall pick next April given the way the quarterback class is panning out. And, while carrying the school on his broad shoulders, he is not the only one pulling the hard yards to bring this great university back to former glories.

From the ballsy McSorley to the NFL-bound Gesicki, the offense is loaded with talent. The defense, grossly under-appreciated on a national level, are happy to turn up each week and shut down opponents drive after drive. “It’s hard not to watch this team and be amazed by Saquon every week,” says senior linebacker Jason Cabinda. “But, as a defense, we’re content with those circumstances. That just makes it more fun when we smash you in the mouth.”

Much of that fiery attitude comes from coach Franklin, a career assistant who got the Vanderbilt job around the same time as the walls were falling down in State College, and proceeded to lead them to a bowl game in all three of his seasons at the helm, making him the only coach in school history to do so. He took over at Penn State in 2015 as the Sandusky horrors still resonated, but with perhaps more settled dust, and with no offensive line, a depleted roster and the pall of sanctions. Yet he brought a school from their knees back to the gates of athletic glory. At the point of us writing this, Penn State have played their biggest game of the regular season, against fourth-ranked Ohio State. Even after their 39-38 loss, coming after a hammering of Big 10 powerhouse Michigan, the biggest prize in college football is still a possibility.

Who’d have thought in November 2011 that the Nittany Lions would be back on the brink of a possible National Championship? Frankly, who would, or should, have cared? After all, it’s just a game. And yet this game, and especially this season, has helped the healing process in State College. Not for the victims or their families. But for the wider community, some of whom rioted when Paterno was fired.

“My first thought was we had to embrace Penn State,” says Big Ten Commissioner Pat Delany. “But it’s been an incredibly difficult road. For the institution, for friends there, for Joe Paterno’s family. We were trying to understand the most difficult set of circumstances I’ve ever had to participate in and assist with.

“Having said that, I can look anybody in the eye and salute Penn State for the progress they’ve made, the seriousness with which they’ve treated this issue, the education that has been absorbed, the changes that have been made by various people. And it’s obvious that maybe the least important consideration is how good their football team is. But they’re now healthy too, having come through the adversity. And we’re really happy that they’ve gotten to the other side, if you will.”

“But I don’t think anyone forgets about the victims or the circumstances that hurt a lot of people,” he concluded. “So it’s been tough. But I think we are now on the other side.”

This article originally appeared in Issue XXXIV of Gridiron magazine, back in 2017 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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