Did a coaching career just change before our eyes in Happy Valley?
If the James Franklin years at Penn State become everything the Nittany Lions hoped they’d be, special teams plays will be remembered as the gateway to greatness in State College.
For the first three quarters, Ohio State appeared headed for its 21st straight road win, but thanks to a tremendous effort by the Penn State special teams in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes’ road streak ended at 20 and gave Franklin the school’s most important win of the post-Joe Paterno era.
A pair of blocked kicks helped the unranked Nittany Lions transform a 14-point deficit into a stunning 24-21 upset of No. 2 Ohio State (6-1, 4-1) in front of 107,280 frenzied fans at Beaver Stadium. Penn State (5-2, 3-1) scored 17 unanswered points in an unlikely fourth-quarter comeback against a Buckeye squad that’s still trying to figure what happened.
With 4:27 left in the game, Grant Haley’s 60-yard touchdown return after Marcus Allen blocked Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt turned out to be the winning points for the Nittany Lions. The Penn State defense shut down the Buckeyes’ potent offense with consecutive sacks of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett on the visitors’ last possession.
The Penn State comeback was even more improbable when you take into consideration that the Buckeyes had outscored their opponents 62-7 in the fourth quarter of games this season. Ohio State usually knows how to close the show.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions wrote a different script. On its first possession of the fourth quarter, Penn State drove 90 yards in just five plays to halve a 21-7 deficit thanks to Trace McSorely’s two-yard touchdown run. OSU 21, PSU 14.
Penn State was closer, but the climb still felt arduous against the Bucks’ defense.
After forcing the Buckeyes to go three and out on their next possession, reserve offensive lineman Cam Brown blocked Cameron Johnson’s punt that eventually set up a 34-yard field goal by Tyler Davis to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 21-17. Penn State got the ball in scoring position, but couldn’t tally a tying touchdown. As the game worked its way to the final five minutes, the Nittany Lions still needed a way to get seven points — a field goal was of no use in a four-point contest.
Enter Haley, whose sprint up the left sideline electrified the stadium and created the moment which will live beyond all other moments for Penn State in 2016.
Yet, as amazing and significant as Haley’s play in fact was — and even though the huge return put Penn State over the top — it was another special teams play that ironically kept Nittany Lions in the game… though you wouldn’t have known it at the time.
Late in the third quarter with Penn State attempting to punt from its own 30, the snap sailed over the head of punter Blake Gilliken, who recovered the ball in the end zone, protecting it from an Ohio State special teams player for a safety.
If Gilliken had not recovered the ball in the end zone and the Buckeyes had scored a touchdown, we would be talking about an Ohio State win.
To be sure, the Nittany Lions’ defense, when it looked like Ohio State was mounting a comeback, made sure that this game would be remembered for more than the series of special-teams sequences which carried the home team in times of acute need.
Throughout the game, the Nittany Lions’ defense did a good job of covering the Buckeyes’ receivers. They also contained Barrett enough that he could not really hurt Penn State with his legs. Barrett might still go to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in several weeks as a finalist, but his bid to win the piece of hardware took a hit on Saturday, as hard a hit as the ones he received from blue and white linemen who overpowered Ohio State’s flawed offensive line.
If this game somehow leaves Ohio State out of the Big Ten Championship Game or the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes will be kicking themselves because it was a game they should have won easily.
Ohio State’s inconsistency in the passing game was often masked because OSU was playing against inferior competition. This deficiency was exposed by a Penn State defense that just kept coming and coming until it got to the quarterback… without giving Barrett the running lanes he needed to make big plays on improvised scrambles.
It didn’t help that the Buckeyes receivers weren’t getting open and that the Penn State pass rush was simply relentless. Barrett did manage to make a few plays using his legs, but the Penn State defense kept him from breaking free on a regular basis.
The Ohio State offense was simply out of sync and didn’t really control the game in the trenches.
Defeating a highly-ranked Ohio State team keeps Penn State in the hunt for the Big Ten East title. That goal will be difficult to attain, but James Franklin — under withering scrutiny and pressure throughout his tenure in Happy Valley — now has reason to believe he can compete with the best teams in a loaded division. He now has a recruiting tool he can use to take Penn State football to the next level.
Only time will tell if James Franklin turns the corner at Penn State.
This victory — more than anything else which has come before him in State College — certainly gives him a realistic chance.