On September 8th, 2012, Sam Ficken stood on the 33 yard line at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Virginia after his game-winning field goal attempt sailed wide left. It was his fourth miss of the game, and making just one of them would have prevented 17-16 loss for Penn State at the hands of the Virginia Cavaliers. The Nittany Lions were 0-2 under Bill O’Brien, and their losses were filled with mistakes and missed opportunities. At the time, that was what Penn State football was all about.
In July of 2012, just hours after the NCAA slammed Penn State with a four year bowlban, loss of 60 scholarships, revocation of 111 wins, seniors Michael Mauti and Mike Zordich stood outside the Penn State work out facility and took a stand. Included in the sanctions was a clause that allowed PSU players to transfer immediately without having to wait the standard one year to return to play. Zordich and Mauti would have none of that. They rallied together a small group of players including starting senior quarterback Matt McGloin, and said that they would not leave the Lions. For the fans this was nice to see, but they knew that their team would be doomed after the players who weren’t present (Silas Redd, Justin Brown) would transfer. At the time, Penn State football was a train wreck waiting to happen.
But on October 11th, 2012, Penn State football is something new. They were Matt McGloin running it in himself on 4th and goal to beat Northwestern. They are Mike Mauti returning an interception 99 yards to the 1 yard line in a rout of Illinois. In fact, Illinois was the biggest recruiter of Penn State players in July, and Mauti not only said no to their face, but made a public statement criticizing the the ethics of that program. They are Zach Zwinak, the fourth string tailback during spring practices, tearing up rival Temple for over 100 yards in week 3. They are Sam Ficken, whose struggles in the kicking game have become a part of the team that we as fans have learned to love, not scorn for his mistakes in the past. They are Penn State.
In December of last year, Matt McGloin let his team down. He was involved in an altercation that banned him from participating in the TicketCity Bowl versus Houston. Rob Bolden filled in, and was less than average against a porous Houston defense. Now I am not McGloin’s coach, but I can imagine that he worked harder in the offseason than anyone else on the team. When Bill O’Brien named him the starter in March, McGloin knew it was his destiny to turn the Penn State football program around, but he couldn’t do it without his brothers. Before his comeback against the Wildcats, my lasting image of McGloin was watching him throw an interception in the endzone during the Gator Bowl in January of 2011, and watching the Florida defensive back running, and running, and running…. Now, my image is different. It is McGloin diving, full extension, for the pylon to beat Northwestern as a helpless Wildcat defender looks on. This is Matt McGloin. This is Penn State.
As the shadow of Mount Nittany was cast over Happy Valley last Saturday, a metaphorical one hung in the air. The scars of the Sandusky scandal have battered and beaten the Lions over the past 11 months, but it hasn’t killed them. And for that reason, they did not quit when they fell behind 28-17 in the fourth quarter against previously undefeated Northwestern. No one on this team is a quitter. All the quitters left in July when USC and Oklahoma knocked on their doors. McGloin led his team on a furious comeback, with a touchdown strike to Allen Robinson on fourth down plus a two-point conversion to get within three. After a defensive stop, McGloin brought PSU to fourth and goal at the five yard line. Instead of trying to tie the game with Sam Ficken, O’Brien went for it. That is what Penn State is all about. Paterno and company would have kicked it in a heartbeat, but not O’Brien. His team wants to win, and the rest is history.
Two nights prior to that moment, Silas Redd, who rushed for over 1200 yards as a Nittany Lion in 2011, ran for 77 yards and a touchdown before leaving with an ankle injury as USC beat Utah. On Saturday, Justin Brown caught a touchdown pass in Oklahoma, and Anthony Fera made 1-2 field goals for Texas while drilling 6 PATs. Sure, these guys are pretty talented players, but Bill O’Brien is probably content without them. Why would he need them when he has Zach Zwinak, Allen Robinson and Sam Ficken? I know Ficken cost them one game, but what is the difference between being 5-1 and 4-2 when you can’t make a bowl game?
There is just an electricity with this team that is unmatched anywhere else in the country. Other teams are more talented that them, for sure, but I guarantee you couldn’t think of a program with more heart than the one in Happy Valley. The fans don’t ridicule their mistakes, they embrace them. We as fans can relate to guys on Penn State because they are normal people like you and me, they just happen to love football. We didn’t get that with guys like Silas Redd because they seemed too perfect, too inhuman. These Nittany Lions seem like family.
When Kyle Carter reels in a pass over the middle, or Gerald Hodges smacks the ball carrier in the backfield, we know that they are playing with that extra chip on their shoulder. They are not playing because they want to pile up as many wins as they can, they play every play like it’s their last because they want to prove something. McGloin, Mauti, and Zordich want to prove that this team can’t be stopped by the sanctions. You can take away wins, bowls, players, and scholarships, but you can’t take away their heart. And the players at Penn State are just fine with that.