INDIANAPOLIS - On Friday, it was Penn State head
coach James Franklin who told a room full of media members at the Big Ten
Championship game that the one word to describe the Nittany Lion 2016 season
Just a little more than 24 hours later, the Nittany Lions put on yet another resilient showing, proving that perseverance is truly the foundation for Penn State's Big Ten Championship season.
The path to hoisting the Big Ten Championship game trophy into the air Saturday evening wasn't anything short of extraordinary, but that's nothing the Nittany Lions aren't already used to.
Against Minnesota, it was Irvin Charles' 80-yard touchdown that sparked a double-digit comeback. Against Ohio State, it was the Marcus Allen blocked field goal that Grant Haley returned 60 yards for the touchdown to secure another comeback from a double figure deficit. We'll arrive at Allen and Haley later.
Near the end of the first half Saturday, the Nittany Lions were faced with yet another challenging deficit, trailing 28-7.
Penn State refused to back down in the first half though, as quarterback Trace McSorley relied on his arsenal of talented wide receivers, tossing four plays of at least 12 yards, culminating in a 40-yard touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall to send the Nittany Lions into the locker room down 28-14.
A renewed Nittany Lion team emerged from the locker room though, determined to engineer another comeback this season.
In the first Wisconsin drive of the second half, Penn State's defense paved the way, forcing the Badgers to settle for a 48-yard field goal attempt, which they missed.
Now cue the momentum shift, as McSorley found Blacknall for a Big Ten Championship game record-70-yard touchdown on the first play of the Penn State scoring drive, pulling the Nittany Lions within seven after the Tyler Davis PAT.
Penn State continued to chop up field with chunk play after chunk play in the third quarter, as Barkley dashed for a 16-yard rush before McSorley found Chris Godwin for a pair of 13-plus yard pass plays to set up the 1-yard Saquon Barkley touchdown that tied the score, 28-28.
Limiting the Badgers to just a field goal in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions had found their stride with the defense making stops and the offensive line giving McSorley the extra crucial moments to key in on his talent receivers downfield.
Before long, it was veteran DaeSean Hamilton, who backed up his clutch first half third down conversion grabs with back-to-back catches of at least 25 yards, to put Penn State in perfect position for McSorley to find Barkley for the 18-yard touchdown catch to send the Nittany Lions ahead, 35-31 in the fourth quarter. Penn State's explosive offense was clicking.
With plenty of time left in the frame, the Penn State defense took over, as linebacker Koa Farmer sacked Wisconsin quarterback Bart Houston for a loss of four before defensive tackle Kevin Givens came through with the stop on third-and-16 forcing the Badgers to punt.
Although the Nittany Lions managed to convert on a 24-yard Davis field goal, the Wisconsin offense was surging, staring down a fourth-and-1 opportunity at the Penn State 24-yard line with just over a minute to play.
Out of Wisconsin timeout, it was Haley once again, who came up with the game-winning play to secure another one of Penn State's signature comeback victories this season.
From the first Penn State blocked field goal returned for a touchdown in what is believed to be program history, to a perfectly timed fourth-and-1 stop, Haley and Allen helped halt Badger running back Corey Clement to end the Wisconsin scoring threat.
When asked about the connection between he and Allen on two of perhaps the most pivotal plays of the season, Haley prefers to bring it back to the team as a whole.
"I don't think it's just us two," Haley said. "I think it's the whole 11 guys out there on the field, even coaches in the box and the scout team. It's just something that our coaches prepare for us. And when the time - when it's time to step up, I feel like any person on our defense or offense is going to step up, and it just happens to be the situation that Marcus and I have been in two great situations."
Guided by a pair of 100-yard receivers in Blacknall and Hamilton, McSorley finished with career-high and Big Ten Championship game record 384 passing yards, throwing four touchdown passes for the second consecutive game.
In total, just three of McSorley's top three targets (Hamilton, Blacknall and Gesicki) combined for 331 of Penn State's 435 yards of total offense.
"The wideouts made unbelievable plays for him and the tight ends made unbelievable plays for him," Franklin said postgame. "We said, look, we felt really confident about our wide receiver to DB matchups and tight end to DB matchups, but we just needed to strain, strain a little bit longer in protection and give us some time, and we'd have a chance to do some good things."
Good things turned into great things Saturday evening as the Nittany Lions emerged with their fourth overall Big Ten Championship title and first Big Ten Championship title game victory since it began in 2011.
"It's been our script all season long," Franklin said. "We've done it all different ways. We've done it with comebacks at the end of the game, two-minute drives. We've done it where we've blown people out. We've done it where we had to come back in the second half. We've done it with field goal plays, blocked field goal plays. We've done it a lot of different ways. But that's the sign of a good football team when you find different ways to be successful."
Now, it's on to the bowl game.
Penn State is Rose Bowl Bound - (Transcript)
Sunday afternoon, the Nittany Lions received their official invitation to the 103rd annual Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual to take on USC Monday, January 2 at 5 p.m. ET in Pasadena, California.
Making their first appearance in the "Granddaddy of Them All" since a 38-24 loss to the Trojans in 2009, the Nittany Lions are set for their 47th all-time bowl outing.
Franklin joined a pair of press conferences Sunday evening to talk about the selection. Here are a few takeaways.
- Franklin noted that like the Nittany Lions, the Trojans are one of the hottest teams in college football, stressing that the matchup presents one of the scarier programs playing with a high level of confidence leading up to the selection.
"Obviously feel like USC is a very, very talented team, and once the quarterback started clicking for them, then distributing the ball, the whole team just kind of -- they developed around him," Franklin said. "So it's been fun to watch. It's exciting to watch. They're a dangerous team."
- Trojan head coach Clay Helton watched last night's Big Ten Championship game and it's not hard to guess who impressed him.
"I've just had the opportunity to watch Penn State really on TV and culminating in last night's exceptional win, and the one thing that jumps out at you right off the bat is offensively how talented they are with Barkley and McSorley and the points they're putting up," Helton said.
- It's business as usual for the Nittany Lions leading up to the bowl game. Penn State coaches will hit the road recruiting giving the team some time to recharge before getting into practice. There's no stress around planning or logistical preparations though, as Franklin noted that plans have already been in place since preseason.
"We do all the schedules and all the calendars for all the bowls in preseason, in the summer," Franklin said. "We already have those all set and ready to go so we have a pretty good understanding of what's going on. We'll go back and make some slight adjustments to it but all those things are pretty much set ahead of time."