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Special Feature: Legends of '94 - The Oral History

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kijana_blog.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Twenty years have passed since the Nittany Lions put together one of the greatest seasons in school and Big Ten history. More than 45 members of the undefeated 1994 Big Ten title team will be back in town this weekend for a reunion. Many of the squad's stars, including All-Americans Kyle Brady, Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins and Jeff Hartings will be among the attendees who will be honored at halftime of Saturday's game.

To commemorate the unstoppable '94 team's return, Ryan Jones, editor of The Football Letter Blog, compiled a tremendous oral history from the figures involved with Penn State's last undefeated team. A portion from Part 1 of a five-part oral history is compiled below.

Please follow this link to The Football Letter Blog for the remaining parts to the special series on the 1994 team.

The Football Letter Blog - 1994 Team Oral History (Parts 1-5)

Unbeaten, Unstoppable, Uncrowned
An Oral History of the 1994 Penn State Football Team

By Ryan Jones, The Football Letter Blog Editor

Part 1:
We trace the '94 team back to its roots, following the recruiting classes of 1990 and '91 as they mature from talented prospects into proven leaders who will provide the foundation for greatness.


Chapter 1: Building the Foundation

In the winter of 1990, Joe Paterno's staff inked a 16-player recruiting class, led by stud tight end prospect Kyle Brady and featuring a trio of quarterbacks. One of them was Kerry Collins, whom one Philadelphia newspaper described as "the biggest and strongest of the bunch... has been mentioned as a possible tight end candidate."

PAUL "BUCKY" GREELEY: Growing up a Pennsylvania kid, the opportunity to even be recruited by Penn State, it's almost like that was a win. For family members, friends, people in my high school, when Penn State was recruiting me, that was the accomplishment.

KYLE BRADY: When we first got there in 1990, most of us redshirted. Our class was a small one--I think we only had 16 guys--but we had a couple of quality guys: Kerry, myself, Bucky Greeley, Brian Gelzheiser, Phil Yeboah-Kodie.

KERRY COLLINS: Certainly Kyle was a big-name recruit, and there were a couple of other guys. I don't know what the ranking was, but I got the feeling that everyone was excited about our class.

FRAN GANTER: We knew Kerry was going to be something special.

COLLINS: Initially, there were four or five of us--John Sacca, Danny White, Craig Fayak, who at the time was a quarterback--but I don't remember that scaring me too much. I felt like Penn State was the best place for me. I had an assurance that I was gonna be a quarterback, and I took them at their word. Even when I was there, I would kind of tease Billy Kenney, who recruited me, "Hey, you guys aren't going to move me."

GREELEY: I played against Kerry my senior year, and he was my quarterback at Big 33, and there was no doubt he was going to be the quarterback. He had the confidence, the raw talent, the leadership ability. I look at a lot of the stuff that was written back then... we never had those doubts.


Not every member of that class was a sure thing.

VINCENT STEWART: I didn't play football until tenth grade. I'm this 6-foot-4, 280-pound guy out of Long Island that nobody knows about. After a lot of pushing from my coaches, I ended up at Penn State camp going into 11th grade. Joe Sarra was in charge of the defensive tackles, and he was the guy who spotted me, inspired me, and ultimately fought for me to get my scholarship. From that day on, by hook or by crook, I was going to Penn State...

On my visit, I sat with Coach Paterno, and the first and only thing he talked about was school. I talked to a lot of other coaches, they talked about playing time and all that, but none of them really talked about school. I knew something was different when Coach Paterno looked me in the eye and said, "Just give me all you can. I don't care if you come here and don't play, you're going to graduate." I had four other recruiting trips scheduled, and I cancelled all of them.


The group that would form the core of the 1994 team drew heavily from the recruiting classes of 1990 and '91. There were a handful of exceptions, including a pair of 1989 high school graduates. One was defensive tackle Chris Mazyck, who tells his story in Chapter 3; the other was cornerback Marlon Forbes.

MARLON FORBES: I came to Penn State as an ROTC student. I graduated in '89, then went into the Navy right out of high school. I qualified for a program where you become a scholarship ROTC student at the school of your choice. I wanted to go to Penn State anyway, and this became a vehicle to get there. So in the fall of 1990, I walked on as a quarterback and wide receiver.

Once I got on the team, I took at look at the quarterbacks we had, and I was like, "You gotta be kidding me. Everybody's good here." The receivers? It was Dave Daniels, Terry Smith, O.J. McDuffy, Ricky Sayles... It seemed like we had everything. It might've been the second or third practice, and one of the coaches said "Hey, you ever play defensive back?" I was like, "Not really." Next thing I know, I'm a scout team DB. Ron Dickerson said, "Come back next spring on defense," and that was it.


Forbes was understandably impressed by the Lions' veteran skill players that fall; a year later, he and the rest of the Penn State squad would be wowed by an incoming freshman class that stands as arguably the greatest in Penn State history. Boasting nearly two dozen players, the '91 recruiting class was particularly loaded with offensive linemen--Keith Conlin, Jeff Hartings, Andre Johnson, and Marco Rivera among them--and running backs. Analysts called it the top class in the nation. Who were those freshmen to disagree?

KEITH CONLIN: We were the No. 1 class in the country. We were Joe's best recruiting class of all time. The running backs, the offensive linemen, everywhere, we were loaded.

MARCO RIVERA: Even before we got up to Penn State, we knew all these guys right away, from reading about them in the newspaper. We knew we had a good class.

GANTER: There were so many kids who were hard to get, and we worked hard to get them.

TONY PITTMAN: With those two classes, '90 and '91, it was like, "Wow, we've got a lot of talent coming in." But you never know how that talent pans out.

BRADY: We had heard so much about that '91 class. I was already starting to take those things with a grain of salt. Guys can be all-world in high school--you hear all these numbers about their speed and bench press--then they get there and it's a different story. You never know what you're going to get.

TODD ATKINS: A bunch of us--myself, Keith Conlin, Eric Clair, Mike Archie--we all played on the Pennsylvania Big 33 team, so quite a few of us knew each other coming into camp. It seemed like everybody kind of gelled.

BOBBY ENGRAM: It seemed uncommon at the time, how well we all got along.

CONLIN: I played with seven or eight guys in the Big 33 game, so we already had our little clique going. Plus, a lot of us were recruited by the same teams. I ended up living with Eric Clair for four of my five years there, and we first met on a visit to Florida State.

RIVERA: I remember I went on a recruiting trip to Syracuse, and I'm standing there with Andre Johnson--he's a lineman from Long Island, I'm a lineman from Long Island--and I'm asking him, "Where do you think you're going?" And he's asking me... Next think you know, I commit to Penn State, he commits to Penn State. That's how it happened with us.

MIKE ARCHIE: When I came in, you know who my host was? Kerry Collins. It was just a great time. Touring me around, showing me the campus, he really did feel like a brother. I remember meeting Keith Conlin and Marco Rivera and thinking, "Are these guys coming here? Because these guys are pretty big."

COLLINS: The offensive linemen, it's hard to see into the future with those guys--Jeff Hartings put on probably 70 pounds when he was there. Those guys had to grow into it. But you could see it. That class kind of carried themselves in a certain way. They knew they were good.

BRADY: Guys like Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera, they were the ideal guys to come in as offensive linemen. You don't want a guy to come in at 300 pounds with a bunch of baby fat. You want a guy who shows up maybe 260, athletic, maybe played basketball in high school, then you get them in the weight room and build them up from there. Their work ethic was tremendous, they had the smarts, they had the talent. You don't know what the potential could be, but it could really be something.

GREELEY: When that class came in, they were loaded for bear. The expectation was, "We're going to be good. How good? We want to be national champions."

JEFF HARTINGS: I think with a Joe Paterno team, all of us went there for one reason. That was to win national titles.

KI-JANA CARTER: We were all close with each other, we had no egos, and we knew we had the No. 1 class coming in. We basically sat down and said, "We know what we've got here. Before we leave, we want to go undefeated and win a national championship."

ARCHIE: When we first came in, we had a little meeting, and I believe it was Kerry who stood up and said, "There is no reason, by the time we get out of here, we shouldn't be a national championship-caliber team."

TOM BRADLEY: If you look at Penn State's greatest teams, the seeds of those teams were probably built when those guys were freshmen. The '82 team, it was the '79 team going to the national championship game.

GREELEY: There were a lot of guys in both of those classes who could've gone to other schools and made contributions earlier, but we all saw the opportunity and bought into our goals at Penn State. I know I took it personally that every class up until that point, Joe used to say, "You're either going to have an undefeated team or play for a national championship." I was like, "I don't want to be the class that breaks that streak."


A common feature on Joe Paterno's championship-caliber teams was the presence of at least one transcendent running back. The '91 class featured a half-dozen potential backfield stars: tailbacks Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter, J.T. Morris (who eventually transferred), and Stephen Pitts, along with Brian Milne and linebacker-turned-fullback Jon Wittman.

CARTER: I think Mike committed first, then Stephen, then myself.

ARCHIE: If memory serves, I was the last to come in.

STEPHEN PITTS: If I wasn't the first of the three of us, I was at least the second. Ki-Jana kind of came on at the end, when some things fell apart with his recruiting at Ohio State.

CARTER: Me and Archie were on the same visit.

ARCHIE: I knew about Ki-Jana, and I knew about Stephen, and I knew about J.T. Morris. I was wondering if all these guys were gonna come in. But it was fun to meet them on the visits. You get to talking--Ki-Jana's like, "You thinking about coming here?" I'm like, "I don't know, are you thinking about coming here?"

CARTER: Wherever you go, there's gonna be competition. From my standpoint, if I can play, I'm gonna play anywhere. That's how I felt. I went where I was comfortable.

PITTS: My process was kind of slow. I wasn't one of those guys that dreamed of playing in the NFL. I loved the game--that was it. I was going to college regardless. The way I made the final pick was, if there was no football, where would I want to go to school?

ARCHIE: When I heard all three of them were coming here, I made up my mind. "I said, I probably could go anywhere and play right away, but if I'm going to be the best I can be, I'm going to go with that group right there." I wanted to come in and compete with those guys. I knew I was only going to get better.

BRIAN MILNE: I came in as a tailback, but on our very first lap around Holuba Hall, I looked at Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter, and Stephen Michael Pitts and said, "You know what? I think I'm gonna change to fullback. I might be fast, but I'm not that fast." You just look at these guys, see them run, it was like, "Oooh, boy." I knew right away the talent that was in the room.

Click here for the continuation of Part 1 of the oral history of the 1994 team

The Football Letter Blog - 1994 Team Oral History (Parts 1-5)

VIDEO: James Franklin Practice Update - Akron Week

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Head coach James Franklin provided an update to the media following Wednesday's practice session at the Lasch Football Complex. The Nittany Lions meet Akron on Saturday at noon inside Beaver Stadium (ABC/ESPN2).

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

2014 Opponent Previews - Akron

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Akron | Beaver Stadium | Noon | ABC/ESPN2

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions welcome MAC foe Akron to Beaver Stadium for the first home game of the 2014 season on Saturday. Get to know the Zips in this week's scouting report.

Terry Bowden, who is in his third year leading the Zips, has a record of 7-18 in Akron. Akron went 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the Mid-American Conference last year.   The Zips return 39 letterwinners and 15 starters from a year ago.

akron-logo_blog.jpgAkron began its 2014 campaign with a 41-0 victory over Howard.  The Zips gained 513 yards of total offense and held the Bison to just 216.  Quarterback Kyle Pohl earned MAC East Offensive Player of the Week honors after completing 22-of-35 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns.  He also led the team with 48 yards rushing on seven carries.  Running back Jawon Chisholm added 21 yards and a score on nine carries.  Sophomore Mykel Traylor-Bennett caught four passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns.  Imani Davis, L.T. Smith III and Austin Wolf each had a receiving touchdown.

Senior linebacker C.J. Mizell recorded a team-high 10 tackles, eight solo, and recovered a fumble.  Defensive end Nmesome Okafor made seven stops, 1.5 for loss and was one of four Zips to record a sack.  Linebacker Justin March forced a fumble.

Akron looks to improve on offense after ranking 108th in scoring last year, averaging just 20.2 points per game.  They also ranked 106th in total yards, averaging 342 per contest.

Pohl, a junior, was named preseason Third Team All-MAC by Phil Steele after completing 56 percent of his passes in 2013 for 2,438 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.  Chisholm, a Harrisburg native, rushed for 869 yards and eight touchdowns last year, while averaging 4.6 yards per rush.  Chisholm also contributed 211 yards and a touchdown on 27 receptions.  Junior Conor Hundley also returns to the backfield after gaining 425 yards a year ago.

Junior Zach D'Orazio leads the receiving corps after catching a team-high 42 passes for 567 yards and four touchdowns in 2013.  Fransohn Bickley, a speedy 5-foot-6 receiver, caught 39 receptions for 407 yards and two touchdowns.  Smith, 6-foot, and Traylor-Bennett, 6-foot-3, will also be top targets for Pohl.

The Zip offensive line includes two seniors and three juniors.

Akron ranked 73rd in scoring defense in the FBS and 59th in total defense in 2013. 

Defensive end Nordly Capi and nose guard Cody Grice were named Second Team All-MAC in the preseason by Phil Steele, while tackle Se'Von Pittman was selected for the Third Team.  Capi recorded 31 tackles, 4.5 for loss and two sacks in 2013, while Grice had 32 stops, 7.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks.  Pittman, a sophomore, transferred from Ohio State.

Akron fields a stout linebacking corps, with four returning that all placed among their top six tacklers last year.  Jatavis Brown, a junior, led the team with 107 stops, 57 solo and 6.5 for loss.  He also had two sacks and two forced fumbles.  March, a senior, added 80 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and three interceptions.  Mizell made 7.5 stops for loss in 2013, while Dylan Evans had six.

The Zips start a pair of seniors and a pair of juniors in the secondary, with corner Bryce Cheek and safety Johnny Robinson having starting experience.  Robinson picked off two passes and broke up two in 2013.

Kicker Robert Stein, a junior, converted on 9-of-16 attempts with a long of 51 yards last year, while junior punter Zach Paul averaged 43 yards per punt last year. Freshman Tom O'Leary is listed atop the depth chart at kicker for the Zips.

Penn State is 4-0 on the field all-time against Akron.  The schools last met in 2009, when the Nittany Lions earned a 31-7 on-field win.

What Terry Bowden is saying about Penn State:

"We're excited to be going to Penn State and be playing such a great football program. (James Franklin) is one of the outstanding coaches in America and his staff. They're a great program and it's a great opportunity for us and our players to go into a great venue."

"(Hackenberg) has a rifle arm. He's got explosive abilities and can make big plays. If you give him enough time to throw the football, he's going to rip you apart. We'll have to really have a great plan to slow him down a little."

 2014 Opponent Previews compiled by Student Writer Paul Marboe.

Future Football Schedules Set

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With Wednesday's announcement that Army will complete the 2015 football schedule, the next three seasons of games are now set. Take a closer look at the future Penn State Football schedules.


Date                 Opponent

Sept. 5             at Temple

Sept. 12           BUFFALO

Sept. 19           RUTGERS *

Sept. 26           SAN DIEGO STATE

Oct. 3              ARMY

Oct. 10            INDIANA *

Oct. 17            at Ohio State *

Oct. 24            at Maryland * (M&T Bank Stadium; Baltimore)

Oct. 31            ILLINOIS *

Nov. 7              at Northwestern *

Nov. 21            MICHIGAN *

Nov. 28            at Michigan State *

Dec. 5              Big Ten Championship Game (Lucas Oil Stadium; Indianapolis)



Date                 Opponent

Sept. 3             KENT STATE

Sept. 10           at Pittsburgh

Sept. 17           TEMPLE

Oct. 1              MINNESOTA

Oct. 8              MARYLAND

Oct. 15            at Michigan

Oct. 22            OHIO STATE

Oct. 29            at Purdue

Nov. 5              IOWA

Nov. 12            at Indiana

Nov. 19            at Rutgers

Nov. 26            MICHIGAN STATE

Dec. 3              Big Ten Championship Game (Lucas Oil Stadium; Indianapolis)



Date                 Opponent

Sept. 2             AKRON

Sept. 9             PITTSBURGH

Sept. 16           GEORGIA STATE

Sept. 30           INDIANA

Oct. 7              at Northwestern

Oct. 14            at Iowa

Oct. 21            MICHIGAN

Oct. 28            at Ohio State

Nov. 4              at Michigan State

Nov. 11            RUTGERS

Nov. 18            NEBRASKA

Nov. 25            at Maryland

Dec. 2              Big Ten Championship Game (Lucas Oil Stadium; Indianapolis) 

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Akron Week Player Q&As - Sam Ficken & Jesse James

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - catches up with senior kicker Sam Ficken and junior Jesse James leading up to the Akron game.

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Week Two Press Conference Roundup - Akron Week

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blog_presser_Akron.jpgJames Franklin Transcript - Sept. 2

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions return to Beaver Stadium on Saturday for the 2014 home-opener against Akron (Noon on ABC).

Head coach James Franklin previewed the week two matchup against the Zips on Tuesday afternoon inside the Beaver Stadium Media Room. Saturday will mark Franklin's first time leading the Nittany Lions onto the field in front of the Beaver Stadium faithful for a game.

"I think the first time you walk through the tunnel and you look out there and you feel the energy, probably arriving at the stadium and walking through the crowd with our new entrance that we are coming into the stadium and things like that," Franklin said. "I think those things, obviously, will have an effect. But after that, you don't really kind of think about it."

Franklin said the Nittany Lions are seeking to clean a few things up after watching the film of the UCF game, namely the turnover margin and number of penalties. He also spent some time on Tuesday discussing the running game and the areas of emphasis for the offensive line. While the group made good progress leading up to the UCF game, Franklin wants to see the group play with great consistency.

"I think for us, it's finishing. It's finishing blocks. It's making sure our communication, that we are all on the same page," said Franklin. "But more than anything, it's sustaining it; it's finishing. When you think you've blocked long enough, block longer to the echo of the whistle, those types of things. So we are going to work hard on them this week and we are going to continue to invest in the running game, and hopefully that will pay dividends on Saturday."

Another area Franklin wants to see the Nittany Lions take a jump in this week is inside the red zone. Penn State went 5-for-5 on scoring chances inside the 20 against UCF, but only one of those scores was a touchdown. Fanklin wants to see the offense put seven points on the board when the Lions are in the red area.

Collectively, teams often make their biggest jump of the year from week one to week two. In his experience at previous stops during his career, Franklin said that normally that is the case. He is looking for the Lions to take a step forward this week.

"That's our goal; to make sure that we are improving collectively and we are improving individually and if you do that, then you'll like the results," said Franklin.

Saturday's game will mark the fifth time Akron will play at Penn State. The Lions are 4-0 against the Zips. The squads last met in 2009, which resulted in a 31-7 on-field victory for the Nittany Lions.

Terry Bowden is in his third season as head coach of Akron. Bowden is 7-18 at Akron, but the Zips have won five of their last six games.

Press Conference Notes
- Franklin on the Akron offense:

"They have got nine returning starters, and the guys that jump out to us are their running back, Jawon Chisholm, who is a Harrisburg High School kid; Zach Guiser is a wide receiver; and then their quarterback, Kyle Pohl, who threw for over 62 percent, four touchdowns and zero interceptions."

- Franklin on the UCF deffense:

"Chuck Amato, their defensive coordinator, he was the defensive coach at NC State and expecting big things from them. Six returning starters which we talked about. The guy that jumps out to us is their defensive end, No. 11, Nordly Capi, their speed guy off the edge."

- Franklin on the Akron special teams:

"On special teams, Jeff Bowden, obviously a very, very experienced coach is their special teams coordinator and No. 3, their kickoff return guy is a weapon for them."

- Comment on the play of defensive ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes:

"Both guys both played well. You look at the pressures and the sacks and how many hits we were able to get on the quarterback from our d‑line, and our linebacker and the way we were able to stop the run, I think that's probably the thing because probably most impressed with those guys is how physical they were in the running game. Obviously you would always love to get more sacks and create more pressures. I thought they both did extremely well and we want to build on that and go from there."

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Monday Notebook: B1G Honors to Kick Off Akron Week

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10268294.jpegUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - On the heels of a dramatic 26-24 victory over UCF to open the season in Ireland, the Nittany Lions are focused solely on one thing: Saturday's home-opener against Akron (Noon on ABC).

While the win over UCF is a big confidence boost heading into the remainder of the season, the only game on the schedule for the team is the one this week.

"The win means a lot to the team because it's something where we all had to come together, and we accomplished something as a group. It's a game to build on," said redshirt freshman offensive tackle Andrew Nelson.

"It means we got off to a good start, but we now focused on Akron," junior defensive end Deion Barnes said.

After practicing on Sunday, Monday is an off day for the players. The team will get back to work on Tuesday, which is also media day for Akron week.

Ficken, Hamilton Headline Big Ten Awards
The Nittany Lions received good news on Monday with the Big Ten's announcement that Sam Ficken (Special Teams) and DaeSean Hamilton (Co-Freshman) were named players of the week for their efforts against UCF on Saturday.

Ficken converted a career-high four field goals (4-for-4), including a 36-yard game-winner to lift the Nittany Lions past UCF. Monday's honor marked the third time Ficken has been selected Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.

Hamilton made an immediate impact in his first outing as a Nittany Lion. The redshirt freshman re-wrote the record book for Nittany Lion rookies with his 11 catches for 165 yards against UCF. Hamilton took a workmanlike approach to the offseason while building a rapport with Christian Hackenberg. The duo got off to a spectacular start across the pond.

"I was just hoping to go out there and make the plays that were coming to me," Hamilton said. "And then after the first catch, I just started to get into a groove.

Hackenberg Stands Alone in 400 Club
Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is the only player in Penn State Football's illustrious 128-year history to reach 400 passing yards in a game. Hackenberg finished 32-of-47 for 454 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. The Nittany Lion sophomore connected with seven different receivers in the victory, including three players who had seven or more catches. Zack Mills previously owned the game passing record mark with 399 yards against Iowa in 2002.

Final Numbers

Take a look through some standout numbers from the season-opener against UCF.

3,332 - The Nittany Lions tangled with UCF 3,332 miles away from Beaver Stadium, marking the furthest distance Penn State has ever played a game on the road.

454 - Christian Hackenberg set a school record with 454 passing yards in the victory over UCF.

338 - Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton combined for 338 receiving yards on Saturday. Each player topped 150 receiving yards, which marked the first time in program history that two players tallied 150 receiving yards or more.

94 - Penn State now has 94 victories in season-openers. The Lions are 94-20-2 all-time in the first game of the season.

18 - Placekicker Sam Ficken noted after the game that he had to play the wind on the final field goal inside Croke Park. The wind speed during the game in Dublin on Saturday was 18 mph.

11 - There were 11 players who saw the field for the first time as a Penn State player on Saturday. The list included six redshirt freshmen and five true freshmen.

7 - Junior tight end Jesse James tallied a career-high seven receptions against UCF.

6.8 - The Penn State offense averaged 6.8 yards per play in the season-opener.

5 - Five days remain until the Nittany Lions meet Akron in Beaver Stadium.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Postgame Press Conference In Ireland - vs. UCF

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VIDEO: Player Interviews

DUBLIN, Ireland - Head into the media room following a thrilling 26-24 victory over UCF in the Croke Park Classic to hear from head coach James Franklin, quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel.

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VIDEO: Postgame Player Interviews from Ireland

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VIDEO: Postgame Press Conference

DUBLIN, Ireland - Hear from several Nittany Lions following Penn State's thrilling 26-24 victory over UCF in the Croke Park Classic.

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Lions' Will to Win Shines on Final Drive in Ireland

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irelandblog_story_drive.jpgVIDEO: Postgame Press Conference | VIDEO: Postgame Player Interviews

DUBLIN, Ireland - It was almost as if a sense of calm came over the Penn State sideline on the pitch in Croke Park Stadium on Saturday afternoon when UCF capped off a 75-yard drive with a go-ahead touchdown as the clock read 1:13 to play.

Down 24-23, Christian Hackenberg trotted onto the field with three timeouts in his pocket knowing he need to get the ball into field goal range or the game was over. While he is just a sophomore, Hackenberg has the poise of a senior and was no stranger to the stakes.

"We were excited. This team has been there before," Hackenberg said. "Even though we are young, we knew what we could do. Geno (Lewis) made a big play. Bill (Belton) made a fantastic play to get out of bounds. It's just one of those things where guys stepped up."

From top to bottom, the offensive unit never doubted how the game was going to end. That says a lot about the leadership in the huddle on an offense that had five players starting in their first game on Saturday.

"We all believed in each other," redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson said. "We all knew that the person next to you had your back. We had repped it in practice, and we were confident in what we were going to do."

"Whenever he is out there, everyone has the most confidence in him," senior Mike Hull said. "When he is in a two-minute situation at the end of a game, we know he is going to get the job done."

The final drive began at the Penn State 26-yard line. Hackenberg connected with Geno Lewis for a seven-yard gain. Following a third-down incompletion, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year made a quick decision to scramble for a do-or-die first down on fourth-and-three.

"I knew it was fourth down and if I was going to go, I had to go," Hackenberg said. "I just tried to get as much as I could."

One play later, Hackenberg shoveled a pass to Bill Belton, who raced 13 yards to the UCF 46. Lewis and Hackenberg connected for completions of nine and 18 yards, respectively, on the next two plays.

"It's just like it was last year, we practice it so much, and the coaches do such a great job of putting us in situations (on the practice field)," Hackenberg said. "I think today, guys went out and they wanted it. Guys made plays."

The final reception to Lewis led to a Nittany Lion timeout with three seconds on the clock.

Ficken trotted onto the field with the kicking unit, and the rest will live in Penn State and Croke Park lore.

"It wasn't a really difficult kick. The wind was blowing right to left," Ficken said. "I asked them to get the ball to the right side of the field so that I could play the wind a little better. The snap was good. The hold was good. Honestly, I didn't hit it great, but it went through and that's all that matters."

As the 36-yard kick sailed inside the right upright to give Penn State a 26-24 victory, the Lions stormed the field to chase after Ficken, who made a victory lap in front of the more than 15,000 Penn State fans who flew across the pond to see the game. The field goal made it a storybook ending for head coach James Franklin's first win as Penn State head coach.

"That guy has had as consistent of a spring and summer as anyone on our team," Franklin said. "I'm just happy for him...He's a perfect example of people in life and in this program that if you stay positive, persevere and keep working, good things will happen."

After landing in Pittsburgh on Saturday night around 11 p.m. ET and a bus ride to State College, the team will get some rest before getting right back to work on Sunday in preparation for Saturday's home opener against Akron.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony