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.

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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.

Giving Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This year doesn’t change any of that.

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

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

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

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Penn State Preview: Michigan

Jahan Dotson and the Nittany Lions head to Ann Arbor this weekend in search of their first win of the season. (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 Michigan, noon kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Michigan Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 46 degrees and sunny.

All-time series: Michigan leads 14-9.

Last meeting (2019): After a last-minute goal line stand, Penn State toppled Michigan 28-21 at Beaver Stadium.

Last week: Michigan outlasted Rutgers 48-42 in triple overtime, while Penn State dropped to 0-5 with a home loss to Iowa.

The lead: A pair of frustrating seasons collide Saturday in Ann Arbor, where Penn State and Michigan come in with a combined mark of 2-8. Add Pat Freiermuth to the list of players the Nittany Lions will be without for the rest of the year — he’s set to undergo season-ending surgery this week — and that increases the level of difficulty for a team that had genuine aspirations for the College Football Playoff following last season’s win in the Cotton Bowl.

Despite all the adversity the team has been facing this season, there are indications that the Nittany Lions will eventually breakthrough. James Franklin has talked about his players, and players generally, being resilient and able to bounce back from disappoint and setbacks.

Here’s what he said leading up to the game against Iowa about signs that his guys are showing resiliency:

“I think what I saw in the second half (against Nebraska). Now again, I know everybody wants four quarters. I do, too. Trust me. But I thought how we battled in the second half of our game this past week and gave ourselves a chance to win. I think we were (up) 17-3 in the second half. It’s obvious we’ve got to play better for four quarters, but I think that’s a sign. I think the feedback I get from the coaches and how the guys are in meetings, the things that I see, how are guys in the weight room, how they are in the locker room after games, how they are on the bus. All of it, with a lot of distractions.”

Part of those distractions, Franklin said, is the players’ inability to interact with their families as closely as they would be able to under non-COVID-19 circumstances. Normally, he said, players could kiss and hug their families before games and tailgate and celebrate with them after. None of that is possible this year, which increases the strain they’re all playing under.

Following the loss to Iowa, which dropped the team to its first 0-5 start in program history, standout receiver Jahan Dotson talked about having winning the week, winning the day, and winning the moment, breaking things down into a singular focus for whatever he and his teammates are facing.

“Whatever moment you’re in, win that moment,” he said. “We’ve got to start doing things with a winner’s mentality, and that’s pretty much it. We’ve just got to win the day. Come to practice every day, work, and just go 1-0.”

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions stop turning the ball over. This has been a theme all season, and quite possibly the biggest reason for Penn State’s winless record.

Michigan wins if: the Wolverines corral another first-half lead against the Nittany Lions. Penn State has proven it can mount a second-half comeback, it just hasn’t been enough to win.

Count on: the Nittany Lions coming out fighting. This is only a hunch, though after five games, chances are Penn State will be keyed up for a win.

Keep an eye on: tight end Brenton Strange. The freshman made his first career start against Iowa, catching a 28-yard touchdown pass from Sean Clifford. With Freiermuth out for the rest of the season, it’ll be imperative for other receivers to step up and provide more reliable options beyond Dotson.

Trivia tidbit: Sean Clifford is only 81 yards away from 4,000 career passing yards.

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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2012

The 2012 team featured 31 seniors who made their final appearances at Beaver Stadium during a 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. The 2012 team will forever be remembered for the Nittany Lion stayed united while also bringing together the Penn State community.

Gritty. Resilient. Inspiring.

A lot has been written and said about the 2012 Penn State football team, which compiled probably the most impressive 8-4 mark in the history of college football.

This week, we’re welcoming one of the leaders from that team to The Football Letter Live, as quarterback and NFL/XFL veteran Matt McGloin will join the program to discuss his team with the Nittany Lions and how the 2012 squad defied all expectations while, in many ways, holding together the Penn State community.

You can register online for the show or tune in on Facebook. This week’s show will air at noon on Tuesday, and we’ll return to our regular day and time, 8 p.m. on Thursdays, next week.

Matt McGloin’s family joins him on the field during pregame ceremonies prior to the 2012 contest against Wisconsin. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The team closed out the season by winning eight of its final 10 games, including a home win over Wisconsin on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions won 24-21 in overtime after the Badgers missed a field goal, and John Black ’62 wrote in that game’s edition of The Football Letter that the cheers from the home team’s locker room roared throughout the underpinnings of the stadium.

You can read more elsewhere on the blog, including how Black wrote that the team had competed for the honor of the of their team and university.

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Penn State Preview: Iowa

Jayson Oweh (28) and the Nittany Lions look for their first win of the season Saturday at Beaver Stadium against Iowa. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on BTN. (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. Iowa, 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on BTN.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 297-76.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 56 degrees and mostly cloudy.

All-time series: Penn State leads 17-12 and has won the last six games.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won a slugfest in Iowa City, collecting a 17-12 victory. The Nittany Lions led 17-6 late in the fourth quarter before the Hawkeyes mounted a touchdown drive to close the gap with less than three minutes in the game.   

Throwback classic (2007): Penn State ended a five-game losing streak to Iowa with a 27-7 victory at Beaver Stadium. We highlighted that game earlier in the week on the blog, and the article features insight from letterman Rodney Kinlaw.

The lead: Who starts at quarterback for the Nittany Lions is something that all fans are wondering. Will Levis subbed in for Sean Clifford last Saturday at Nebraska, nearly completing a comeback after the Nittany Lions fell behind by 21. Whoever gets the call will lead Penn State against an Iowa team that’s been hard to pin down. The Hawkeyes opened the season with losses to Purdue and Northwestern, but who have responded by upending Michigan State and Minnesota by a combined score of 82-16.

One thing’s for sure: Penn State needs to play better in the first half. Do that, and that should make the game more manageable for either Clifford or Levis, and the entire team.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions create multiple turnovers and avoid giving up big plays. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has thrown four picks early on, so if the Nittany Lions’ can disrupt his passing lanes, that should help cut down on Iowa’s explosiveness.

Iowa wins if: the Hawkeyes can push around the Nittany Lions’ offensive line. That area has struggled throughout parts of the season, including allowing a sack last week during Penn State’s potential game-tying play. Iowa is third in the conference with an average of 2.75 sacks per game, so the line’s performance takes on extra importance Saturday.

Count on: a close game, if past results are any indicator. The last three games against Iowa have been decided by a total of 13 points.

Keep an eye on: Jayson Oweh. The star sophomore already has 27 tackles, the most for a Penn State defense end through the first four games of the season since at least 2000.

Trivia tidbit: Pat Freiermuth has caught a pass in 29 straight games, tying him for the nation’s best mark for a tight end.

Leading With Love

James Franklin’s coaching approach of leading with love has taken on extra significance during the 2020 season. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Success brings teams together. Struggles do, too.

James Franklin and Penn State have much more experience with the former, which spotlights the rare times when the latter occurs.

Franklin and his coaches and players acknowledge that adjustments need to be made, though there’s a time and place for them, something that Franklin has mentioned.

He’s said he’s learned that right after a game in the locker room isn’t the time to start critiquing anything. Whether it’s a win or a loss, emotions are raw. Everyone is either feeling the euphoria of a victory or the sting of a defeat, and that’s not the optimal time to process feedback that might require an analytical approach.

That’s an important insight that Franklin has shared over the years during his postgame press conference with the media, which take place approximately a half hour after the game ends. In those interactions, it’s interesting to note Franklin’s demeanor, since it’s not immediately following a game, yet still close enough to glean some of his more natural emotions, which provide insight into his coaching approach.  

For example:

Following Penn State’s last-second win at Iowa in 2017, Franklin was reflective in his postgame press conference, even more so than usual, a combination of appreciation and gratitude for the win while still not being satisfied.

After the team’s loss at Michigan State that same year, a defeat that came after a four-and-a-half-hour weather delay, Franklin was frustrated, even angry at times. He said the team had gotten away from what had made them successful, and there was a sense that the team was underachieving a bit, something that Franklin was determined to fix.

The next year, after another narrow loss to Ohio State, Franklin was defiant. Personally, defiance is a favorite trait of mine. And with the way Franklin spoke, he was defiant in the sense that he didn’t want to settle for 10-win seasons. Sure, that’s a good level, but he has aspirations to elevate Penn State into an elite program. He said as much in a press conference clip that’s been aired widely in the years since.

Last Saturday in Lincoln, Franklin embodied parts of everything above. Part of the point is that Franklin isn’t a robot and, in some ways, feels the joy of winning and the pain of losing more acutely than anyone else.

However, there’s a foundational aspect of his approach that’s always present: love. Love for the football program. Love for the University. Love for the community and alumni and fans and lettermen. And certainly, love for his players.

After the Nebraska game, Franklin said that he’s a guy who leads with love. That’s a real part of his coaching philosophy and is even more important when the team is struggling like this season.

Here’s what he said Tuesday during his weekly press conference, speaking to the balance he tries to find when coaching his guys on how they can improve without being overly negative:

“You have to balance that, always. And the reality is after wins, you can be harder on guys. We’ve talked about that for six years, that even when you win, there’s still things that need to get corrected and cleaned up that allow you to continue to win. And after losses, you’ve got to make the corrections, but you’ve got to do it in a way that that young man can hear it at the time and is going to grow and not be defensive. That’s all of us, I think that’s really important.”

Fifth-year senior Michal Menet is a standout center who’s been named to the watch list for the 2020 Rimington Award, which recognizes the top offensive center in the nation. There’s a strong sense that with Franklin, what you see is what you get, which is critically important for standout high school players trying to decide where they’re going to pursue their collegiate aspirations.

Everyone knows that the results will change week to week, season to season. Hopefully, things go your way more often than they don’t, though either way, there needs to be a baseline level of trust that goes both ways, and with Franklin, that’s in place. 

“I think the biggest thing with Coach Franklin is that he’s always been consistent, he always leads with love,” Menet said this week. “From the time I was recruited, coming up here watching practice, all the way throughout. He’s always been the same, whether we’re winning or losing. Obviously, the critique is going to sound a little bit different and his overall message will be different, but it’s always been from a place of love, and that’s the one thing that I’ve always respected him a ton for, is that he’s always been consistent. No matter how good or bad things are going, he’s going to show up for work every single day, giving us his best and lead with love, like he talks about.”

At some point after the season ends or during next spring, it’s likely someone will ask Franklin if he sees this as something of a lost season, or perhaps a season in which you can’t extrapolate too much because of all the seemingly once-in-a-lifetime circumstances that COVID-19 is placing on teams.

I’m guessing Franklin will say no, and he’d be right. Like every season, he’s learning about his team, in addition to acclimating four new coaches (including a new coordinator) into the program. Franklin constantly points to consistency as a major component of his program, and it’s also something that players (former and current) mention when discussing what it’s like to play for Franklin.

Additionally, consistency matters, as evident by Menet’s perspective. All that said, there’s a lot of football left for the Nittany Lions, who still aren’t halfway through their regular season. Plus, the upcoming bowl game, assuming Penn State accepts an invite and can play without COVID-19 disrupting anything further.

Either way, there should be lessons being learned, both for this year and future seasons, and they’ll be distilled in a way that encourages improvement.

As Franklin has said before: “It starts with ‘I love you,’ and it ends with ‘I love you,’” and indications are that won’t change.  


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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2008

Daryll Clark powered toward the end zone during the 2009 Rose Bowl that capped another 10-plus win season for Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. This week, we spotlight the 2008 squad that won the Big Ten and played in the Rose Bowl for the third time in program history.

In an alternative universe, the 2009 Rose Bowl could’ve doubled as the national championship for the 2008 season, with Penn State and USC battling for the crown.

For the second time in four seasons, a single play knocked the Nittany Lions out of contention for the national title, as a last-second field goal at Kinnick Stadium downed Penn State by one against Iowa. The Trojans, meanwhile, somehow lost to a middling Oregon State team that Penn State dominated earlier in the season.

It was a somewhat unexplainable blemish for USC, which otherwise steamrolled its competition 450-93, as noted by editor John Black ’62 in the Rose Bowl edition of The Football Letter.

So, while Florida and Oklahoma — each of whom also lost a game in the regular season — played for the title in Miami, Florida, the Nittany Lions and Trojans clashed in Pasadena, where Joe Paterno coached for the second of his two appearances in the Rose Bowl.

USC earned a 38-24 victory, thanks largely to a second quarter when they outscored Penn State 24-0, and afterward, Paterno said, “It would take a heckuva football team to beat Southern Cal the way they played today.”

The same could also be said for Penn State, which easily dispatched non-conference opponents Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse and Temple by a combined score of 211-40. The conference record mostly featured more convincing wins, including a 46-17 home victory over Michigan, followed by an epic road victory in Columbus.

Paterno was coaching from the coaches’ box during the season, and ABC played a memorable pregame feature on the legendary coach. Penn State left The Horseshoe with a 13-6 victory, thanks to a late turnover and quarterback sneak by backup quarterback Pat Devlin, who subbed for injured starter Daryll Clark in the fourth quarter.

Mark Rubin’s forced fumble at Ohio State in 2008 led to a season-defining victory during Penn State’s Big Title-winning season. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The road victory snapped a seven-game losing streak in Columbus and raised Penn State’s record to 9-0 and also showed off the versatility of that year’s group. Normally employing a spread HD offense, the team grinded out the one-possession victory by forcing a fumble from Pennsylvania recruit Terrelle Pryor, who chose to head out of state and compete for the Buckeyes.

As Black wrote:

“There were plenty of heroes in Saturday’s contest, starting with senior strong safety Mark Rubin and sophomore outside linebacker Navorro Bowman. Rubin had a career-high 11 tackles, as the Lions held Heisman Trophy candidate Beanie Wells to less than half his 123.8-yard pre game rushing average (10th highest in the nation), and thwarted the running of dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Pryor was attempting to convert a third-and-one situation at midfield on a quarterback sneak, but the Lions’ defensive line plugged every gap. Pryor bounced outside, but Rubin met him at the corner and punched the pigskin from the grasp.”

The Football Letter photographer Steve Manuel ’82, ’92g captured the sequence, which led to the touchdown drive captained by Devlin.

Following the upset loss to Iowa, Penn State finished the regular season by easily dismissing Indiana (34-7) and Michigan State (49-18), leading to the third Big Ten title in program history (1994, 2005).


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Penn State Preview: Nebraska

James Franklin and the Nittany Lions head west this weekend, looking for their first win of the season at Nebraska. (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 Nebraska, noon kickoff (EST), broadcast on FS1.

Venue: Memorial Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 54 degrees, mostly cloudy with patches of sun.

All-time series: Nebraska leads 9-8, with the first meeting occurring in 1920.

Last meeting (2017): Penn State 56-44 at Beaver Stadium, where the Nittany Lions thoroughly outplayed the Huskers. Saquon Barkley set the program record for rushing touchdowns with 39, eclipsing Curt Warner. Barkley scored three times on the ground, as Penn State led 56-24 with about 10 minutes left in the game. Nebraska then scored three late touchdowns, including one as time expired.

Throwback classic (2002): Penn State bulldozed a Top-10 Nebraska squad 40-7 at Beaver Stadium, with Larry Johnson collecting his first 100-yard game and Rich Gardner electrifying the crowd with a pick-6 midway through the third quarter. Fans can look back on that game and hear from Gardner by visiting The Football Letter blog.

The lead: Off-field issues, which have largely been out of Penn State’s control, have dominated the early part of the conference schedule. Earlier this week, standout running back Journey Brown announced that he’s retiring from football because of a medical condition called hyperthropic cardiomypathy. Brown’s widely recognized among coaches and teammates as a team leader who’s always upbeat, positive, and inspiring. James Franklin called the news heartbreaking earlier this week, though he and many other Nittany Lions are confident that Brown will be successful in the future, whatever he chooses to do.

Additionally, Franklin said this week that he hasn’t handled not being around his family well, as his wife, Fumi, and their two daughters are not staying in State College for the foreseeable future, as a precaution to the COVID-19 pandemic. Franklin’s younger daughter, Addison, has sickle cell anemia and is immunocompromised.

All of this puts Penn State’s struggles on the field into perspective. In a season when there are challenges that nobody could have envisioned a year ago, there are plenty of reasons to support the team and everything they’re going through, on behalf of the University.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions can get the ground game going with the running backs. Devyn Ford leads that group through three games, gaining 141 yards on 37 carries. Getting a big game from Ford, or collectively from that group, will be key for the Nittany Lions.

Nebraska wins if: the Cornhuskers get out to an early lead. That’s what Ohio State and Maryland did the last two weeks, forcing the Nittany Lions to play from behind.

Keep an eye on: Parker Washington. The Penn State freshman wide receiver has caught three touchdowns in the season’s first three games, giving Sean Clifford another reliable option in addition to Jahan Dotson.

Trivia tidbit: Nebraska and Penn State 1,800 combined wins. Nebraska (902) has four more than Penn State (898).

From The Archives: Penn State V. Nebraska (2002)

Penn State knocked off No. 7 Nebraska 40-7 in 2002, collecting a signature win at Beaver Stadium.

There were some special guests in the house on Sept. 14, 2002, at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions made sure their predecessors didn’t leave disappointed.

Penn State entered the 2002 season in a somewhat perilous position. The Nittany Lions had just endured consecutive losing seasons, previously unthinkable for a program that had gone nearly a half-century without a single such occurrence. That record, perhaps more than any other, highlights the dominance that the Nittany Lions exerted throughout much of the 20th century.

Back to 2002.

Nebraska was ranked seventh. Penn State was searching for a signature win in the new century. A rare night home game (to that point) and a national TV audience provided the Nittany Lions with an opportunity to announce their re-emergence onto the scene, and that’s exactly what happened.

As editor John Black noted in The Football Letter:

“Spurred by the presence of nearly 50 members of the 1982 team that defeated the Cornhuskers, 27-24, the last time they came to State College, the 2002 Lions silenced the criticism that has surrounded them since Nov. 6, 1999, by playing a nearly flawless game to dominate the perennial gridiron power from the Great Plains.”

The 1982 team, of course, captured the program’s first national title, with the win in ’82 still standing as one of the more memorable wins for Penn State in its history. A last-second touchdown throw from Todd Blackledge to Kirk Bowman sealed the victory.  

Twenty years later, Penn State didn’t need a last-minute scoring drive to upend Nebraska. The Nittany Lion led in overall yards and time of possession, outscoring the Cornhuskers 27-0 in the second half.

“The Penn State swagger is definitely back,” pre-season All-American Jimmy Kennedy said, as noted in The Football Letter. “It was electrifying out there tonight. I hope it’s like that every week.”

Kennedy starred at defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions, who played only their seventh night game in Beaver Stadium history.

Larry Johnson tallied his first career 100-yard rushing game and scored two touchdowns, launching his 2,000-yard season that ended with him finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Johnson finished with 2,087 yards, despite not playing in the second half of many games as Penn State was blowing out its opponents.

Zack Mills was a sophomore that season, quarterbacking the offense with 19 completions in 31 attempts. He passed for 259 yards and rushed for another 32.

Perhaps the most vivid memory of that night is the pick-6 that Rich Gardner returned about midway through the third quarter with the game still hanging in the balance. Gardner’s score extended the lead to 26-7, and the Nittany Lions won the contest 40-7, an incredible margin over a Top-10 team in primetime.

Gardner recently joined The Football Letter Live, and fans can view the archived episode online. Gardner begins talking about the Nebraska game shortly after the 35-minute mark.


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