The double thump of foot hitting ball and then ball hitting hand. A perfect bounce. A race for the end zone barely won.
A blocked field goal in the fourth quarter against Ohio State changed Penn State’s season. The Nittany Lions have not lost since and Happy Valley is happier than it’s been with its football team in the five years since a scandal shook the program and the school.
Winning might not cure everything, but it certainly makes it easier to shift the focus away from lawsuits , statues and how best to commemorate anniversaries . For the first time in the post-Paterno, post-scandal era, the Nittany Lions are championship contenders. No. 8 Penn State (10-2, No. 7 CFP) makes its first appearance in the Big Ten championship game Saturday.
“The community’s been through a lot. This is a place where the football program really has always been stable,” junior linebacker Jason Cabinda said this week. “It was tough for the community to see us kind of fall off a bit. To finally see us kind of arrive again, I think it’s been huge.”
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At the very least the game against No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2, No. 6 CFP) in Indianapolis will determine which team goes to the Rose Bowl. Penn State has not won the Big Ten or played in the Rose Bowl since 2008. It could also send a team to the College Football Playoff.
Paterno was fired in 2011 after Jerry Sandusky, his former longtime assistant was arrested for sexually abusing children. Penn State football was sanctioned by the NCAA in 2012 and has been digging out since. The Nittany Lions had three straight 7-6 seasons before this year’s resurgence under third-year coach James Franklin, who got a vote of confidence from athletic director Sandy Barbour earlier this season amid speculation about his job security.
Franklin has deflected most questions this week about where he and Penn State have been.
“I do think it’s significant that we’re at a time in our history where people are talking about what we are, what we currently are, what Penn State is,” he said.
And it all started with that blocked field-goal attempt against Ohio State on a chilly late October night in State College, Pennsylvania.
Penn State had chipped a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit down to four, but the Buckeyes were looking to add another three with a 45-yard field goal with 4:39 left in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions at that point had only managed a couple sustained drives against the Buckeyes’ defense.
The game drew a massive white-out crowd to Beaver Stadium, but the energy was relatively subdued throughout. Penn State fans were hopeful of an upset but not optimistic. Penn State came into the game 4-2, a three-touchdown underdog to the Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions had not won a game like this in years.
Ohio State had dawdled before sending kicker Tyler Durbin and the field-goal team on the field to try to extend the fourth-quarter lead. By the time Durbin had stepped back into position, there were 4 seconds left on the play clock. Penn State defensive back Marcus Allen was 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. At the snap he broke toward the line, slipped through a crease on the left side, and leapt high with both arms raised.
Cabinda, who was lined up slightly to the right of the center, heard what happened before he saw it.
“Really, all I remember was just the double thump and seeing Grant (Haley) scoop the ball and take off,” Cabinda said.
The bounce of a football is just about the most unpredictable thing in sports. Picking up the ball as it bounces around like an excited toddler is one part hand-eye coordination and two parts good fortune.
Allen blocked the ball down and to the left. It bounced once, twice and a third time, and then Haley, who had lined up on the far left, cradled it on the run. The defensive back had about a 5-yard head lead on Ohio State holder Cameron Johnston when they both broke into a sprint.
“Grant’s one of the fastest players on our team,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “Once I saw him get the ball I knew he was going to be able to take it all the way.”
Well, it wasn’t quite so easy. Johnston, the Australian rules football player turned punter, has got wheels.
“I mean their kicker is probably one of the fastest kickers I’ve seen,” star running back Saquon Barkley said.
Johnston closed and dove for Haley at the 15, grabbing at his waist but sliding off. Haley stumbled into the end zone and Beaver Stadium erupted in a way it has not in forever.
Penn State has been one of the best teams in college football since that moment. The Nittany Lions don’t look back on that block as the turning point of the season, but there is no denying that beating Ohio State was worth a lot more than beating Maryland or Minnesota.
“To kind of see how much that win impacted not only our team, but the entire community here at State College and Penn State, I think it really opened our eyes to how impactful Penn State football is just among the Penn State community. How much people do care about it,” McSorley said. “It made us appreciate everything we have here that much more and made us work harder.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org