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Penn State earns statement victory with Ohio State upset

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A coach who doesn't believe in signature wins got his signature win.

“That’s for you guys, all that signature stuff,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “What I am proud of is how many kids came up to me and told me they love me. A lot of times, football coaches and football players are supposed to be these big tough guys, but I cry all the time.”

In the postgame press conference, Franklin broke into tears when describing the impact of the Nittany Lions' 24-21 upset victory over No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday. Franklin lost a family member during the week and was overcome by emotions as his daughter sat beside him. He also recognized the importance of the win for the State College community, which has continued to heal slowly from the disastrous Jerry Sandusky scandal.

“I believe that football has the ability to bring the community together like nothing else,” he said.

On Saturday night, Franklin’s Lions brought the Penn State community together in a way few have ever experienced. The last time an unranked Penn State squad beat a top-two opponent was in 1964. The sellout Beaver Stadium crowd, dressed from head-to-toe in white gear for the annual White Out game, responded by rushing the field and mobbing players and coaches at the 50-yard line.

Two years ago, Penn State was in a similar position to steal a win over the eventual-champion Buckeyes on another White Out game. But their efforts came up short as J.T. Barrett and Ohio State dashed the Lions dreams in overtime.

But in 2016, these older Lions had learned from that heartbreak.

“We’ve been through so much and I think that’s just helped us get to where we are today,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “Because of those moments two years ago and last year, the moments we went through even earlier this year like the Pitt game and the Michigan game, moments like that carry over and they show on a night like tonight.”

In the Ohio State loss two years ago, those Nittany Lions were entirely carried by a dominant defensive effort but didn’t have enough offensive firepower to seal the deal.

But in this season’s episode, that immovable (despite different looking) defense was coupled with an effective offense that showed up when it mattered. Quarterback Trace McSorley finished with 154 yards on just eight completions and struggled to find open receivers against a collapsing pocket all night, but his 35-yard connection with Saeed Blacknall in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter set up his own rushing touchdown to  cut the Buckeyes’ lead to just one score with 13 minutes to play in the fourth.

Lions star running back Saquon Barkley rushed for 99 yards on his 18 carries, but was held out of the end zone for the first time this season.

But despite some of the offensive struggles, Penn State showed up and made the biggest of the big plays in the fourth quarter.

With 4:27 left to play, Ohio State kicker Tyler Durbin came on to attempt a 45-yard attempt, which could have potentially put the Bucks up seven again. But safety Marcus Allen, who finished the game with seven tackles, leaped with every inch of his 6-foot-2 frame to swat the field goal attempt. Seconds later, Penn State cornerback Grant Haley had scooped up the ball and was sprinting towards the end zone.

"I felt so good," Allen said. "Like you don't understand, I wanted to cry. We did it man, we did it."

All 107,280 people in Beaver Stadium screamed in disbelief at what would soon be the greatest play of the James Franklin era.

Well, all 107,280 but one.

“I knew he wasn’t going to get caught,” Gesicki said. “It was close, I know he got tired at the end. But he said earlier in the week, talking to [Penn State backup quarterback] Billy Fessler, ‘I’m going to make a play to win the game’, he called it. And I don’t know what it was, but he was right.”

Just like every drive before that game-changer, Penn State only found themselves in that position because of its defense. What was expected to be a weak spot coming into the year because of the loss of numerous seniors and former coordinator Bob Shoop has instead returned as a dominant unit under new coordinator Brent Pry.

“I’ve been telling you guys for three years that this Brent Pry guy is pretty good,” Franklin said. “He has stepped up. We lost seven linebackers this year for long periods of time and our defense just kept grinding and grinding, making no excuses. I’ve known Brent Pry for my entire coaching career… and I am so happy for that guy.”

On Saturday, the Lions got the two most important of those linebackers back, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda.

“Cabinda and Bell, getting those two guys back was huge,” Franklin said. “Their leadership, their poise, their playmaking capability was huge for us.”

In his first game back from injury, Bell led all players with 19 tackles, eight of which were solo, while also picking up a sack. Cabinda wasn’t too far behind, finishing second amongst all players with 12 tackles along with two tackles for loss.Penn State Trace McSorely

Manny Bowen was one of the linebackers who stepped up in big ways for Pry’s defense in the absence of Bell and Cabinda and he continued to contribute when they returned, totaling 11 tackles to go along with an unmatched confidence.

After the game, he was all smiles.

“We came out and just proved everybody wrong, so that’s a great feeling,” Bowen said. “We had that fire in us from the beginning to the end.”

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