From The Archives: Penn State V. Rutgers (2015)

PSU-Rutgers 2015 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Penn State’s inaugural Stripe Out was a huge hit with fans, who watched the Nittany Lions upend Rutgers 28-3. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Even if you’ve been covering Penn State for 40-plus years, as John Black has, you still have an opportunity to see something new.

That’s the beauty of college football, especially in Happy Valley.

Over the years, the pre-game theatrics at Beaver Stadium have intensified, much to the delight of fans. Recruits, also, have taken notice, with James Franklin bringing in highly ranked classes the last few years.

While the atmosphere for home games has always been one of the best in the country, the operations and marketing teams for football has elevated the environment at Penn State into something that is truly, to borrow a phrase, “unrivaled.”

All of this leads us back to Black, the dean of football reporters. As the 1962 Penn State graduated surveyed the scene at Beaver Stadium a few moments prior to kick-off against Rutgers in 2015, he saw something he never had before at Beaver Stadium.

That’s saying something.

Comebacks and blow-outs, amazing plays and unexplainable gaffs, spectacular shows from the Blue Band, weather delays, fans storming the field, and pretty much anything else imaginable.

But a stripe out? Nope. Never.

Meaning, on his way to writing more than 500 consecutive editions of The Football Letter, John Black scratched off another item on his seemingly empty Penn State bucket list in the first month of the 2015 season.

Black had seen a stripe out before, at Iowa in 2012, though this was the first such occurrence at Penn State — the annual game has grown to be one of the most visually striking images each football season.

Count Black among the many fans who’ve embraced the new tradition.

“It gave a very neat effect,” Black said this week, recalling the game at Iowa seven years ago. “I thought, ‘Gee, I hope Penn State does that soon,’ and they did.”

The Nittany Lion version debuted three years later, during a night kickoff against Rutgers in September. Penn State eased to a 28-3 victory with two touchdowns from Saquon Barkley, a score each from Akeel Lynch and DeAndre Thompkins; and a stout defensive showing.

Enjoying his customary view on the west side of the stadium, Black witnessed the stands fill up with coordinated fans intent on willing their Nittany Lions to victory.

“Sitting in their blue-or-white clad sections, the fans themselves were part of the first-ever Beaver Stadium Stripe Out Show, as the last sunset glow faded behind the press box,” Black described in The Football Letter.

PSU-Rutgers 2015 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Akeel Lynch broke away for 75-yard touchdown run before halftime. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Additional details he authored in that issue mentioned Blue Band Director Greg Drane leading the band’s pre-game routine for the first time (the previous week’s game against Buffalo featured heavy rain and the band didn’t have the opportunity to thrill fans before kickoff) and the drum major flips, along with performances from the majorettes and Lionettes.

The types of particulars that alumni and fans have read from Black since 1976. Perhaps overlooked by some, though always top-of-mind for the author of The Football Letter, who knows his audience.

“I don’t know that you would read that sort of thing in the standard commercial publications, but to me, it’s part of the whole experience and a significance part of it,” Black said. “That’s what I’m trying to convey, a special sense of the identity of Penn State alumni and their participation in the whole game day experience; have a part in it, have their presence mean something. So, to me, it’s an important thing.”

From The Archives: Penn State V. Ohio State (2008)

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Lydell Sargeant (10) rushed to recover the fumble caused by Mark Rubin in the fourth quarter of the 2008 game at Ohio State. NaVorro Bowman recovered the ball, igniting the Nittany Lions to a 13-6 victory over the ninth-ranked Buckeyes. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Some memories, you never forget. Just ask Lydell Sargeant.

The Penn State letterman and former defensive back for the Nittany Lions provided one of the defining moments for the Nittany Lions during their 2008 Rose Bowl season, when they won the Big Ten championship for the third time.

In the waning moments of the team’s slugfest against Ohio State, he “outleaped Brian Hartline for an interception in the end zone on Ohio State’s final play,” as John Black ’62 wrote in The Football Letter.

Asked about what continues to stand out to him about that game and if he still recalls specific details, he laughed, just slightly, in a way that suggest he’ll remember them forever.

“Oh, my goodness. I still remember plays from 14 years ago,” Sargeant said, referencing his freshman season at Penn State.

He then summarized the last drive, beginning with, “I can tell you every last thing that happened.”

Sargeant remembered Bowman tipping a pass as the Buckeyes were driving with less than a minute left: “NaVorro made a really good play up the middle. I think if he didn’t tip the pass, it would have drastically changed that drive.”

Then, Sargeant’s versatility shined through. Typically a cornerback, Sargeant would switch to safety when Penn State played nickel in the secondary. As he saw Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s pass sail toward the end zone, he saw he had an opportunity to catch the ball instead of knocking it down. The former was more attractive, since Sargeant didn’t want to let the receiver get in front of him.

The approach worked, as Sargeant hauled in Pryor’s lofty pass right at the goal-line to secure Penn State’s 13-6 victory.

“One thing Coach Paterno always said was, ‘Do you want your name in the paper? When it’s time to make big plays, make them,’” said Sargeant, who also broke up a pass earlier in the fourth quarter, thwarting a potential 30-yard gain for the Buckeyes to midfield.

Sargeant added: “To me, The Horseshoe is the next best thing to Beaver Stadium, with regard to their fan passion and how loud they get.”

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Anthony Scirrotto celebrated with fans after the third-ranked Nittany Lions seized the moment and claimed their first win at The Horseshoe since beginning Big Ten play. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Ohio Stadium was certainly loud for the Nittany Lions’ visit in the 2008 season, when Penn State (No. 3) and Ohio State (No. 9) met in a battle of Top-10 teams.

It was the first victory for Penn State in The Horseshoe since beginning Big Ten play, and the Nittany Lions shut down Pryor, explosive Buckeye running back Beanie Wells, and their offensive teammates. Ohio State scored 30-plus points in six other games that season, and 40-plus on four occasions.

“We had a rock star defense,” Sargeant said, pointing out teammates and future NFL stars such as NaVorro Bowman, Jared Odrick, Aaron Maybin, and others.

Sargeant was perhaps always destined to attend Penn State, though he had something of a circuitous route to Happy Valley. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and then moved to California in 10th grade, a result of his father serving in the military.

He returned to Pittsburgh the next few summers for a month or so, working out with childhood friend (and future teammate) Justin King, along with current Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who was coaching Gateway High School at the time.

There’s a lot of connectivity with that trio. Smith is King’s stepfather, with Sargeant and King serving as ball boys for Smith going back to his days at Duquesne University in the late 1990s. Sargeant originally committed to Stanford (Oregon was his other top choice, along with Penn State), before transferring.

As Sargeant tells it, he and King looked at each other and said, “Hey, do you want to play together?”

The incoming recruiting class helped elevate Penn State out of one of the few down periods in Joe Paterno’s coaching career, with Sargeant saying that guys like Derrick Williams and Sean Lee, who played AAU basketball with Sargeant, also played important roles in the process.

After graduating, Sargeant signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent, though retired from the NFL a few years later because of an injury. Then, he returned to Penn State for an internship that was facilitated by longtime offensive coordinator Fran Ganter, who transitioned into an administrative role after coaching.

Ganter mentored Sargeant, as the former defensive back learned what he was most passionate about in athletic administration. Sargeant earned his master’s in sports management studies from California University of Pennsylvania, then worked at Utah Valley University and Marquette University in development roles.

Currently, Sargeant serves as an assistant athletic director at UCLA, one of the most accomplished and impressive athletic departments in the country. UCLA is second overall in all-time national titles, with 118.

Even though he’s on the other side of the country, Sargeant returns to Happy Valley twice a year, for the Blue-White game and Homecoming. Additionally, he sits on the board of the Football Letterman’s Club and still is tight with King and Smith. He talks every day with King, who earlier this year accepted the position of manager of football operations for the startup XFL after previously working with Penn State football as a recruiting coordinator.

And Smith is as connected as ever to the program as cornerbacks coach after playing as a wideout for Joe Paterno in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Sargeant speaks passionately about his days at Penn State, and asked some questions of his own out of curiosity for how things are going back at his alma mater. Like Smith and King, he has an affinity for Penn State that’ll likely last a lifetime.

He cares, and he has a recognition for the importance that Penn State has played in his life, both during his playing days and now as he helps to oversee one of the most prestigious athletic departments in the country.

“I say all the time: nothing about what Coach Paterno taught was about football,” Sargeant said. “It’s fascinating, because he’s the most winningest coach in college football, and everything he emphasized were things outside of the game.

“As you get older, you start to realize he’s basically giving you the code to society. That shapes you, and you start to understand how successful Penn State guys are and how they’re able to navigate the professional world. There’s less of a deer-in-the-headlights look when you no longer have football. Coach Paterno was a huge factor in preparing us for life beyond football.”

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Penn State Preview: Ohio State

Penn State @ Ohio State (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Nittany Lions head to The Horseshoe on Saturday for a Top-10 battle with the Buckeyes. Photo credit: Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: at Ohio Stadium, noon kickoff, broadcast on FOX.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 43 degrees, partly sunny and chilly.

The line: Penn State +18

Last week: Penn State outlasted Indiana 34-27, while Ohio State continued its unbeaten season, clobbering Rutgers 56-21.

All-time series: Ohio State leads 19-14.

Last meeting (2018): Ohio State clipped Penn State for a 27-26 victory at Beaver Stadium.

Throwback classic (2008): In a matchup mirror Saturday’s showdown, the Nittany Lions upset the Buckeyes in battle of Top-10 teams. Penn State then won the Big Ten and appeared in the Rose Bowl.

Overview: A late-November game in Columbus with the Big Ten East Division on the line. This is what fans have been looking forward to — and the players and coaches working toward — all season. The Buckeyes have stood near the top of the national rankings all season, not missing Urban Meyer. First-year coach Ryan Day and QB-transfer Justin Fields have the Buckeyes looking as good as they have over the last few decades, making Penn State at least two-touchdown underdogs in most scenarios.

The Nittany Lions are finishing up a brutal stretch, playing their fifth ranked opponent in six games. Win Saturday, and Penn State will go into the Big Ten championship as the favored team to win the conference title and head to either the College Football Playoff or Rose Bowl.

In a season where nine or 10 wins seemed like the ceiling, Penn State seems to be ahead of schedule — next year looked to be the year that at the CFP was in focus. But the team has been shattering expectations since James Franklin arrived, so don’t be surprised if Saturday’s game is competitive well into the fourth quarter.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions can dramatically slow down Fields. The former Penn State commit transferred to the Buckeyes before the season, leading arguably the best team in the nation — LSU and Ohio State are clearly the top two teams. The Nittany Lions’ pass defense has been worrisome the past two weeks, with the secondary looking downright confused at times. Whether it’s blown coverage, bad angles, or missed tackles, both Minnesota and Indiana moved the ball throughout the game.

Ohio State wins if: the Buckeyes force at least two turnovers. Lately, Sean Clifford has had a tendency to give away the ball, something which he rarely did earlier in the season. Indiana stunted a promising drive last week with a sack-fumble combo, for example. Penn State does have some margin for error. Though it’s difficult to see the Nittany Lions winning while also making a handful of mistakes. Penn State doesn’t have to play perfect, though close.

Keep an eye on: Yetur Gross-Matos and the defensive line. One of the most disruptive d-line groups in the country can be the difference Saturday, not only for pressuring Fields but also for helping the secondary. If Fields gets comfortable in the pocket, there probably isn’t a secondary in the country that can stop him.

Trivia tidbit:  While both programs have played in 49 bowl games — ranking in the Top 10 nationally all-time — Penn State holds the advantage in postseason winning percentage. The Nittany Lions hold a 29-16-2 mark, while the Buckeyes are 24-25.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Ohio State 34, Penn State 24

Vince Lungaro: Ohio State 35, Penn State 24

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Central Ohio Chapter offers blue-and-white oasis in Buckeye state

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The Central Ohio Chapter will host an alumni mixer Friday night, which is an opportunity “to put Penn State in a positive spotlight,” said Chapter President John Eveland (third from left).

John Eveland searched everywhere for something that reminded him of his Penn State days.

It took him a while, though he did find that blue-and-white connection.

Finally.

Eveland grew up in rural Pennsylvania and attended two Penn State campuses, first enrolling at Hazleton before earning his College of Engineering degree from University Park.

He made the most of his college days and waned to reunite with like-minded alumni, a fairly straight-forward goal.

So, why did Eveland’s search take longer than you’d expect. Simple. He lives near Columbus.

Growing up, Eveland saw Penn State everywhere. Then, it was all about the Buckeyes once he moved to Ohio. As Eveland said, he wanted to hear about the Nittany Lions.

He stopped by a Central Ohio Chapter watch party, and found what he was looking for: a sense of Happy Valley amid a sea of scarlet and grey.

“After a few more game watches, I started attending board meetings and wanted to learn more,” Eveland said. “Staying connected was important. I know it’s important to a lot of other alumni, and the chapter is a great way to keep that connection.”

Eveland, a 1992 Penn State graduate, first got involved with the chapter about a decade ago. He recently saw an opportunity to help even more when a leadership position opened up; so Eveland decided to step up and accept the role as chapter president, beginning his new role in August.

It was also a natural next step for someone who maximized his time at Penn State.

“I got a great education while I was there, and the people and the experiences I had outside of the classroom were also really important to me,” Eveland said. “I was coming from a little town, so there weren’t a lot of people moving in and out of my life. When I got to the Hazleton campus, that all changed.”

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“Our chapter is here to provide support to Penn State alumni and their families,” Chapter President John Eveland said. “Anyone who comes in from out of town, we want them to feel welcome.”

Eveland then transferred to University Park, and his social circle expanded. He met new people, enjoyed ever-broadening activities, all while completing his college days in a meaningful way.

“Staying connected to Penn State reminds me of those experiences and keeps me open to having more of those experiences,” he said.

This weekend will be an exciting time for the chapter, Eveland said, with Penn State and Ohio State set for a Top-10 battle at The Horseshoe on Saturday. Kickoff is set for noon on FOX.

The chapter will host an alumni event Friday night at a local restaurant, with the event drawing 300-plus attendees in recent years. It’s a chance for Eveland and his group “to put Penn State in a positive spotlight,” he said, with the added bonus of meeting new folks who might be learning about the Central Ohio Chapter for the first time.

Fall is the busiest time of the year for the chapter, with hosting watch parties, though there are also happy hour events and THON fundraisers for members to participate in year-round. There’s even an annual canoe or kayak trip in the spring, along with the yearly student sendoff picnic. Eveland said the chapter also looks for ways to volunteer for local charities.

This weekend’s event will also benefit the chapter’s Franklyn C. Ingram Spirit Scholarship, which benefits an incoming deserving freshman from the area. All the scholarship funds come directly from the support of local alumni and friends.

That type of thoughtfulness and caring are hallmarks for Eveland’s group. Even for something as simple as asking for a good place to grab dinner or something to do before or after the game, the Central Ohio Chapter has you covered.

“Our chapter is here to provide support to Penn State alumni and their families,” Eveland said. “Anyone who comes in from out of town, we want them to feel welcome and that they have somewhere go and be around other Penn Starters. In this town, that can be hard.”

There are nearly 300 Alumni Association affiliate groups, spanning geographic regions, academic colleges, and shared interests. You can view a full list and connect with Penn Staters anytime at alumni.psu.edu/groups.

From The Archives: Penn State V. Indiana (2010)

Penn State v Indiana  (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Derek Moye’s end-around run featured prominently on the cover of The Football Letter that recounted Penn State’s victory over Indiana in 2010 at FedEx Field. Photo credit: Steve Manuel.

Indiana got paid. Penn State got the win.

The Hoosiers collected a $3 million paycheck to move their 2010 home game against the Nittany Lions to FedEx Field, only a 200-mile drive from State College.

As John Black ’62 noted in The Football Letter, “Penn State was happy to oblige because the Lions hadn’t played in front of their huge fan base in the Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia area since trouncing Maryland, 70-7, at Byrd Stadium in 1993.”

The Nittany Lions earned a similar result against the Hoosiers, though with a much closer result. The 41-24 final score capped a back-and-forth game that was tied late in the third quarter, until Penn State’s Andrew Dailey blocked a punt “that Jamie Van Fleet scooped and scampered 21 yards to score the turning-point touchdown,” Black wrote.

The game also represented something of a reprieve for fans, whose closest drive at that time was Ohio State, about 320 miles away. Michigan and Michigan State were within somewhat reasonable driving distance, though beyond that, fans needed to book a flight to see the Nittany Lions on the road.

This was years before Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference, so it’s not a surprise that Penn State fans comprised about three-quarters of the stadium, as Black estimated.

Penn State v Indiana  (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Matt McGloin celebrated with fans after Penn State earned a 41-24 victory over Indiana. McGloin posted his first career 300-yard game and threw two touchdowns to lead the offense. Photo credit: Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

Other contributions for Penn State included Matt McGloin posting his first career 300-yard passing game during his redshirt sophomore campaign, completing 22-of-31 passes for 315 yards and two scores. Northern Virginia native Evan Royster—the program’s all-time leading rusher—totaled 48 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and Silas Reed also added a rushing touchdown.

Brett Brackett and Derek Moye caught touchdowns from McGloin, with the lead photo of The Football Letter highlighting Moye picking up 27 rushing yards on an end-around.

Penn State struggled throughout 2010, finishing the regular season at 7-5, yet still garnering a New Year’s Day bowl. The Nittany Lions lost to Florida 37-24 in the Outback Bowl, in a game fans might recall as the last contest Urban Meyer coached for the Gators.

Going back to FedEx field, it was the second time the teams played each other in an NFL stadium, including the old RCA Dome in 2000, as Black noted.

We’re still partial to Beaver Stadium, which will host the teams’ next matchup, and Saturday’s contest should be a good one.

Even with last week’s loss, Penn State remains in the Top 10 of the College Football Playoff standings, and Indiana is ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1994.

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Penn State Preview: Minnesota

Penn State v. MINNESOTA (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 4 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) at No. 17 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0).

Venue: TCF Bank Stadium, featuring a capacity of 50,805.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 39 degrees and mostly cloudy.

The line: Penn State –6.5

Last week: Penn State and Minnesota each had a bye.

All-time series: Penn State leads 9-5.

Last meeting (2016): Penn State earned a dramatic 29-26 overtime win at Beaver Stadium, as Saquon Barkley rushed for a touchdown on the Nittany Lions’ first play in the extra session. The play helped spark an impressive run that included a win over No. 2 Ohio State en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance for the Nittany Lions.

Throwback classic (1993): Here’s a good trivia tidbit for fans: Minnesota was Penn State’s first Big Ten opponent, with the Nittany Lions earning a 38-20 victory on Sept. 4, 1993, at Beaver Stadium. The teams combined for more than 100 pass attempts, as Bobby Engram became the first player in program history to catch four touchdown passes.

Overview: Coming into the season, there was a good chance Penn State would have a November showdown against another undefeated team. The smart thinking had the game occurring in Columbus, though, not Minneapolis. Ohio State still looms, though Penn State will need to dispatch the upstart Gophers, having an against-the-odds kind of season that the typically ordinary Big Ten West teams have once a decade or so. Northwestern last season and Iowa in 2015 are two recent examples.

Perhaps the most impressive trait for this year’s Nittany Lions squad is their collective focus. They’ve won big and small, stayed ahead in tough environments, started fast, and have also closed out games. There’s a sense they’re truly battle-tested, so whatever they see Saturday against Minnesota, it won’t be anything they haven’t seen before.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions hold the Gophers to less than 28 points. Minnesota’s offense has been consistently good all season, scoring at least 28 each game and averaging 41 in its five Big Ten contests. Gaudy numbers, even if against supposedly the weakest division in the conference and Rutgers and Maryland.

Minnesota wins if: the Gophers’ ground game can wear down the Nittany Lions. Based on numbers, Minnesota can win a shootout, though the Gophers will need to sustain drives that’ll test Penn State’s depth along the defensive line and in the linebacking corp. Minnesota averages 205 rushing yards per game, with Penn State allowing only 68. If the Gophers finish Saturday anywhere near the latter mark, their chances of winning are incredibly slim.

Keep an eye on: the offensive play-calling. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has faced more criticism than you’d think for a team 8-0 and ranked No. 4 — and it’s easy to argue most of that criticism has been unwarranted — and it’ll be interesting to see if he dials up anything unexpected after having an extra week to think over the game plan.

Trivia tidbit: Penn State’s been ranked in the AP poll for 51 straight weeks, the third-longest streak in program history.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 28, Minnesota 24

Vince Lungaro: Penn State 33, Minnesota 20

From The Archives: Penn State V. Minnesota (1993)

FBL_From The Archives (Minnesota)

Shelly Hammonds said the goal was to win the Big Ten. He was right, just only a year later.

Hammonds has one of the more distinguishable, if sometimes overlooked, Penn State careers in recent decades. He was a standout high school running back in South Carolina, choosing to play for the Nittany Lions over close-to-home programs such as the Gamecocks and Clemson Tigers.

At Penn State, he switched between defense and offense, setting the freshman record for running yards in a game against Boston College while also playing cornerback. Actually, that was the biggest adjustment for Hammonds, who said learning how to play corner after starring as a safety in high school took time while routinely going against the other team’s best receiver.

Playing both sides is incredibly difficult, with few players across all of college football doing so. Excelling in an area where so few do actually came naturally for Hammonds, as he explains it, since he “pretty much never came off the field in high school.” Hammonds, though, played all three phases of the game for Penn State, also returning kicks.

That leads us to that Big Ten premonition.

Coming into Penn State’s first season in the conference in 1993, Hammonds was the team’s leading returning rusher, though with a backfield that included future Heisman Trophy finalist Ki-Jana Carter, Hammonds focused mainly on his time as a cornerback and kick returner. He learned Penn State would start competing in the Big Ten after committing to the program, though if anything, the switch further strengthened his decision.

“We had high expectations for that season (1993), and we were super-hyped about being in the Big Ten and having an opportunity to further the Penn State brand to a conference,” Hammonds said. “Having an opportunity to play in the same conference as powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan was going to help us expand the brand and put us into more households than we were before.

He added: “We understood it was going to be a challenge, and we truly expected it to be tough. I’ll be honest with you: Our expectation was to win the Big Ten that year. It didn’t happen, but that was our expectation.

Hammonds helped Penn State get going against the Gophers in Penn State’s season opener, returning four kickoffs for 148 yards, an average of 37 yards per return, as John Black ’62 noted in The Football Letter, recounting Penn State’s 38-20 victory at Beaver Stadium in early September.

Fans were surprised if they were expecting the old-school Big Ten style of play. The teams combined for more than 100 pass attempts, with Bobby Engram setting a school record with four receiving touchdowns.

Hammonds lined up against Engram in practice, noting that Engram’s quickness, route running, and ability to make tough catches made him so difficult to defend.

“Certain guys had that knack for making big plays — Bobby was that guy,” Hammonds said. “Obviously, his film bears that out. With his highlight films, he had the knack for making the big play.”

Penn State finished the season 10-2 — losing only to the Buckeyes and Wolverines — and capped the season with a dominant 31-13 victory over No. 6 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Penn State entered the bowl ranked No. 13 and moved up to No. 8 to end the year.

The Nittany Lions finished 1992 with a 7-5 mark, with Hammonds saying that was one reason why there was such a strong emphasis to finish the ’93 campaign strong, which they did. Penn State won its final five games in ’93, setting the stage for one of the program’s most memorable seasons ever the following year.

“We ended on a high note by beating a really good Tennessee team, and that catapulted the team for the following season,” Hammonds said. “That’s the thing I remembered. We made up our mind the 1993 season wasn’t going to be a copycat of the 1992 season, where we went into a tailspin and never recovered.

Hammonds now lives in South Florida and works for the FBI. He typically tries to get back to campus at least once a year for a game, though his schedule is busy. In addition to his job, he has children who are active in sports.

He’s had a chance to meet James Franklin, saying he loves what Franklin is doing with the team.

“I respect what he’s done with the program, and what he’s done with recruiting. It’s been a tough road to travel, but he’s done a phenomenal job.”

There’s an additional connection for Hammonds with the program, with Wally Richardson overseeing the Football Letterman’s Club. Richardson is also a South Carolina native, and Hammonds helped host him during the recruiting process when Richardson visited campus.

Hammonds usually stays with Richardson when he comes into town, and those types of connections are meaningful, now and also back then.

Hammonds said folks back home might’ve been surprised he chose to attend Penn State, though he felt it was a natural fit. He noted Penn State’s academics and the team’s academic advisor just as much when talking about his decision to come here and play for Joe Paterno, with Paterno and other officials emphasizing life after football.

“Sometimes people get so invested in football, they forget it’s only a small part of your life,” Hammonds said. “You are so much more than that. For everybody, the game is going to end eventually. You have your whole life after that, and that’s the part that Joe preached. It’s what are you going to do after that, that’s going to matter.

There was a real sense he’d be taken care of, which was important to him and especially for his mom. Add that to Penn State’s ability to play for national titles, and that helped bring Hammonds away from the “hot bed” of South Carolina and Clemson, as he described.

“South Carolina and Clemson were huge,” Hammonds said. “It was probably a shock to a lot of people that I committed to Penn State, but coming here felt like the right place for me.”

Minnesota Chapter expanding ‘Penn State footprint’

Emily Zuber

Minnesota Chapter President Emily Zuber visited the Nittany Lin Shrine on a recent visit to University Park. The 2004 Penn State graduated has served as chapter president since 2016.

You could say that this weekend has been 15 years in the making for Emily Zuber.

Perhaps, even longer.

Her story transcends football, or geographic regions, though everywhere along the line, Penn State has figured prominently in her story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Zuber started visiting Penn State at an early age, the result of having four older sisters who all earned degrees from University Park. Zuber followed, graduating in 2004 from the College of the Liberal Arts, specializing in labor and industrial relations.

There’s a 19-year difference between Zuber and her oldest sister, though the five siblings always had (and always will) have the Penn State thread connecting them. After graduating, Zuber moved to Minnesota, following the path already taken by two of her sisters, and having that family foundation eased her transition to the Midwest.

Also helping with her post-grad move was finding fellow alumni. Penn State was/is such a big part of her life, and her sisters were already familiar with the Alumni Association’s Minnesota Chapter, offering a natural segue for Zuber. She attended a few meetings, helped the board with some events, and then she became an at-large member before elevating to the role of vice president in 2014. Two years later, she stepped into the president’s role, with her term ending next year.

The last few weeks have been particularly interesting for Zuber, building up to Saturday’s anticipated football game between No. 5 Penn State and No. 13 Minnesota. Both squads are 8-0, a mark that Minnesota hasn’t reached since 1941.

Zuber laughed while saying she was disappointed that ESPN’s wildly popular show, College GameDay, passed on broadcasting from Minneapolis — the crew will instead head to Tuscaloosa for a matchup between the country’s two top teams, Alabama and LSU —though there’s a serious undertone in what the game means not only to the football teams, but also to the Minnesota Chapter.

There’ll be a large influx of Penn Staters coming to town, and Zuber hopes that alumni and friends see they have a presence in the state year-round.

“I want them to know that the Penn State footprint is far and wide and very involved,” said Zuber, an IT business analyst. “We’re making sure that Minnesota knows who Penn State is and the good that we’re providing in the community.”

Penn State at Minnesota (Photo/Steve Manuel)

The Minnesota Chapter welcomed alumni and friends prior to the Nittany Lions’ battle against the Gophers in 2013. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

This weekend represents a little bit of a Homecoming for Zuber, she said, with the chapter hosting a mixer Friday night. The event will feature the Pep Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Nittany Lion, with locals and visitors welcomed alike. There’s no fee to attend, with the chapter simply asking for donations for its scholarship fund; the scholarships are awarded to local students attending Penn State.

The scholarship fund continues to grow — now standing at more than $5,000 per year and recently awarded to two students — and Zuber proudly points out that’s just one way the chapter makes a difference, saying their impact goes beyond fundraising for their own school.

Group members annually volunteer at a local food bank, packaging boxes and stocking shelves, in addition to donating to help stop child abuse in Minnesota. The chapter also regularly supports THON through various events, with a focus on representing their alma mater with zest and devotion.

“We give back to the community, and we donate time and money,” Zuber said. “We’re making an impact in the overall Minnesota community, and it’s exciting to be a part of that. Penn State is doing that.”

People are recognizing the chapter’s impact, with the group partnering with Penn State legend Ki-Jana Carter, who now owns a marketing and merchandising company in Florida. Carter worked with the chapter on producing T-shirts, blankets, and bags, which will be available at the mixer Friday. Moyer’s Jeweler, meanwhile, donated a bracelet inspired by a Penn State alumna — she won a contest with her outstanding design — that’ll go toward the scholarship fundraiser.

These are just a few examples of the resourcefulness of the Minnesota Chapter, which is enjoying increased membership, resulting in 88 members and 77 households — the latter is just two off of the group’s all-time record. There’s concise and detailed information on the chapter’s website about the value in joining, along with some cool trivia.

There are over 1,800 Penn State alumni living in the state and Western Wisconsin, and there’s also a David Letterman-style Top 10 list outlining why Penn Staters should join the chapter.

For Zuber, the reasons are plentiful, and also personal. She began visiting University Park when she was 2 and attended her first football game at 3 years old. With four older siblings paving the way for her to become a Nittany Lion, you could easily make the argument she was born into the Penn State family.

And she doesn’t want to ever leave.

“It’s a part of who I am, and that’s a piece of me that I don’t ever want to lose,” Zuber said of her Penn State identity. “The connection, the tradition, it’s important.”

There are nearly 300 Alumni Association affiliate groups, spanning geographic regions, academic colleges, and shared interests. You can view a full list and connect with Penn Staters anytime at alumni.psu.edu/groups, and stay updated on the Minnesota Chapter by following the group on Facebook and Twitter.

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Special Commitment

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The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Jake Zembiec has been around the sport of football for half his life. Mostly playing, though the last few years have seen a shift to a coaching and mentoring role.

More on that shortly.

Only, football doesn’t tell his whole story. Really, not even close. There’s much more going on, and it’s important to Zembiec for fans to understand that.

He’s on a path to become a physical therapist and plans to attend graduate school next summer, most likely close to his parents’ home in Rochester, New York. He’s missed plenty of time with them over the last four years, playing football and studying at Penn State, and making up for those missed opportunities motivates that decision.

He completed two internships and shadowed an orthopedic surgeon over the last year, an example of his detailed preparation.

His mom, Maureen, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Or, as Zembiec said, she “defeated breast cancer twice,” an indication of his competitive mentality. His mom’s resilience inspired Zembiec to volunteer at local clinics, where he’d set up and tear down meeting spaces and conference rooms as a way of helping out.

The family also routinely gave back during breast cancer awareness walks, serving as road marshals. Nowadays, Zembiec returns to his former elementary school, speaking with youngsters who still view him as a superstar, even if he laughs while saying he no longer sees himself that way.

His legacy lives on back home through his playing days at Aquinas Institute, a Catholic high school in Rochester, and his name carries considerable weight. So, while football is the reason for most of the attention he’s received, it’s not how Zembiec defines himself.

“I take so much pride in academics and being a good guy in the community, and for people to only see you as a football player, sometimes that’s frustrating,” said Zembiec, who’s been selected as a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar at Penn State.

“As you start to move your way up in recruiting and you go to all these All-American games, people start to forget about the other stuff that makes you who you are. I want to get as much recognition for my grades in high school as I did for making the Elite 11.”

He added: “I think it’s special, the commitment you have to have to be successful in more than just football here.”

Excelling as a student-athlete at Penn State is perhaps the inevitable next step for Zembiec, who grew up surrounded by high expectations from nearly everyone who knew him.

He started playing football at age 11, training with his dad in the backyard — “that’s all you need really, if you’re willing to put in the work,” he said. He was bigger and taller than most other kids his age, and a self-described natural athlete.

As he matured and the playing field leveled out, Zembiec said it became about who was going to work the hardest. A fierce competitor on and off the field, Zembiec kept on grinding.

His father, Tom, is the one who put Jake on the map, he said, writing emails and letters to coaches throughout the region and country. His dad was his quarterback coach starting in middle school, and the two traveled quite a bit during Zembiec’s senior year in high school.

The hard work paid off with a scholarship at Penn State, and he enrolled early, always wanting to outwork everyone. Zembiec’s commitment garnered plenty of attention, as he was rated a four-star recruit by multiple outlets and the No. 1 player in New York and the No. 10 quarterback in the country by Rivals.

Shortly after he arrived on campus, he was introduced to a packed crowd at Pegula Ice Arena during a men’s ice hockey game, and the fans roared at the mention of his name.

Zembiec, now a senior, saw playing time in a handful of Blue-White games, though never during the regular season. He possessed a strong arm, though didn’t have the chance to fully display his skills because of one injury or another.

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Jake Zembiec (7) finished the 2018 Blue-White game 6-for-12 with 39 passing yards and a touchdown, and also added 36 rushing yards on six carries. Photo Credit: Penn State/Patrick Mansell

He missed his junior year because of complications with his wrist, and shoulder surgery further derailed his progress. Zembiec knew it’d be near-impossible to move up the depth chart because some days his shoulder would feel great, and other days not so much. Coaches couldn’t rely on him, and the nagging pain started to sap his enthusiasm.

Practices would loom, with Zembiec not knowing what to expect. He began to realize it’d be unlikely he could regularly throw the way he used to, when he was leading his high school team to state championships in his sophomore and senior seasons.

Zembiec’s rebounded from what he called a low point, to now feeling totally at peace. He looks forward to practice, where he can impart his wisdom of the offense. He knows the whole playbook and can give advice from a player standpoint, while Head Coach James Franklin and Offensive Coordinator Ricky Rahne verbally coach up his teammates, he said.

Guys on the team see Zembiec as a veteran and someone who can be trusted, so it makes sense that Franklin and Rahne wanted him to stay with the program.

When the pain and injuries persisted, the two offered Zembiec a medical scholarship, something which the quarterback didn’t even know was possible. He took some time to himself, making the decision on his own and informing his parents after.

That was a little difficult. He knew his parents wanted the best for him, though only he knew the amount of pain he was experiencing. So many folks from back home saw him as a football player first and foremost, and even he acknowledged that football had been nearly everything he knew to that point.

However, with the enjoyment gone because of the physical toll, Zembiec announced on his Twitter account in August 2018 that his playing career at Penn State was ending.

“It took a little while for us to all get comfortable with it and the change,” Zembiec said. “But I think everybody realizes now (it was the best decision). When I call home to my parents, they can just tell from the tone of my voice — I’m just a lot happier with how things are going now.”

The 22-year-old Rochester native carries himself and speaks with a maturity that most people don’t attain until their 30s or 40s, if ever.

It’s be easy (and understandable) for Zembiec to be bitter, frustrated, or even angry, but he isn’t any of those things.

As Zembiec said, he didn’t hold it against anyone when injuries curtailed his development, and he’s still very much a part of the team, as Rahne pointed out.

He’s still friends with a lot of his teammates and is at practice every day, serving as an example that you don’t have to score touchdowns—or even suit up—to help propel the team forward.

“He’s able to share his story of how he’s got to where he is and show guys that there’s more than one way to contribute,” Rahne said. “We preach that as a coaching staff, and our guys really buy into that. There’s a bunch of guys on the team who people outside of this building don’t know about, but we understand they help us score every point and win games without being on the field.”

Even though he’s no longer playing, Zembiec still attracts plenty of attention. Look for him on the Penn State sideline on game day wearing a headset (and sometimes a red hat), and plenty of gold chains around his neck.

The flashy look belies his humbleness, though it’s a good representation of what starting quarterback Sean Clifford calls Zembiec’s “swagger.”

More than anything else, Zembiec is comfortable and confident with the decisions he’s made, where his future is headed, and with his Penn State career — cut short by injury, though maximized everywhere else.

“I’m so happy with my whole experience, and it’s awesome getting to come out to practice every day,” Zembiec said. “Since taking the medical, I’m just so pumped to practice every day and see the guys and be around everybody. I have a whole new perspective on how lucky I am to be here, and how special of an opportunity I have to be around this program, and be part of this football team, and run out in front of 107,000.”

Penn State Preview: Michigan State

Penn State v. Michigan State 2018 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 6 Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) vs. Michigan State (4-3, 2-2), 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Spartan Stadium, which features a capacity of 75,005.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 54 degrees with some sunshine giving way to clouds and rain at times in the afternoon.

The line: Penn State –6.

Last week: Penn State outlasted Michigan 28-21, while Michigan State had a bye.

All-time series: Michigan State leads 17-15-1.

Last meeting (2018): Michigan State escaped Beaver Stadium with a 21-17 win.

Throwback classic (2016): We’re sending it back only two years, to when Penn State demolished Michigan State 45-12 to win the Big Ten East Division title, before winning the conference championship a week later against Wisconsin in Indianapolis.

Overview: Penn State is 7-0 for the fifth time since joining the Big Ten, and while the Nittany Lions have created a ton of momentum the last few weeks (and really, the entire season), Saturday looms ahead. Michigan State has been outscored 72-10 in its last two games — losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin — and that stat actually makes the Spartans seem more dangerous. That’s how odd this game has been since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.

Penn State wins if: Sean Clifford continues to protect the ball. The first-year starter has thrown only two interceptions, and the home crowd will be thirsting for a win Saturday. It’s been almost a month since the Spartans’ last victory, a 40-31 win over Indiana on Sept. 28, and the same amount of time since Michigan State’s last home game. The atmosphere should be plenty rowdy, though won’t be anything Clifford hasn’t seen before. Protect the ball, and stay unbeaten: That’s the mantra Saturday for the superstar sophomore.

Michigan State wins if: the Spartans’ offensive line gives quarterback Brian Lewerke enough time to have downfield success. Penn State ranks fourth nationally in rush defense per game (66 yards), and Michigan State doesn’t appear to have the ground game to make it work Saturday. The Spartans average a respectable 117 yards per contest, though nothing that’ll shift the dynamic of the game. Unless a team can gain 200-plus yards against Penn State, and it doesn’t appear the Spartans have that potential, the air attack is the best bet. That’s what Michigan State will need Saturday.

Keep an eye on: Noah Cain (yes, we’re going with the true freshman running back again). Saturday will be a game when James Franklin might want to (have to?) divert from the running back rotation and go with a bruising back if the game turns into a contest of one grinding possession after another. Cain leads Penn State with 329 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Trivia tidbit: Though Michigan State leads the overall series, Penn State is ahead 14-9 since joining the Big Ten.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 34, Michigan State 30

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 30, Michigan State 21