Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2019

Penn State celebrated its third 11-win season in four years after besting Memphis 53-39 in the 2019 Cotton Bowl. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

For a team that had been so much fun to watch, the Cotton Bowl was a fitting scene for the season’s biggest celebration.

It was a year ago today (Dec. 28), when James Franklin and the Nittany Lions celebrated capturing their second New Year’s 6 bowl victory during his tenure with the team; two years earlier, Penn State knocked off Washington in the Fiesta Bowl.

There were plenty of reasons why that victory was memorable, both at the time and now.

For many fans, it’d represent the first trip to the Cotton Bowl, Penn State was playing Memphis — an upstart team playing in its biggest game in the history of its program — and with the game being played indoors, there was no chance of weather slowing down Penn State’s dynamic offense.

Everything surrounding the game enhanced the experience.

Leading up to the contest, fans enjoyed plenty of hospitality in the area. And without exception, every Memphis fan that folks traveling with the Alumni Association ran into were overly pleasant. Adding to the fun was that this was the first time that editor John Black covered the Cotton Bowl during his legendary career.

The last time Penn State played in the Cotton Bowl was 1975 (to cap the 1974 season), and creator of The Football Letter, Ride Riley, was still authoring the publication at the time. Likewise, this was the first time photographer Steve Manuel covered the game for The Football Letter, and you can check out Manuel’s all-star photos from the game and trip online.

The game itself was highly entertaining, took place in one of the most impressive stadiums in the world, and provided an opportunity for the Nittany Lions to complete their third 11-win season in four years.

And that’s exactly what they did.

In The Football Letter, Black wrote:

“In a contest that proved highly exciting to fans of each team, No. 10 Penn State emerged victorious against the 17th-ranked Memphis Tigers, 53–39, in a contest that set a Classic record for combined points by both teams—92.

The crowd-pleasing contest matched Memphis’ explosive passing attack against State’s explosive rushing attack.

Just as in each previous Classic, the Lions’ opponent scored first and clung to an early lead, until the Nittany Lions’ offense got untracked and their defense took control.

Ultimately, Penn State ground out a school bowl record 396 yards for a Cotton Bowl record-tying five rushing
touchdowns— two each by Journey Brown and Noah Cain and one by Devyn Ford.”

Journey Brown scored two touchdowns while helping Penn State total a bowl-record 396 rushing yards against Memphis. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Nobody knew it at the time — and certainly nobody would have any reason to believe — that the Cotton Bowl would be Brown’s last game ever. The emerging star running back retired from football earlier this fall because of a medical condition.

The Cotton Bowl was also Micah Parsons’ last game as a Nittany Lion, as he dominated the field in a way that no previous defensive player might’ve ever done. Parsons tied his career high with 14 tackles, forced two fumbles, hurried Memphis quarterback Brady White into throwing a pick-6 that teammate Garrett Taylor returned for a touchdown, and generally disrupted the Tigers’ offense all game. Parsons opted out of 2020 because of concerns for COVID-19 and is expected to be a top pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

And while players’ families could attend most home games this year, the Cotton Bowl was the last time that fans watched and cheered on star tight end Pat Freiermuth, along with many other Nittany Lions, in person. Similar to Brown’s trajectory, nobody could have imagined that after the Cotton Bowl, it’d be at least a year before fans could attend a game in person.

This is all to say that the 2019 Cotton Bowl will prove to be memorable not just for what Penn State accomplished that season, but for the moment in time that the victory represented for the program and for its players.

And perhaps more than anything, the Cotton Bowl serves as a reminder to stop and appreciate what’s happening in front of you, at that moment. Because often the future, is at best, unknown.

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Welcoming the newest Nittany Lions

The Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s Signing Day ceremony this week. The team’s three-hour live stream featured messages from notable alumni and an interview with CEO Paul Clifford, welcoming the signees to the Penn State family. (Image by Penn State Athletics)

Have you ever wanted to help Penn State in recruiting?

We’re guessing the answer is yes, and in many ways, alumni and fans have been doing that for years. Every time you attend a game, every time you rep Penn State gear or clothing, every time you shout “We Are” to a fellow Nittany Lion — whether in State College or across the country or someplace across the globe — you’re having an impact.

And people within the football program notice. People, for example, like Andy Frank. He’s the director of player personnel for Penn State football, which is to say he’s at the forefront of the team’s recruiting efforts, which have geographically expanded significantly since James Franklin and his staff arrived in Happy Valley.

This week’s Signing Day ceremony is a really good example of the power of the Penn State alumni network, which the team has always leveraged. Now, those efforts are increasing.

This year, the Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s National Signing Day, with a three-plus hour live stream celebrating the signees Wednesday morning. The live stream features an interview with Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford (1:37:20 mark) and a pre-recorded video from Alumni Association President Randy Houston (2:00:00 mark).

Additionally, notable alumni such as Keegan-Michael Key, Lara Spencer, John Colaneri, and Ken Frazier. It was a coordinated effort to emphasize that each signees’ decision to attend Penn State doesn’t end when they graduate. That connection lasts forever, and the Alumni Association’s role as a conduit motivated the meaning behind the partnership.

Penn State cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith knows all about the alumni network. Smith starred as a wideout with the Nittany Lions from 1988-91, and is in his seventh season on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff. Smith joined The Football Letter Live program this week to discuss the impact of alumni support in recruiting. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

“It’s really special to see how much people care about this place and what that means for people down the road, the connections, the job opportunities, just that fraternity of Penn State, and the parents gravitate to that because they understand,” Frank told reporters Wednesday, hours after the signees officially became Nittany Lions. “As a high school kid, you don’t know what it’s going to be like to be 40, you don’t know what it’s like to be 30 and looking for a job, but your parents do because they went through that.”

Frank called the Penn State Alumni Association “the largest and most powerful in the world,” which plays a role not only as players graduate, but also when they choose Penn State in the first place. “Kids that usually pick a place like Penn State, they’re looking at more than just the football field,” Frank added.

Lettermen also figured prominently in Wednesday’s ceremony, with Nittany Lions-turned NFL standouts such as Allen Robinson, KJ Hamler, Adrian Amos, and Jason Cabinda welcoming the signees. That message hits home, literally. Both Robinson and Hamler starred for the same Detroit-area high school in Michigan. They welcomed twin brothers and Penn State signees Kobe and Kalen King, who both also excelled at linebacker and defensive back, respectively, for a different prep school in Detroit.

“That’s something that we sell a lot. We talk about our alumni base, the power of our alumni base, not only in numbers but in the power of the individual as well … I know it was really special for some of our Michigan guys to have Allen Robinson and to have KJ Hamler (welcome them),” Franklin said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of resources here, and you’ve got to be willing to take advantage of them. On a year, today, where these guys were missing out on so many of their normal traditional recruiting experiences, we’re trying to be creative and think outside the box and have some fun with it. I thought it went well. I was happy to see the parents’ faces light up and the signees’ faces light up as we went through the process and tried to make it as special as we possibly could, again, under unusual circumstances.”

Alumni support will become even more critical in the future, with Frank mentioning today that the NCAA’s ruling on name, image, and likeness will impact recruiting moving forward. In short, the NCAA decided in April of this year that student-athletes can earn compensation for their name, image, and likeness, previously prohibited. You can find more info on the NCAA’s website, with the changes expected to happen no later than the 2021-22 academic year.

In short: The more powerful the connections that exist at a school, with lettermen, fans, and alumni, the more attractive that school will be for the highest-ranked recruits in the country. In some ways, that’s always been true, though the ruling brings each University’s alumni network sharper into focus.

For the Nittany Lion football program, that’s a good thing, to state it mildly. Most, if not all, Penn Staters want to help, want to give back, want to feel what they’re doing has an impact.

Now, they just need to be ready.

“In terms of our ability to recruit kids, we’ve got a great setup here for it, but at the same time, we can’t rest on our laurels (and think) just because we have this huge network, it’s just going to automatically work for us,” Frank said. “We’re going to be calling on the alumni to help us throughout this process and help us recruit kids.”

To hear more about the football team’s Signing Day event, the newest class, and the impact of alumni support in recruiting, visit the Alumni Association’s Facebook page to see this week’s episode of The Football Letter Live, which features an interview with cornerbacks coach, defensive recruiting coordinator, and Penn State alumnus Terry Smith.

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

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Penn State Preview: Illinois

Jonathan Sutherland and the Nittany Lions welcome Illinois to Beaver Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. Saturday. (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: vs. Illinois, 5:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on FS1.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 298-77.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 35 degrees and mostly sunny.

All-time series: Penn State leads 19-5.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 63-24 in Champaign on a Friday night battle.  

Last week: Penn State continued its second-half surge with a 39-24 home victory over Michigan State on Senior Day. Illinois, meanwhile, had its dreary season extended with a 28-10 loss at Northwestern.

The lead: After Penn State’s turnaround in the second half against Michigan State and a favorable draw against a struggling Illinois team, the Nittany Lions are on the brink of avoiding a losing season, a rarity for both Penn State and James Franklin.

First things first. Illinois will enter the matchup without former head coach Lovie Smith, who was fired following the team’s loss to Northwestern last Saturday. Despite his struggles at Illinois, Smith is an impressive coach, having totaled four seasons of 10-plus wins during his time in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. It’s reasonable to wonder why the Illinois administration didn’t wait until after the season ended, if only because players have already had to deal with so many obstacles this year. Now, Illinois has to deal with a coaching transition with one game left in the regular season, and a road trip to a team on the rise.

Penn State wins if: the defense plays the way it did in the second half against Michigan State. The Spartans scored only three points after halftime and totaled only 64 rushing yards for the game, the third time this season the Nittany Lions have held their opponent to less than 100 rushing yards. Illinois ranks next to last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (20 points/game), so this is a good opportunity for the Penn State defense to continue to build momentum in preparation for a possible bowl.

Illinois wins if: a whole lot goes right for the Fighting Illini. Illinois ranks in the bottom half of most offensive and defensive categories in the conference, including last in completion percentage, passing offense, red zone offense, rushing defense, and total defense.

Count on: Parker Washington continuing to be a big part of Penn State’s offense. Washington is the only FBS freshman with five games of 70-plus receiving yards through the first eight games of the season.

Keep an eye on: any of the team’s 12 seniors who are in the game Saturday. It’ll be interesting to see how they emotionally respond after last week’s Senior Day ceremony, when they presumably said goodbye to playing at Beaver Stadium. Now, they’ll have one more chance. Can Shane Simmons duplicate his career game last weekend, when he registered seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks? Players get extra amped up for Senior Day, knowing it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For this year’s seniors, that’ll be true twice.

Trivia tidbit: During last week’s win, Jahan Dotson became only the third Big Ten player since 2000 to record 100-plus receiving yards and score a punt return touchdown in the same game.

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

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Back to Penn State Football

Freshman tight end Brenton Strange finished with a career-best 45 receiving yards Saturday against Michigan State, Penn State’s third straight win. Simmons totaled career-highs of seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

There are any number of reasons for Penn State’s turnaround this season.

There’s the revamped running game, as the Nittany Lions have rushed for at least 245 yards in three of the last five games.

Another example is the successful rotating of both Sean Clifford and Will Levis into the offense, with Clifford finding targets like Parker Washington and Jahan Dotson, while Levis bulldozes defenses in short-yardage situations. In such instances, Levis essentially turns into a fullback, which should please a certain number of Penn State fans who have asked James Franklin when the team will recruit for such a position.

The Nittany Lions have also taken better care of the football and played lock-down defense in nice spurts, while also impacting the game through special teams.

Clifford summed it up nicely following the team’s latest win on Saturday.

“We’re just back to Penn State football,” he said. “It’s just that basic.”

He continued:

“Things haven’t gone our way all the time this year and we understand that. It’s been a weird year. No one’s going to deny that, it’s just been a very odd year, inside the facility, outside the facility. There’s a lot going on and the people just don’t understand. And I understand, we’ve got to win games, that’s just the fact of the matter but it’s nice to see that the team’s playing complete games.

When the offense needs help, the defense is stepping up. When the defense needs help, the offense is stepping up. Special teams are making plays, that’s Penn State football. That’s who we are, and that’s who we pride ourselves to be. I’m just happy for these guys, happy that I can be a part of it. We’ve just got to keep on grinding because we keep talking about how we want to get as many wins as we can this year, with next week and whatever happens after that, but we’re ready to catapult into the next season as well.”

Shane Simmons’ standout game against the Spartans helped the Nittany Lions’ defense clamp down in the second half Saturday. Simmons totaled career-high marks with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

After starting a season 0-5 for the first time in program history, Penn State has won its last three games, with the latest victory coming after the Nittany Lions trailed Michigan State 21-10 at halftime, with the Spartans scoring three touchdowns in the second quarter to momentarily surge ahead.

Such a half could have had the players and coaches thinking “Here we go again,” but instead, Penn State seized control in the second half and won by two scores, setting up a scenario where the Nittany Lions can avoid a losing season by beating struggling Illinois and closing out the season with a potential bowl victory.

After the team’s first win of the season against Michigan, Clifford brushed off the notion that he ever doubted himself. Watching the Nittany Lions for the last three weeks gives a good indication why he kept the faith, not just in himself but in the team.

In an era when players out opt and transfer if they don’t receive first-team reps every week, both he and Levis have made the two-quarterback system as seamless as could be hoped for.

When Levis comes into the game, everybody on the opposing sidelines knows there’s about a 90 percent he’ll take the snap and run for the first down. It doesn’t matter, because they still can’t stop him. Levis also has shown off his arm, at times, giving the Nittany Lions plenty of options no matter who’s in the game.

Seeing two guys who would be the starter at nearly every school in the Big Ten share snaps and help one another be successful is a good barometer for how the Nittany Lions have banded together during a time when so many other programs are falling apart.

“I think it all just comes down to the love that we have for each other,” Levis said in describing the team’s fight and resiliency. “There was no doubt about it, that we weren’t going to give up on each other, on the season, and we were going to approach every day just like we always have been: that it’s the most important day of the week and that game is the only game you’re focused on. We just made sure that we approached every day with the correct attitude and stuck to the process that we know has worked so long for this program. It’s great to see the wins start coming in now and that’s pretty much what it comes down to, just the love and the trust that we have for each other.”

The win over Michigan State ensured that one of the most beautiful and prestigious trophies in college football — the Land-Grant Trophy — would remain in Happy Valley. OK, so maybe we took a little bit of literacy license with that description.

Still, winning any game, and retaining any trophy, in a season that was scripted for The Twilight Zone, will look pretty good from any angle.

“The resilience that we have shown, again, I’m proud of them,” Franklin said. “It’s not something that we’ve experienced or been through, so to find a way to show that type of heart, to show that type of belief and brotherhood and stick together and stay together and battle through, I’m very proud of them. I’ve very proud of everybody. Again, it’s not easy to do. The last three weeks, we have found ways to win, which is really what we’ve done for seven years.”

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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2017

Safety Marcus Allen (left) and quarterback Trace McSorley were named the defensive and offensive players of the game following Penn State’s 35-28 victory over Washington in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

It’s impossible to tell the story of Penn State football without mentioning the Fiesta Bowl, and the same is true of the 2017 season.

In his edition of The Football Letter recapping Penn State’s 35-28 victory over Washington in the Nittany Lions’ latest appearance in the prestigious game, John Black laid out how closely linked the two are, and how Penn State helped the bowl elevate to its elite status.

The folks in Phoenix love Penn State, because it always brings planeloads of fans and a big television audience. And in their first four appearances between 1977 and 1986, the Nittany Lions provided great impetus to the bowl’s rapid rise from a regional affair to the Big Five of the national bowls.

Penn State loves the Fiesta, because the Lions have compiled their best record in any of the postseason classics there and the players are always shown a great time.

State’s fans love escaping the northeast winter by going to Arizona, because they have always found plenty of sunshine, delightfully warm temperatures, excellent hospitality and fun things to do.

The most fun, of course, was watching their Lions cage three Heisman Trophy winners—Marcus Allen of USC in 1982, Vinnie Testaverde of Miami in 1987 and Ricky Williams of Texas in 1997.

And who will ever forget the Lions’ upset of Miami to win the national championship in the 1987 Duel in the Desert, witnessed by 70 million television viewers in addition to the sellout crowd in Sun Devil Stadium?

Penn State amassed a bowl-record 545 yards of total offense against Washington in late December 2017, while rolling to its second straight 11-win season, its 29th bowl victory, and its second postseason decision over the Huskies. Penn State beat Washington, 13–10, in the 1983 Aloha Bowl in Hawaii.

The Nittany Lions’ entered the game ranked ninth with the Huskies three spots behind in 12th, and Penn State beat the team that edged them out the previous year in the College Football Playoff. The 2017 team was part of quite possibly the most successful four-year run for Penn State in the Big Ten era, as the team won 40 games in four years. Even their losses were close, as the Nittany Lions’ two setbacks in 2017 were by a combined four points to Ohio State and Michigan State.

Saquon Barkley provided plenty of star power for the 2017 edition of the Nittany Lions, including an all-time performance at Iowa. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The wins, meanwhile, came in bunches and with plenty of flair.

Penn State outscored its three non-conference opponents (Akron, Pitt, Georgia State), by a combined score of 141-14. The conference open was memorable for a different reason, as Trace McSorley found Juwan Johnson in the back of the end-zone for a walk-off win at Kinnick Stadium, one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten.

Saquon Barkley — you may remember him? — put together an epic performance of more than 300 yards from scrimmage (211 rush/94 receiving), befuddling and mesmerizing the Hawkeye defense with leaps, stutter steps, and moves that can only be described as Barkley-esque.

Penn State was an incredibly fun team to watch with Joe Moorhead running the offense; he accepted the head coaching offer at Mississippi State prior to the Fiesta Bowl, where Ricky Rahne served as offensive coordinator and called plays. Rahne has since accepted the head coaching position at Old Dominion.

In total, Penn State scored at least 30 points in all but two of their games, and also produced 40-plus points six times, 50-plus points four times, and 60-plus points once.

Many of the stars from that team are now on NFL rosters, and it’s entirely possible that a decade from now, one or two will be future Hall of Famers. Fans can look back further on the 2017 season by logging in below to read The Football Letter issues from that season, as well as view photo galleries from the season on our Flickr page.

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Penn State Preview: Michigan State

Penn State welcomes Michigan State to Beaver Stadium on Saturday for a noon kickoff (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: vs. Michigan State, noon kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 297-77.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 50 degrees, which would be the warmest day in Happy Valley in almost two weeks.

All-time series: Michigan State leads 17-16, dating back to 1914.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 28-7 in East Lansing on a rain-soaked day.

Last week: Penn State won its second straight with a 23-7 victory at Rutgers, while Michigan State got blown out at home against Ohio State, 52-12.

The lead: A few weeks ago, as both Sean Clifford and Will Levis shared snaps against Nebraska, James Franklin said that the team would need both quarterbacks this season. That’s proven to be true, and also beneficial for the Nittany Lions. Clifford’s been able to connect with his receivers while Levis has added a genuine threat to the running game, actually not even attempting a pass last week against Rutgers while rushing 17 times. When Levis comes into the game, opponents know he’ll rush, and they still can’t stop him. That’s as much a tribute to the offensive line as it is to Levis.

It’s only been two games, though it appears Penn State is on the verge of turning its season around and possibly finishing with a non-losing record. Michigan State, meanwhile, has largely struggled under first-year head coach Mel Tucker, even suffering a home loss to Rutgers to start the season.

This is a game that Penn State should win, and the Nittany Lions are favored by about two touchdowns. Getting their third win a row would create a lot of momentum heading into their last regular season game and then a possible bowl to get to 5-5.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions have another productive game from one of their running backs, such as Devyn Ford. Last week, the sophomore ran for 65 yards and a touchdown, and afterward, he shared the heartbreaking news that one of his brothers recently died; Ford had missed the game against Michigan the week before, and Ford’s bio on GoPSUSports says that he has four brothers and two sisters. After the win against Rutgers, Ford was mature and eloquent with his words, saying that he had received plenty of support from his teammates and coaches.

Michigan State wins if: the Spartans can produce some offense. This might sound like a low bar, though Michigan State ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, averaging 17 points per game. Worse, the Spartans have produced only 11.5 points per game in their four losses. Michigan State’s quarterback boasts an awesome name — Rocky Lombardi — and he’s produced respectable numbers so far. He’s completed 84-of-157 passes for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s also tossed nine interceptions. Getting a big-time game from him would go a long way for the Spartans.

Count on: the Nittany Lions continuing to work the ground game. Penn State rushed for 248 yards last week, the third time in four games that the Nittany Lions eclipsed 245 rushing yards.

Keep an eye on: The football team’s Unrivaled Pregame Show. The Alumni Association is sponsoring Senior Day and our CEO, Paul Clifford, will be on the show to talk about the importance of welcoming the graduating seniors into the Penn State alumni network.

Trivia tidbit: While Michigan State leads the overall series, Penn State leads 15-9 since joining the Big Ten.

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

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From The Archives: Penn State V. Michigan State (1996)

Wally Richardson led Penn State to an impressive 20-5 record as starting quarterback for the Nittany Lions during the 1995 and 1996 seasons. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Wally Richardson bookended his two-year starting career in the regular season in quite possibly the most memorable way for a quarterback: He led a game-winning drive. Add in two impressive bowl wins, and the 1995-96 stretch for Richardson was both incredibly accomplished and efficient. And also underrated.

The second part of that pair came in late November against Michigan State in 1996, during a time when the Nittany Lions and Spartans usually met one another in the regular season finale. Mirroring his effort against Texas Tech in the 1995 season opener, Richardson engineered a late-minute drive that set up Penn State kicker Brett Conway to deliver the game-winning field goal.

Each time, Conway delivered.

As John Black wrote in The Football Letter following the 1996 win over the Spartans:

“Concluding his last game in 1996 the same way he did his first in 1995, the lanky quarterback from South Carolina moved his team smartly down the field, eating up the final four minutes of the clock and positioning Conway for his kicking heroics.”

Richardson finished the game by matching his personal best of 281 yards on 21-of-31 passing, also throwing for one touchdown.

Richardson served as team captain for the season finale, Black noted, saying that the quarterback showed signs of satisfaction in the media room after the game. “We’ve all had tough times this year, so I’m glad we were able to bounce back. … We all had to dig deep to get things straightened out with the team,” Richardson said, with Black adding that the signal-caller was alluding to the team’s loss to Iowa earlier in the season.

After the setback to the Hawkeyes, the Nittany Lions won their last four regular season games against Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State by a combined score of 143-81.

The 32-29 victory over Michigan State catapulted the Nittany Lions once again to the Fiesta Bowl, where they dismantled a talented Texas squad 38-15. Two-time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams led a talented backfield for the Longhorns, who led 12-7 at halftime before the Nittany Lions ran away by outscoring their opponents 31-3 in the second half.

Penn State’s 1996 team finished 11-2 and ranked No. 7 in the final polls, with wins also over USC in the Kickoff Classic and at Wisconsin. Additionally, the Fiesta Bowl victory paired with Penn State’s win in the 1996 Outback Bowl to give the Nittany Lions four straight bowl wins.

If Richardson’s name sounds familiar beyond the gridiron, there’s a reason for that. As many fans know, Richardson is the director of the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club, which has more than 1,000 dues-paying members and a database of more than 1,500 former Penn State football players and student managers. In his role, he also serves as the primary liaison between Penn State Football and the State College Quarterback Club.

From Sumter, S.C., Richardson led Penn State to a 20-5 record as the starting quarterback in 1995-96 and graduated holding several Penn State records, one of which did not fall until 2012, when Matt McGloin completed 35 passes vs. Northwestern to break Richardson’s mark (33 vs. Wisconsin, 1995). His 193 completions in 1995 still rank No. 6 in school history and his 335 attempts that season are fifth-highest.

Fans can hear from Richardson during this week’s episode of The Football Letter Live, airing Thursday night at 8. You can register online or tune in on Facebook, with fellow lettermen Lydell Sargeant (2005-08) also joining the program to talk about his time with the Nittany Lions.

Both Richardson and Sargeant have built impressive careers as athletic administrative leaders, with Richardson in his role with the letterman’s club and Sargeant currently serving as the associate athletic director for development and revenue generation at Morgan State. Sargeant’s previous stops include UCLA and Marquette.

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Playing Through A Pandemic

In a sign of the times, running back Devyn Ford rushed for a touchdown in an empty stadium during Penn State’s 23-7 win at Rutgers last Saturday. It was the first game back for Ford since he missed a game after a death in his family, the latest example of how many players and coaches have made sacrifices and overcome adversity this season. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Everyone involved with Penn State football has made sacrifices to ensure this season could be played. Having that opportunity was (and is) critically important to all the players, especially the seniors.

After the fall season was postponed, and then restarted, defensive coordinator Brent Pry was asked if he could tell whether or not the uncertainty was taking an emotional toll on the players.

“Shoot, man, it was wearing on everyone,” he said, laughing a bit, perhaps out of relief that there’d be games. And there have been games. Penn State, in fact, is one of a handful of teams in the Big Ten that has played its entire abbreviated schedule, a testament to how well everyone in the program has adapted and adhered to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Beyond all the challenges that the team is dealing with that are somewhat typical across the country — and believe me, I know using the word “typical” in reference to 2020 sounds bizarre — the Nittany Lions have also dealt with players facing false positive tests during the week, not having all coaches available at each practice, and not enjoying the usual Senior Day recognitions.

At Penn State, families are allowed to be in the stadium but can’t be on the field to share the usual hugs with their sons before the game. It’s a moment that moms, dads, brothers, and sisters have looked forward to for four or five years, and now it’s not going to happen in the way they were hoping.

There has also been heartbreak, as emerging sophomore running back Devyn Ford missed the game against Michigan because of a death in his family. He returned last weekend to help Penn State earn a 23-7 victory at Rutgers, rushing for 65 yards and a touchdown.

“I mean, it’s just like family,” Ford said Saturday after the game, describing what it was like returning to the Penn State football program and receiving feedback from his teammates and coaches.

“They were around me, just consoling me, giving me that love, and I definitely needed it at that time. Everyone faces adversity, so you’ve just got to keep pushing. But it was definitely helpful for them to put their arm around me and be the brothers that they are and be the coaches and the men that they are, actually care for somebody else. It was good.”

Other players have seen COVID-19 hit their families, with running back Noah Cain sharing earlier this fall that multiple family members contracted and overcame the virus. James Franklin said there are other examples of players and people in the program going through adversity behind the scenes. He’s understandably reluctant about sharing details, deferring instead to the players themselves to share what they’re comfortable with. The main point being that what happens on the field each Saturday is usually the result of a lot of unseen work and overcoming challenges that don’t always become common knowledge.

Add in Journey Brown medically retiring for a health-related issue separate from COVID, Cain and Pat Freiermuth suffering season-ending injuries, other players getting hurt, knowing every week that your game might be canceled, and it’s been a lot. And it’s been a lot to endure under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, faced now with the rest of the student body having already returned home in time for the Thanksgiving holiday and upcoming winter break.

James Franklin has coached this season without the in-person support of his wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, as his family is staying out of town because Addison has sickle cell disease, which has her more susceptible to COVID-19. This week, Franklin said: “I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.” (Photo by Steve Manuel)

“A lot of these families and a lot of these young men are having to do this on their own without the normal support that they normally would be able to get or provide,” Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “The team’s been really good about it. All the way back to the beginning of the season with us losing players, there’s been a lot of emotional swings that the team has had to handle, and in a lot of ways, I’m really proud of them.”

Later on, Franklin was asked if all the sacrifices made by everyone have been worth it to play this season. It was a simple and straight-forward inquiry. And also complicated. And ultimately, perhaps impossible to answer.

“That’s a good question,” Franklin said, hesitating a bit before beginning his response.

Sometimes, a moment or two of silence says a lot.

“Right now, in the heat of it all, it’s hard to answer that,” Franklin said. “Because to me, I’m not just looking at football, I’m looking at the whole picture. When all these decisions were made, it was hard to predict on how this was going to play out. I mean, you look at the Big Ten in general, you look at the records in the Big Ten, there’s been a few programs who have been able to do it, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a year like this in the Big Ten from a competitive standpoint, pretty much across the board.”

“It’s hard to predict, and to be honest with you, I think we’re still in a position where it’s hard to predict what the future holds, when this is going to end, when is this going to change, when are we going to get back to normal. … It’s been tough, I will tell you this, I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.”

Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, are staying out of town during the season because Addison has sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that has her more susceptible to COVID-19. Franklin would love to find a way to have his family visit him in State College, though as he said, that’s especially difficult because there isn’t a nearby medical center that can handle sickle cell.

That’s Franklin’s personal story, he said, and there are as many as 150 others in the program. His message was it’s not about him, it’s about the team. Sometimes fans hear about some of those other stories. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, the stories are still there. And they matter.

“Although we haven’t had the success on the field this year that we want … I also think there’s been some really good examples as well of this team sticking together, of this team battling back at a time when other programs aren’t; with guys opting out and those types of things and our guys haven’t done that, they’ve continued to battle,” Franklin said.

“There’s been some cracks that have been exposed through this pandemic, but there’s also been tremendous resiliency. I know this sounds strange, and I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, but I’m also proud of that. I’m also proud of how we have battled a lot of adversity and a lot of challenges.”

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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.

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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.