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NEW YORK - Penn State etched its place in Yankee Stadium lore on Saturday with a thrilling 31-30 overtime victory over Boston College in a sold out New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
The Nittany Lions again showed their resilient attitude, rallying from 21-7 down in the third quarter to send the game into overtime thanks to a 44-yard boot from senior captain Sam Ficken with 20 seconds to go. Pinstripe Bowl MVP Christian Hackenberg then found Kyle Carter for a 10-yard touchdown pass in overtime after Boston College scored and missed its extra point.
Carter's touchdown snag set up a walk-off opportunity for a man who faced more adversity during his tenure in Penn State Blue and White than anyone else on the roster. True to form during a tremendous senior season, Ficken buried the extra point to give the Nittany Lions a one-point victory and send Yankee Stadium into pandemonium.
It's hard to imagine a more fitting way for Ficken's Penn State career to draw to a close on a day when he used Yankee legend Derek Jeter's locker in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse.
"It's a storybook ending, really," Ficken said. "I couldn't have written a better way for it to go. This team has worked so hard and fought through so much. To say we made it to a bowl, first, and then that we won a bowl, is really incredible."
Penn State fans have seen it for three seasons. Regardless of the sanctions, scholarship circumstances, or score deficits, the Nittany Lions never stopped fighting. For a senior class that stuck with the program during its toughest times, Saturday's win was the fairy tale ending the veteran players deserved.
"For the seniors, they set the example. They set the precedent for guys like me," Hackenberg said. "That one was for them. They earned that for everything they've dealt with."
"I couldn't be more happy with how it went," All-American Mike Hull said. "I'm so grateful for everything. It's just fitting - I told these guys earlier - that we win in Yankee Stadium in overtime after the roller coaster ride we have had."
Hull's senior campaign will rank among Penn State's all-time bests at the linebacker position. He tallied six stops against Boston College to give him 140 tackles for the season, which is tied for No. 4 in Penn State history. A true class act on and off the field, Hull is a rare player with an unrivaled work ethic.
"You have heard me say this time and time again, but these guys will be remembered forever, for standing strong when we needed them to stand strong, to lay the foundation for great things to come," said head coach James Franklin. "Every win we have next year and for eternity will be on their backs."
The senior class overcame the unprecedented circumstances to finish their four seasons with a 31-19 record, extending the program's consecutive winning seasons mark to 10 years.
Saturday's gritty victory was a team win. Contributions came from all three phases of the game - offense, defense and special teams - and a host of individuals, ranging from true freshman Chris Godwin's seven-reception, 142-yard effort to senior Adrian Amos' seven tackles.
But the star among stars was the captain wearing No. 14. Hackenberg was phenomenal for the Nittany Lions, throwing for a Penn State bowl game record of 371 yards and four touchdown passes. The Virginia native was in the zone from the moment he took the field.
"I think that is a huge springboard for us, the guys who are coming back," Hackenberg said. "We will really be able to carry that momentum into winter workouts and then spring ball...Guys scratched and clawed and that has been the story of our year. Tonight, the guys did what we needed to win. To see it all come to accumulation in this game was special."
Credit the offensive line for giving Hackenberg great protection all night long, but the Lion sophomore delivered numerous balls to the corps of receivers and tight ends that left the stadium in awe of his talent level. Eight different players caught a pass in the Pinstripe Bowl, and seven Lions had at least three catches.
"I love Christian Hackenberg, I wouldn't trade him for anybody," Franklin said. "I think he's got a really bright future at Penn State moving forward. I will fight and defend him till the end."
With his efforts on Saturday evening, Hackenberg broke the Penn State season total offense mark with 3,258 yards in 2014. He finished the season ranked No. 3 in career passing yardage at 5,932.
In a season filled with close games, the Nittany Lions finish 2014 with a 7-6 mark. Sure, everyone in the program would love to have a few plays altered to add more wins to the season total, but the Nittany Lions battled from start to finish.
The group has a never-say-die fiber about it that is truly unique. A season that began with a walk-off win in Ireland ended in storybook fashion on the field in one of the world's most famous venues.
Nittany Nation made Yankee Stadium feel like a home Saturday under the lights in Beaver Stadium, and the season closed in a fitting manner for a team that deserved every ounce of its success.
"The way the guys persevered all season, wasn't always pretty, but we stuck together, and to me that's who we are, blue-collar, hard-nosed program," Franklin said.
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