Football NCAA

PENN STATEment Win!

It took me a while to write this because I wasn’t sure if it was an anomaly or if there was really something special about this win.  After two more convincing B1G wins, I have to believe it was the latter.  Sure, there are still three games to play, but the Lions look like they might have turned the corner and back where they belong – competing with the top programs in the country.

I’ve been to plenty of college football games in my life – some better than others. I can count a few games as being among the best I’ve witnessed – including a few National Championship games like #2 Ohio State vs #1 Miami in 2003, #1 Auburn vs #2 Oregon in 2011 and even #2 Alabama vs #1 Clemson this year. They weren’t great games because they were for the Championship, they were great games AND they were for the Championship.

A couple of other memorable non-Championship games included #9 Boise State vs #8 Oklahoma in 2007 and #1 Nebraska vs #17 Arizona State in 1996 with Jake Plummer and Pat Tillman shutting out the Huskers – 19-0.

When it comes to Penn State, I’ve lost count of the number of games I’ve attended, but I recall the 1995 Rose Bowl against Oregon as one of the best I’ve seen. Maybe because it was their first Rose Bowl as a Big Ten member – and included an offense with the unstoppable triumvirate of Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter and Kyle Brady. The Southern California sunshine in January didn’t hurt the experience either.

I’ve also witnessed a great game, but was on the losing side of it – the Penn State vs Iowa game in Iowa City a few years back.  I have to believe that Iowa fans call this one of their top moments during the regular season.

This year’s matchup of Penn State vs Ohio State in State College topped them all. Sure, this wasn’t for a title – heck it wasn’t even a Bowl game. Penn State, a 20-point underdog, had already racked up 2 losses on the year and was unranked coming into the contest. But any time you get a game under the lights at Penn State against a top-ranked team, like #2 Ohio State – AND it’s a Whiteout, you’re in for a treat. On top of that, if you can pull off the comeback by scoring 17 unanswered in the fourth quarter – including a late blocked field goal returned for a TD – this tops the list.

With the Penn State program still reeling from the near-death impact of sanctions, it was expected to take years for them to compete with the likes of Ohio State. This game was a huge turning point in the program and demonstrated that the Penn State brand is more powerful than the NCAA had thought. O’Brien held things together and Franklin continues the resurgence. They have a long way to go, but a win like this was a huge statement to incoming recruits – who were there in force to witness the insanity.

Our trip started with a connecting flight through Philadelphia – flying directly into State College. As we taxied to the runway, I noticed the flight attendant had grabbed her phone after giving the safety instructions. No big deal. She’s probably turning it off for flight. Nope. She kept scrolling through something on the screen. Surely, she would put it away as the Captain said, “flight attendant, prepare for takeoff”. Nope. I decided to record her while we taxied and eventually took flight. Amazing.

After safely getting into State College on time, we met our daughter for a “surprise” dinner for my wife at Penn State’s student-run restaurant, Café Laura. It wasn’t much of a surprise consider she knew we were planning it, but the secret was the family “Birthday Plate”. Every birthday, the family member gets to pick their dinner of choice, then gets served on the hand-made plate (made by my wife). I shipped it State College to have her surprised when her meal arrived. What we didn’t plan on, was the host asking her if she wanted her entree or dessert served on the plate. Oops. They’re still learning. Oh well, overall, Café Laura was a great experience for a reasonably priced meal.

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We stopped by Nittanyville to see the campers that had been set up since Monday – camping out in the elements for the best seats in the house (or at least that’s what they think). At some point later that evening, the campers were told to tear down and leave since there was a severe storm coming through. And when Penn State says there’s a storm coming, take note, as one of their alumnus is the founder of AccuWeather.

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Our drive back to Lamar that night was treacherous. The rain was pounding like I’ve rarely seen. We made it back safely and turned in for the night.

In the morning, there were news reports of serious flooding throughout Central PA from the storm that dumped up to 8 inches of rain!  The good news was that the storm had cleared and the weekend weather was looking colder, but at least dry. The campers were allowed to set back up and continue their tradition.

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As we drove around State College, hitting all the stores to restock our daughter’s supplies, we stopped in the Sam’s Club. If you don’t know, Sam’s and Walmart not only allow RVs to camp in their parking lots, they seem to encourage it. The lots were packed with all kinds of RVs as they prepared for gameday. It makes sense to me. The revelers need to stock up on supplies – it might as well be at Sam’s.

Friday night we had dinner at what is becoming one of our favorite spots – The Field at Toftrees. This place is known for their burgers, fries and hard shakes – spiked milkshakes, like S’Mores with whipped cream vodka, or Salted Caramel Pretzel with caramel vodka. They also have a wide selection of local and Pennsylvanian beers on tap.

After dinner, we made another stop for more supplies for Jessica. This time, we picked up a few big bags of candy and decided to “reverse Trick or Treat” the campers of Nittanyville. We made our way around to the dozens of tents set up and passed out the candy to the thankful students. We made plenty of new friends that night.

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Directly across from Nittanyville, the baseball stadium hosted the “Rally in the Valley”. We popped in mid-way through the event, but with the temps dipping into the 40s, there were more people leaving than staying. They capped the night with an impressive firework display for the remaining 50 people in the stands.

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Saturday night games are always interesting in Happy Valley. You have the entire day to tailgate. No lame “parking lots open 4 hours before kickoff” here! Tailgaters were out in force early in the morning, but the problem with flying in for a game is always the logistics of tailgating. Last year for the Rutgers game, we showed up with a twelve-pack of Paterno Legacy Series, CC Peppers hoagies and a bag of Middleswarth BBQ chips.  Not bad if you’re a college kid, but we’re used to a little more than that these days.

Thankfully, we made our way over to meet up with Lisa’s Aunt and her bus-load of friends – tailgating the shadows of the Bryce Jordan Center just southwest of the stadium. By noon, I had a beer in hand.

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JoePa Looking over Mt Nittany

My niece works for a doctor who happens to be a huge Penn State fan. She shared my passion for the Lions with him and said we were heading in for the game. Of course, like most Penn State fans, he invited us to join him at his tailgate. When I found out his name, it turned out that I remember him from growing up – and his father was the principal at my high school! Small world. I had to take him up on the offer to at least say hello.

As we made our way to his tailgate, I randomly ran into a colleague from work. What are the odds? 107,000+ people and you can never escape work. Of course, he invited us to join his tailgate. It’s always nice to have options – especially when they’re located just a couple of rows away from each other – and close to the stadium!

Both parties treated us in like we were family – and we are… Penn State family.

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. Just a month ago, we were there for the Bus Arrival for the Stripe Out Game against Temple. At the time, we were able to get a great spot and watch the team parade in. The crowds this time were decidedly larger – to the point we could barely see the squad as they made their way through the fans.
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We made our way up to our seats on the west side of the stadium – and you could see the clouds breaking up.
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Our seats were just below the press box. Not the best we’ve ever had, but certainly not bad – especially considering the matchup.
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We were surrounded by white with a splash of red of the visitors. We had a couple of guys directly in front us that easily stood out in the crowd. Even so, there were no issues and even some light-hearted banter early on.
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The team entered with yet another new wrinkle – more fireworks along the east and west stands. It seems Penn State is always trying to find ways to up their game – and they succeeded tonight.
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Penn State opened up with a decent drive – only to end up with a blocked FG attempt. You knew that they couldn’t afford any mistakes tonight, but we were encouraged with the drive. After a last minute touchdown drive to cut into the lead, PSU trailed 12-7 at the half.

As 2nd half began, the Buckeyes struck quickly. A 74-yard TD run made it 19-7, but the Lions were still hanging tough – and the crowd maintained their energy.

Then came the next Penn State possession. After a 3-and-out, the punt snap sailed over Gillikin’s head and he had to dive on it for a safety. The 3rd quarter ended 21-7 Buckeyes and a lull came over the stadium for the first time.

At the beginning of the 4th quarter, we looked up on the big screen to see a few of the alumni being recognized on the field for their contributes and support of the program. To our surprise, it was none other than our hosts for one of the tailgates, Dr G and his wife Susan! Well done!
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Then came arguably the best quarter of football in Penn State history. They opened the quarter with a 5-play 90 yard drive highlighted by a couple of spectacular plays – a 37-yard run by sophomore stud Saquon Barkely and a 35-yard twisting reception by Saeed Blacknall down to the OSU-2. The drive was capped by a 2-yard run by McSorley that seemed to take forever to run the 6 feet needed. 21-14 Ohio State.

The next possession for the Bucks was a 3-and-out. With momentum on their side, Penn State blocked the ensuing punt – setting up a short field at the Ohio State 28. The Lions couldn’t advance, but settled for a 34-yard FG. 21-17 Buckeyes.

Then came the drive of the night. Ohio State took over with 9:33 to go and a chance to ice the game. They methodically drove down the field – burning clock in the process. Then, indecision hit. With 4:39 to play, Barrett’s 3rd down pass fell incomplete and OSU seemed confused. They waited, then rushed the kicking unit on for a 45-yard FG attempt. Instead of taking the TO, they hurried the kick and were promptly BLOCKED by a leaping Marcus Allen. Grant Haley scooped up the ball and raced towards our corner of the end-zone and stumbled in after being tripped up at the goal line! TD PENN STATE!

I’ve never heard a crowd so loud in my life. Nor have I seen two Buckeye fans make such a quick and quiet exit. The place was crazy.

The Lions held on during the final drive and sacked Barrett twice in the process to take over on downs and run out the clock. The students swarmed the field and there was no stopping them. Final score – 24-21 Penn State!
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Hard to believe, but it was the first time Penn State beat a Top 2 team in the regular season since beating Notre Dame in 1990 – and the first time they had this big of a win in Beaver Stadium since beating Nebraska in 1982!

But this win was so much bigger. The entire community could breathe a sigh a relief that Penn State football is back in the national spotlight – for the right reasons. College Football in general is better when a storied program like Penn State is in the national picture. Not many teams can fill a 107,000 seat stadium – and empty seats at Beaver Stadium are sad reminders of a man that nearly destroyed a football team, a University, a town and an entire community of alumni and fans. While we’ll never forget the victims, there’s so much more good that can come from a vibrant, passionate community.

On our way back to Pittsburgh for our return flight, we decided to take a detour through the birthplace of my father, Johnstown, PA. The drive along I-99 along side of Altoona is incredibly scenic – especially during this time of year.
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A side trip through Tyrone was like a trip back in time. Old manufacturing, shuttered buildings and virtually no one on the streets. We tried to find a place for lunch, with no luck. Their recent claim-to-fame is that scenes from Denzel Washington’s movie, Unstoppable, were filmed here in 2009.

We stumbled upon a place in Ebensburg along the way – Everyday Gourmet. The town is so small, the owner came over to introduce herself because she said she didn’t recognize us. She said her and her husband went to culinary school in Palm Beach Florida and returned home to open a restaurant. If you ever find yourself in Ebensburg, look them up.

After entering my father’s address from his home in Johnstown into Google, we trusted the GPS to guide us in. I have to say, it was pretty depressing winding down the hill into this town made famous by a flood.

The directions took us through some side streets and finally to a pot-hole marked street along the river where the house used to stand. We couldn’t believe the area was so run down – especially since Presidential Candidate Donald Trump recently visited.

As we made our way out of the town and back towards the route to Pittsburgh, things got better. We passed the Cambria County War Memorial Arena – home to the famed Charlestown Chiefs of Slap Shot fame! That’s right. The cult movie was actually filmed in Johnstown.
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We also passed Point Stadium – home of the Amateur Baseball Association’s national tournament. It also serves as the home field for a local high school football team – Bishop McCort. Movie buffs might also recognize the stadium from All the Right Moves with Tom Cruise.
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Another interesting attraction was the Johnstown Incline. It’s billed as “the world’s steepest vehicular inclined plane” and was designed by the same guy responsible for the more famous Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh. The incline was said to move over 1 million people per year from the lower flats of Johnstown to higher ground. It was constructed after the Great Flood of 1889 and opened in 1891.
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One last reminder as we made our way through the Pittsburgh Airport – none other than Penn State Alum and legendary Pittsburgh Steeler and HOFer, Franco Harris.
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What a weekend. An epic game played by Penn State as they make their way back to the national scene, quality time with our daughter and tracing the footsteps of my father in his birthplace.

Next time I’m in Johnstown, I’ll be sure to do more exploring – and take a ride on the incline!
3six6pc: http://www.instagram.com/3six6.photo

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