INDIANAPOLIS — Four points.
Four lousy, easy points for one of college football’s most explosive teams separated Penn State from a strong season and a historic campaign. A hard-fought, 39-38 loss to Ohio State coupled with a 27-24 loss at Michigan State on the game’s final play sent the Nittany Lions from a College Football Playoff berth to the Fiesta Bowl.
Granted, Arizona is nice, especially in December. But Pasadena and New Orleans had the bowls that mattered last year. The Fiesta Bowl was a just the curtain raiser.
Penn State was ranked No. 2 and 7-0 overall when it faced Ohio State. A week later, after losing to Michigan State, all of those national title hopes were dashed. The Nittany Lions finished ninth in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
“It kind of eats at me a little bit that we weren’t able to seal the deal, because at one point, we were at the top of college football,” Penn State wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said at the NFL combine.
The losses were bitter, especially because Penn State was in charge in both games. Early in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions led the Buckeyes 21-3. Early in the fourth quarter, it was a 15-point lead. Then Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett completed all 13 fourth-quarter passes for 170 yards and 3 TDs. Penn State couldn’t get into the end zone after reaching the 3-yard line. Instead, the Nittany Lions settled for a field goal, which cost them the game.
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me,” Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki joked. “Now that I got all motivated, I’m going to kill this bench press. That wasn’t fun, obviously. Sitting there at lunch [at the combine] with J.T. Barrett, he was smiling about that. It’s part of the process, it’s part of the journey. We had a very talented football team. We played extremely well in all 13 games and we were able to come out with 11 wins. Obviously, in college football, that’s not good enough.”
Against the Spartans, weather delays totaling 4 hours, 23 minutes derailed any game flow. In the fourth quarter, an interception at midfield and a turnover on downs at the Michigan State 31 ended promising drives. Then on the Spartans’ final drive, a roughing the passer penalty on safety Marcus Allen gave Michigan State new life after an incompletion on third-and-4 at the Penn State 37.
“The Michigan State game. Hmm,” Allen said. “Looking back on it, I feel the same way. Any time you talk about the Michigan State game, it’s going to give me memories about that penalty I had at the end. That’s something I always think about. All the coaches ask me what’s the one thing, the adversity I had to overcome. That’s one thing that I definitely had to overcome.
“Man, the things people were saying on social media. You don’t understand. Social media plays a huge part in this game. You want to ignore it, but it’s there, regardless. The things people were saying. The hate mail. You suck, da-da-da. Some racial slurs, everything.”
Penn State was forced to regroup. Three games remained against league bottom feeders Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland. The Nittany Lions regrouped and dominated all three before taking on Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. A 35-28 win over the Huskies gave the players a sense of closure after the earlier defeats.
The Nittany Lions ended the year ranked eighth in both major polls.
“Looking back on it, our experience at the Fiesta Bowl was incredible,” Penn State safety Troy Apke said. “Winning that and just getting a championship was something we wanted to do, something we wanted to finish our careers with. Before the season, we had more expectations for us and that’s what we wanted to do. It’s the game of football. We were happy at the end of it.”
“Either way, the season still was a great season,” Hamilton said. “We ended on a high note. I had a lot of fun this season. It was probably the most fun I had in a long time. I still enjoyed it all.”
Penn State will play Ohio State and Michigan State at home this year. Revenge burns with the players who eye NFL opportunities, but they must leave those thoughts with their former teammates.
“Unfinished business? Absolutely,” Gesicki said. “But that’s not up to me now. It’s up to those guys that are still there. I’m very confident with about what they’ll be able to do.”