Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2016

Penn State celebrated winning the Big Ten championship at Lucas Oil Stadium after defeating Wisconsin 38-31 in 2016. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

As far as comebacks go, Penn State impressed. Both with the season and the game.

We’re talking about 2016, when the Nittany Lions earned the program’s fourth Big Ten Conference title. After the season’s first four games, Penn State sported a 2-2 record while preparing for a feisty Minnesota squad that was coming to Happy Valley the following Saturday.

That’s when the fate of Penn State’s 2016 season started to change.

A long touchdown pass to receiver Irvin Charles. A late scramble from Trace McSorley. And a 40-yard field goal from Tyler Davis with two seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime. That led to a game-winning dash from Saquon Barkley, which led to a blowout Homecoming win over Maryland, which led to the iconic win over No. 2 Ohio State, which led to, well, you know.

Penn State advanced to Indianapolis off of the strength of several comeback wins and strong second half play, including being tied with Purdue at halftime and trailing Indiana by 10 in the second half. The Nittany Lions won those games 62-24 and 45-31, respectively, setting up a memorable scene for the team’s regular season finale at Beaver Stadium.

Ohio State and Michigan played at noon, and their game was still ongoing as Penn State and Michigan State kicked at 3:30. Penn State needed a loss from the Wolverines, coupled with a win over the Spartans, to win the Big Ten’s East Division. In the first half, during a break between plays, the home crowd erupted, signaling that the Buckeyes had just upended the Wolverines in overtime.

Penn State then ran away from Michigan State, 45-12, which gave way to an on-field trophy presentation and James Franklin telling the packed crowd that “this is just the beginning.”

Franklin was right.

The following Saturday, Penn Staters converged on Indianapolis, where the Nittany Lions fell behind 28-7 late in the second quarter to Wisconsin.

McSorley and receiver Saeed Blacknall connected on two long touchdown strikes (40 yards, 70 yards), and Barkley added a score both on the ground and through the air. The latter on an oft-referenced wheel route against future first-round NFL draft pick TJ Watt.

A last-minute stop on fourth down sealed the win for Penn State, and the celebration, led by the entire Blue Band that traveled to the game, was on.

Black wrote:

“Running their winning streak to nine games in their now patented dramatic fashion, the No. 7 Nittany Lions, improbable winners of their first division title last week, fell behind No. 7 Wisconsin, winners of their division title for the fourth time in six years, 28–7, in the first 29 minutes of the sixth Big Ten Championship Game.

But that simply meant the Lions had the Badgers exactly where they wanted them—with a 210 to 104 yard margin in total offense, a 15:41 to 9:07 advantage in time of possession and a 21-­point lead in score.

Over the final 31 minutes of playing time, the never-­say-­die Lions outscored the Badgers, 31–3, to seal a 38–31 triumph and a trip to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, 2017.”

You can view photos from both the 2016 Big Ten championship and the 2017 Rose Bowl against USC on our Flickr page.

Alumni and fans can hear more about the 2016 team on tonight’s episode of The Football Letter Live, which features offensive lineman Paris Palmer. You can register online or tune in on Facebook at 8 p.m.

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

Penn State Preview: Rutgers

Will Levis rushed for 108 yards in his first career start, as Penn State blew past Rutgers 27-6 last year at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions travel to New Jersey on Saturday, looking to improve upon their 28-2 all-time mark against the Scarlet Knights. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: at Rutgers, noon kickoff, broadcast on FS1.

Venue: SHI Stadium, previously High Point Solutions Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 49 degrees with rain, heavy at times; breezy in the afternoon; locals are also encouraged to be on the lookout for flooding.

All-time series: Penn State leads 28-2, dating back to 1918.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 27-6 at Beaver Stadium, where Will Levis rushed for 108 yards in his first career start. The Nittany Lions finished the regular season 10-2, marking the third time in four years that they won 10-plus games. They also won nine in 2018.

Last week: Penn State left Ann Arbor with its first win there since 2009, upending the Wolverines 27-17. Rutgers, meanwhile, beat Purdue 37-30.

The lead: Can Saturday’s win in Ann Arbor have a carryover effect for Penn State? Sure, the Nittany Lions just need to replicate the same conditions that led to that victory. Protect the football and find a reliable rusher beyond Sean Clifford and Will Levis. The former still leads Penn State in rushing this season, though Keyvone Lee is quickly becoming one of the biggest positives for the team this season. Lee tallied 134 yards against Michigan to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.

Last week, Clifford re-established himself as the starter, telling reporters after the game that he never doubted himself. Teammates shared a similar outlook, and the camaraderie between Clifford and Levis is one reason why the team hasn’t self-combusted this season. Even though players and coaches don’t want to look this far ahead, all of these signs are harbingers for a rebound year in 2021.  

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions once again don’t turn the ball over. This is an obvious one, but it’s also true. Penn State has more talent, even if Rutgers is improved. If the Scarlet Knights have to continually drive 70-plus yards to score, the Nittany Lions should pick up their second win of the season.

Rutgers wins if: the Scarlet Knights find a way to have their best defensive game of the season. That’s asking a lot, but that’s what it’ll take. Rutgers is last in the Big Ten, allowing nearly 36 points per game. They’re also near the bottom (11th) in sacks, so they’ll need to manufacture pressure somehow to slow down the Nittany Lions.

Count on: The youth movement continuing for Penn State. True freshmen accounted for 267 yards last week for the Nittany Lions, which was 64 percent of Penn State’s total offense.

Keep an eye on: Parker Washington. Fans are starting to hear more and more about Penn State’s emerging receiver, who set a program record last week with nine catches, the most ever by a true freshman for the Nittany Lions.

Trivia tidbit: Since its last win in the series in 1988, Rutgers has scored 20-plus points against Penn State only three times in 13 games.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: PENN STATE V. RUTGERS (2014)

For 58 minutes in Penn State’s 2014 clash with Big Ten newcomer Rutgers, the Nittany Lions’ offense sputtered.

Heading into the final drive of the game for Penn State, the offense had managed to score just six points, despite the defense gifting them five interceptions on the night.

When it mattered most, though, the offense stepped up.

Photo By Steve Manuel

“The fired ­up partisan crowd, whose roar got louder with each passing minute of anticipated victory, reached a crescendo when the visitors were pinned down on their own 20­-yard line with just three minutes left in the game and Rutgers holding tenaciously onto a 10–6 lead,” wrote editor of the Football Letter, John Black.”

That’s when things started to click for the Nittany Lions.

Photo By Steve Manuel

On the first play of PennState’s final drive, 19­-year-­old quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who as Black described, “had been chased, harassed, hurried and sacked throughout the night,” found Geno Lewis on a gorgeous throw down the sideline that ripped off 53 yards of the 80-yard mountain Penn State had to climb to the end zone.

Lewis, who led the Big Ten receiving yards entering that night, outmuscled two Scarlet Knights defenders to snag the pass, bounced off their attempted tackles and raced down the sideline to Rutgers’ 27-yard-line.

Hackenberg looked as though he threw the game-winner two plays later on a dart to tight end Jesse James, but a holding call nullified the would-be touchdown.

The Nittany Lions now faced a third-and-long from the Rutgers 29. Lewis came up big once more, putting a double move on his defender to get open up the right hand side of the field. Hackenberg found him again, dropping the pass right into Lewis’ chest for a 23-yard gain.

Photo By Steve Manuel

Two plays later, on second-and-goal from the five-yard line, terrific blocking from the offensive line opened up a huge hole up the middle and New Jersey native Bill Belton took care of the rest.

Belton dashed through the middle largely untouched before a desperate Rutgers defender tackled him in the end zone. It was a futile attempt as Belton had already reached pay-dirt and the Nittany Lions had the lead.

Photo By Steve Manuel

“All the air was sucked out of the home team’s big balloon,” wrote Black, as the home crowd fell hushed.

Rutgers got the ball back with a chance to take the lead, but the comeback would be denied on another interception from quarterback Gary Nova, this time by safety Ryan Keiser.

Although ugly at times, Penn State had found a way to win in Piscataway, and welcomed Rutgers to the Big Ten by handing them a defeat.

Giving Thanks

James Franklin takes a pregame lap before every game at Beaver Stadium, when he thanks stadium personnel and fans for their support. (Photo by Penn State Athletics, taken in 2018)

The game day atmosphere at Beaver Stadium for the team arrival is truly incredible. Thousands of fans, many of whom rose early and have been tailgating for hours, line Curtin Road and the adjacent areas to welcome James Franklin and the Nittany Lions to the stadium.

The team exits the Blue Buses outside Medlar Field at Lubrano Park and walk toward the tunnel, with fans facing them on both sides of Curtin. It’s similar to team arrival across the SEC, a new tradition that Franklin brought with him from Vanderbilt. It’s been a smash hit.

Music is booming. The Nittany Lion, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Lionettes preform. A stage is set up near the tunnel, and fans cover every inch of grass and pavement on the south size of the stadium.

But then the environment changes once Franklin walks through the tunnel and makes his way onto the field, where he embarks on one of his lesser-known traditions: He takes a pregame lap around Beaver Stadium, and along the way, he thanks stadium personnel and fans for their support. He’ll shake hands, share fist bumps, and give hugs. Occasionally, someone asks for an autograph, and Franklin usually obliges.

This hospitality also extends to the TV crews who are there prepping for the telecast, the Penn State Cheerleaders, and really anyone else he sees. Before last year’s game against Michigan, Franklin even welcomed two Wolverine fans dressed in maize and blue who somehow found their way into the stadium early.

His daughters, Shola and Addison, typically accompany their dad and join him in sharing thanks and gratitude. For the folks in the upper deck, the young girls will shout “We Are.”

Compared to outside, which sounded like a rock concert a few minutes before, the atmosphere on the field is markedly different. The stadium is nearly entirely empty. The PA system is silent. Once he arrives at the stadium, this might be the last few moments of anything resembling solitary and quiet for the head football coach on game day.

It’d be easy (and maybe even understandable) for Franklin to bypass everyone he sees. After all, there are only a certain number of game days each year, each a looming report card that assesses the team’s progress. There are probably hundreds of thoughts going through his mind on one of the biggest days of the year for his team, though taking the time to give a simple “thank you” is a point of emphasis for Franklin because of his upbringing, he said.

Franklin was raised by a single mother, who worked as both a hall aid and as a janitor at his high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And in recent weeks, as the team struggled through an 0-5 start, Franklin talked about recognizing the blessings that he has in his life.

In a way, Franklin was saying this: During a year when nothing is typical and everything has been unexpected, it’s important to remember who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and where you’ve come from.

Just this week, he said that this team is still the Cotton Bowl champs, Fiesta Bowl champs, and Big Ten champs.

This year doesn’t change any of that.

And while his pregame lap isn’t the same, either, that foundational belief in recognizing teamwork hasn’t changed, either.

“I think it was really, pretty much, how I was raised. I’ve just always been taught to treat people the way you would want to be treated and thank people and show appreciation and have manners and say, ‘Yes sir and no sir, and thank you and you’re welcome,’” Franklin said. “Whether it’s Penn State football or any other industry, it takes a lot of people to make the machine go, it takes a lot of people. So, when I walk around Beaver Stadium and I see all those people working there so that we can have a great game day environment and that the people can be safe and orderly and all those types of things, it’s an opportunity for me to do that. It’s an opportunity for me to thank them.”

“I’ve always taken a lap; it’s usually been with my daughters. Obviously, right now, that’s not an option, and it’s somewhat strange and somewhat surreal, walking around the stadium each week and there’s nobody in there. But again, this is what 2020 is, and (I) try to stick to my normal routine and still try to find some times to think about the blessings that we do have and thinking about the people in our lives and the impact that hopefully we’re making.”

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

PENN STATERS AT THE NEXT LEVEL: WEEK 12

Hard to believe we’re already through 12 weeks of the NFL season. This season has certainly looked different with a lack of fans, COVID protocols and multiple game postponements, but there’s still been some really entertaining games.

Speaking of 12, there are 12 former Penn Staters up for Pro Bowl voting:

  • Packers safety Adrian Amos
  • Giants linebacker Cam Brown
  • Titans defensive end Jack Crawford
  • Jets kicker Sam Ficken
  • Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki
  • Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin
  • 49ers kicker Robbie Gould
  • Titans defensive tackle DaQuan Jones
  • Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson II
  • Eagles running back Miles Sanders
  • Rams special teams ace Nick Scott
  • Buccaneers offensive tackle Donovan Smith

Robbie Gould, K, San Francisco 49ers


Don’t look now, but the 49ers are still in the thick of it in the NFC playoff picture.

Former Nittany Lion Robbie Gould nailed the game-winning kick for San Francisco in Sunday’s important win over division foe Los Angeles.

Gould continues to excel at a high level in his 16th season in the NFL and made all three of his field goal attempts.

Cam Brown, LB, New York Giants

Photo By Steve Manuel

In Saquon Barkley’s absence, a Penn Stater has still shined for the first-place (yes, at 4-7) New York Giants. Cam Brown has been an excellent special teams contributor for the Giants this season and made another important play in Sunday’s narrow win over the Bengals.

With his team holding on to a slim lead, Brown made a potentially game-saving tackle on a punt return for Cincinnati by the narrowest of margins.

The tackle might have prevented a score for the Bengals and kept the Giants’ lead in tact.

Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins

Photo By Steve Manuel

It’s been a quiet few weeks for Gesicki, and while he didn’t have his most productive in Sunday’s win over the Jets, he got back into the end zone on a 13-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick.

It marked his first touchdown reception since Week Three.

It was only one of two touchdowns in the game and kept Miami within reaching distance of division leaders Buffalo.

Trace McSorley, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Trace McSorley has had to remain patient to get his chance in the NFL. He has after all, sitting behind reigning MVP Lamar Jackson and Robert Griffin III on the depth chart for the Baltimore Ravens.

But this is a strange season that has created strange circumstances. With multiple players out of Wednesday’s game between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, including Jackson, McSorley was suddenly the back up to Griffin III.

RGIII left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter and Trace got his chance. Like he’s done his entire career, he took advantage of the opportunity and gritted out an impressive showing that included his first NFL touchdown pass.

McSorley connected with Hollywood Brown down the sideline and the wide receiver did the rest on a 70 yard pitch and catch.

The Steelers emerged victorious 19-14, but McSorley proved he can hang at the NFL level.

Photo By Steve Manuel

Nittany Lions In The NFL
Baltimore Ravens (1): Trace McSorley
Buffalo Bills (1): Ryan Bates
Carolina Panthers (2): Yetur Gross-Matos, Shareef Miller 
Chicago Bears (2): Jordan Lucas, Allen Robinson II
Dallas Cowboys (2): Sean Lee, Connor McGovern
Denver Broncos (2): DaeSean Hamilton, KJ Hamler 
Detroit Lions (3): Jason Cabinda, Jesse James, Amani Oruwariye
Green Bay Packers (1): Adrian Amos 
Houston Texans (1): John Reid 
Indianapolis Colts (1): Robert Windsor 
Kansas City Chiefs (1): Stefen Wisniewski
Las Vegas Raiders (2): Nick Bowers, Carl Nassib
Los Angeles Rams (1): Nick Scott
Miami Dolphins (1): Mike Gesicki
Minnesota Vikings (1): Dan Chisena 
New Orleans Saints (1): Blake Gillikin 
New York Giants (3): Saquon Barkley, Cam Brown, Austin Johnson
New York Jets (1): Sam Ficken, Chris Hogan, Ross Travis
Philadelphia Eagles (2): Miles Sanders, Shareef Miller
Pittsburgh Steelers (1): Marcus Allen
San Francisco 49ers (2): Kevin Givens, Robbie Gould 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3): Chris Godwin, A.Q. Shipley, Donovan Smith 
Tennessee Titans (2): Jack Crawford, DaQuan Jones
Washington Football Team (1): Troy Apke 

Nittany Lions On NFL Coaching Staffs
Matt Rhule – Carolina Panthers Head Coach
Tom Bradley – Pittsburgh Steelers DBs Coach
Bobby Engram – Baltimore Ravens TEs Coach
Al Golden – Cincinnati Bengals LBs Coach
D’Anton Lynn – Houston Texans Secondary Coach
Mike Munchak – Denver Broncos OL Coach
Jeff Nixon – Carolina Panthers Senior Offensive Assistant