Football NCAA

The “Granddaddy of Them All”

Where do you begin? A Rose Bowl berth in any year is special. Even USC realizes that now – having gone without one for as long as Penn State. For both teams, their last appearance in the most prestigious of all bowl games was in the same year, 2009. That’s when USC defeated Penn State 38-24 – and before dreaded NCAA sanctions hit both teams.

For USC, this year was their 34th appearance in the Rose Bowl vs Penn State’s 4th. Odds are, when you play in the game 34 out of the 103 times it’s been played, you’ll have some rematches.  This was the third time both teams squared off against each other – with Penn State’s only other appearance in the 1995 game against Oregon.

I’m happy to say that I was at each of the two most recent USC meetings, having only missed the 1923 matchup by just a few years.

This season wasn’t supposed to be like this. Most pundits (including me) had the team with 7 or 8 wins – with only the most optimistic of fans calling for 9 wins. With Ohio State and Michigan reloading – and in the same division as Penn State, most thought they couldn’t possibly finish better than third in their own division. Losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State were virtually assured and Iowa and Pitt were swing games for most.

My, how things changed throughout the season.

After a couple of somewhat expected early season losses to Michigan and Pitt, the team gutted out a 29-26 win against Minnesota, then built confidence going into the bye week before Buckeyes came to town.

The Ohio State 24-21 win gave this team the swagger they needed to compete the rest of the way. It was at this point I called the season a success – at 5-2.  Anything else was simply gravy. Nothing could surpass the electric excitement of that game. Could it?

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The view from our seats against Ohio State

Of course, I expected them to win a a few more games with teams like Indiana, Purdue and Rutgers on the horizon, but they still had Iowa and Michigan State to deal with. And while wins against them seemed unimaginable earlier in the year, all of sudden, those two teams were in a tailspin.  We had them at home and we capitalized. We easily handled Iowa – 41-14 and lit up the scoreboard against Indiana and Rutgers.  Here we were – 9-2 going into the last game of year with a Big Ten East title on the line.

They needed to take care of their own business and get a little help – and they got it before they kicked off vs the Spartans.  The Buckeyes beat Michigan and the Lions destroyed Michigan State, 45-12, to earn a much-deserved Big Ten Championship birth against Wisconsin.

This can’t be. This program was pronounced dead just four years earlier. The talking heads of Radio and TV blasted the program and their chances for success in the distant future – forget about near-future. Schools from around the country poached our players. The NCAA said the school put athletics ahead of academics but yet encouraged the athletes to transfer, without penalty, to play football at another school. Huh? Isn’t that hypocritical?

The trip to Indianapolis was crazy. The fans there were floating on clouds – celebrating the rebirth of the football program while letting the B1G Commissioner, Jim Delany know how much they despised him for his actions and in-actions during the school’s time of need. Listening to the chorus of boos when he was introduced to present the B1G Trophy was cathartic!

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It’s hard to compare, but the 38-31 win against Wisconsin ranks right up there with the Ohio State game as being the best Penn State game I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen plenty, dating back to the early 80s. A furious comeback with a Rose Bowl on the line vs an insane Whiteout crowd of 107k+ against the heavily favored evil empire. Tough to choose.

The trip to the Rose Bowl was a no-brainer for us. The only question were the logistics of getting there.  We opted for the one hour flight instead of the 6 hour car ride – and planned on a single day turnaround trip.

After a 5:00am wakeup call, we left the house at 5:45am on Monday and arrived in LA by 7:45am.

We rendezvoused in Pasadena with some other friends and family and were set up at the tailgate by 10am!

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Fun Fact: The Rose Bowl parking lot on the north side of the stadium is actually a golf course, so you’re parked on grass fairways!

One of the best things about tailgating with Penn Staters – kielbasi! Or is it kielbasa? Or kielbasy? No matter how you spell it, it all tastes great! Our new friends, Jeff and Gina brought some of the Pennsylvania delicacy to share. This isn’t the fake stuff you get in Dublin, California or Phoenix, Arizona.  This is the real deal stuff from Kowalonek’s straight from Shenandoah, PA.

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You can see it didn’t last long.

From the parking lot, you could tell there were going to be quite a few Penn Staters, but this was still clearly a home game for USC. Considering the stadium is about 30 minutes from their campus (without LA traffic), and they haven’t been to the Rose since 2009, you knew the Trojan faithful would be out in force.

We skipped the Rose Parade because that, in itself, is an ordeal. People camp out to line the streets and the parade runs late – cutting into precious tailgating time. But going to the Rose Bowl wouldn’t be the Rose Bowl without flowers. Thankfully, the PAC12 Network had this display as you entered the stadium.

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One of the coolest flyovers you’ll ever see is when a B-2 Stealth Bomber crosses above at the close of the Anthem. I always feel better about paying my taxes as that imposing sight passes above us.

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Here’s a classic image captured from the 2009 game. Let’s hope they get a new one for 2017.

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The field looked fantastic from the stands, but once play started, you could tell the rain had taken its toll on the grass. At the end of the half, it looked like a polo field with people walking around between chuckers replacing all of the divots.50

It didn’t take long for Penn State to fall behind. By the end of the 1st quarter it was already 13-0.  They continued to battle throughout the first half to close the gap to 27-21 by halftime.

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Then all hell broke loose! Penn State scored on three straight 1-play drives! First, a 79-yard dazzling ankle-breaking run by Sophomore stud Saquon Barkley. Second, an amazing display of concentration on a draft-improving catch by Chris Godwin for a 72-yard touchdown followed by a costly tip-drill interception that set up a 3-yard Trace McSorely TD run that put Penn State up 42-27. The costly part was that Brandon Bell, one of their leading LBs was lost to injury and wouldn’t return.

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Godwin scores a 34yd Touchdown against Michigan State. (Photo Credit: Jessica Sallurday)

They would trade two more TDs in the 3rd quarter – making it one of, if not the highest scoring quarter in Rose Bowl history – with 36 combined points scored.

Penn State entered the 4th nursing a 14-point lead, but their defense couldn’t stop the SC passing attack. USC freshman, Sam Darnold played like a seasoned vet and marched 83-yards in a methodical drive that brought SC within 7.

Penn State got the ball back and was one first down away from running out the clock and putting a exclamation point on its magical season.

It wasn’t to be.

SC held and forced a punt. Blake Giliken blasted the punt 65-yards plus another 3 yards into the endzone – setting up The Trojans at their own 20 with 2:08 to play. Darnold hit a couple of passes for back-to-back first downs, then was aided by two back-to-back PI calls to put the ball at the Penn State 27 with 1:33 still to play. Then a 27-yard strike to tie the game!

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Blake Gilikin preparing for Ohio State. (Photo Credit: Jessica Sallurday)

Penn State, taking chances like they had all season, threw an interception and SC took over at our 33 with :38 ticks to go.  They set up a 45-yard FG that ended the game in spectacular style as time expired.

Another one for the ages!

I will say, my only disappointment with SC was when their players rushed to our end zone after the game and celebrated in front of our band and cheerleaders. That to me was classless. Otherwise, I have nothing but respect for USC, their program and their new head coach. I’m sure Coach Helton had some words to say about this.

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USC players sprinted to the opposite end zone of the game-winning kick to celebrate in front of PSU fans

Walking away from the game, I couldn’t be mad. Sad, yes, but not mad. I looked back at the season and felt that it truly was one of the best in many years.  It ranks up there with 2008 when we ran into the same USC buzz saw in the Rose Bowl and the 1994 season which ended with a Rose Bowl win against Oregon – capping an undefeated season.

I cherished that I was able to get back to State College for the Stripe Out and honoring of the Grand Experiment and the epic once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere of the Ohio State Whiteout win.

On top of that, I traveled to Indy and sat with my daughter as they took home the B1G title in their now trademarked frenzied comeback fashion.

This was also the first season my daughter served as a photography intern for the team’s social media platforms – working practices and home games. Many of her photos were posted on the team’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.  Click here for a link to some of her favorite shots of the season. The highlight was that one of her shots was published in the Penn Stater, the alumni magazine that goes out to the largest dues paying alumni in the world.

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What topped this year off for me though was watching to the post-game press conference by James Franklin. Sure he choked up when he realized that these young men would no longer suit up together again. It will be a new batch of players next year and you could see and hear the love he has for his guys.  But what made me most proud is when he said that the game of college football isn’t like the NFL where it’s only about wins and losses – it’s about more – it’s about preparing young men for life. That’s the moment I realized that he’s the man for Penn State.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Bill O’Brien, but he’s an NFL guy – and he admitted as much when he was hired.  I can see Franklin coaching at Penn State a very long time. He may not be the best Xs and Os guy or in-game manager at this point, but he certainly does seem to have his priorities in line when it comes to educating these young men.

After battling the horrendous traffic at LAX, we made it to our gate with ten minutes to spare before our scheduled boarding time – only to find out our flight was delayed over an hour.

We finally made it back home at 3:00am to put a cap on the unbelievable 2016 college football season. The run this year will long be remembered as one of the best seasons in Penn State history.  Not because they won a B1G Championship or played in the Rose Bowl, but because they overcame such extreme odds to re-energize an entire fan base.

The buzz about this game was at a fever-pitch afterwards. Ratings were through the roof. Many hailed it as one of the best bowl games ever. Maybe I’m biased, but I believe college football as a whole is better when storied programs with enthusiastic fan bases like Penn State and USC are in the mix.

Thank you James Franklin, the entire coaching staff, administration and most importantly, the players. Thank you…

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger. – Nietzsche

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDBu_OXgmpU

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