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

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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.”

From The Archives: Penn State V. Michigan State (2016)

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

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

James Franklin might’ve been more right than anyone thought.

Lofting the Big Ten East Division trophy above his head moments earlier, Franklin proclaimed “This is just the beginning” after Penn State downed Michigan State 45-12 at Beaver Stadium in late November 2016.

The Nittany Lions exploded in the latter part of the game, outscoring the Spartans 35-0 after halftime, indicative of how the team had played most of the season.

“The second half comeback kids did it again,” is how John Black ’62 concisely summarized in the lead for that edition of The Football Letter, a neat intro for a cold and windy Senior Day that served as the prelude for the team’s first Big Ten title since 2008.

More than 250 lettermen returned for the contest, at the urging of Franklin, and former All-American linebacker LaVar Arrington returned from California to serve as the honorary captain.

Trace McSorley threw four touchdowns — two to Chris Godwin, one to Mike Gesicki, and another to Andre Robinson — while Robinson ran for another score, to boost Penn State.

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

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

After the game, fifth-year senior Evan Schwan, who Black noted could’ve transferred in 2012 without penalty though stayed at Penn State, said:

“This whole season has just been a blessing. … You have to keep fighting, keep working and believing in yourself and your family.”

A week later, Penn State continued their magical run with a victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, and that success has continued since.

Franklin and the Nittany Lions have a 27-6 mark since the start of the 2017 season, including a perfect 7-0 record heading into Saturday’s battle against Michigan State, in East Lansing.

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m., at Spartan Stadium. And with Wisconsin losing last Saturday to unranked Illinois, the possibility of a return to the Rose Bowl, or perhaps another Big Ten championship, still figures prominently this season for Penn State.

As Franklin said, it’s just the beginning. We hope you stick with us for the rest of the season (and beyond) for what’s sure to be a fun ride.

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

Penn State v. Michigan (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Evan Royster finished with a game-high 174 rushing yards. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

The week leading up to the showdown against the Wolverines was typically jovial at University Park.

Fans camped outside Beaver Stadium starting on Monday, and hundreds of alumni helped dedicate the Alumni Walk at the Hintz Family Alumni Center on Friday. In between, all the usual wonderment enveloped Happy Valley during Homecoming of the 2008 season.

Then, the game started, and the good vibes changed.

Punctuating this point, John Black stated in the lead to that game’s edition of The Football Letter: “All the omens were ominous.”

Michigan had bested Penn State nine consecutive times in the previous decade. And on the first play of the game, A.Q. Shipley’s snap sailed over the head of quarterback Daryll Clark, resulting in a 16-yard loss after Clark fell on the ball.

The Wolverines then corralled a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter.

Penn State scored 39 unanswered for a resounding 46-17 victory that halted all the built-up frustration. Clark ran for two scores and tossed a short touchdown to Jordan Norwood — “a 3-yard laser,” as Black described.

Penn State v. Michigan (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Daryll Clark accounted for three touchdowns while leading Penn State to the comeback victory on Homecoming. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Evan Royster gashed Michigan for 174 rushing yards on only 18 carries. Penn State’s all-time leading rusher started the scoring for the Nittany Lions with a 44-yard touchdown run toward the end of the first quarter.

The Wolverines stumbled through one of their worst seasons, finishing 2008 with a 3-9 overall mark and 2-6 in the Big Ten.

Penn State’s season, meanwhile, continued on an upward trajectory. Well, at least, for the most part. The Nittany Lions suffered one of the program’s most painful losses in the last quarter-century two weeks later, a 24-23 setback at Iowa on a last-second field goal. Daniel Murray booted in a 31-yard field goal with one second left for the Hawkeyes, derailing Penn State’s national championship aspirations.

Penn State rebounded, defeating Indiana and Michigan by a combined score of 83-25 to finish the regular season 11-1. The Nittany Lions earned a Rose Bowl berth, dropping a 38-24 decision to USC in Pasadena.

Back to the comeback against the Wolverines.

That week’s edition of The Football Letter featured a front-cover photo of a Beaver Stadium, flyover by two Navy F-18 Hornet jets, a good example of how this member-benefit publication showcases the entire day—and surrounding pageantry—of fall Saturdays.

When those game days happen in Happy Valley, there’s even more of an opportunity to connect alumni and friends to the program through Steve Manuel’s photos and John’s firsthand account.

You can view the game’s photo gallery on our Flickr page, and also browse galleries over the years by visiting our “albums” tab.

From the Alumni Blue Band’s performance to Black describing how “a colorful autumn sunset glow settled over Bald Eagle Ridge,” fans got the complete picture of not just how Penn State beat Michigan, but also what it was like to be in University Park on game day.”

Taken from The Football Letter’s intro that bookended the lead recalling the ominous omens:

“From the nation’s largest Homecoming Parade, to the soccer and volleyball victories to the White Out student section in Beaver Stadium dancing and singing to music of Celebration, it was a wonderful 89th Homecoming.”

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Two Navy F-18 Hornet jets flew over Beaver Stadium prior to kickoff against Michigan. Photo credit: The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

From The Archives: Penn State V. Iowa (2007)

When Penn State hosted Iowa in Week 6 of the 2007 season, it was looking to stop two separate losing streaks.

The Nittany Lions were coming off of two-straight losses to open up their Big Ten campaign. Penn State had also not beaten the Hawkeyes in its last five tries, including an ugly 6-4 home loss in the previous meeting between the two teams in 2004. 

The 2007 matchup proved to be a near-perfect streak-stopper for coach Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions. 

“With the vociferous support of 108,951 fans — the largest crowd to watch a football game that Saturday — the struggling Lions were resuscitated with a 27-7 victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten opener in Happy Valley,” John Black noted in The Football Letter

Paterno noted that his quarterback Anthony Morelli, still under heavy outside criticism for his turnover-plagued performance against Michigan two weeks prior, threw the ball with more confidence against the Hawkeyes. 

Morelli connected with Derrick Williams on a 24-yard touchdown to put Penn State up 10-0 at the 1:08 mark of the second quarter. 

After a three-and-out by Iowa, Morelli led the Lions down the field in quick fashion and set up a 53-yard field goal from Kevin Kelly as time expired in the first half. 

An 81-yard touchdown drive that ended with a Rodney Kinlaw score in the third quarter chewed up over five minutes on the game clock and extended the Nittany Lion lead to 20-0. 

The two teams traded fourth-quarter touchdowns and Penn State sealed a comfortable 27-7 win that seemed to rejuvenate the team a bit.

The Nittany Lions went on two win their next two contests and five of their final seven overall, including the 24-17 success over Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl. 

The win over the Hawkeyes also marked just the second time that Paterno had defeated Kirk Ferentz in a head-to-head meeting at the time. 

It also proved to be Penn State’s last win in the series until 2011, when a run of three-successive Hawkeye wins was halted by a 13-3 victory by the Nittany Lions.