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Penn State Football Rewatch Club: 2017 Michigan, The Night The Stars Came Out

by on March 18, 2020 12:50 PM

Welcome to the Penn State Football rewatch club. A weekly installment of stories about past Penn State football games. Then every Wednesday night at 7:30 EDT, we’ll get together at mycircle.tv and watch some or all of that game while I answer questions and chat about the upcoming season or whatever else pops up. I’ll send the watch link out on Twitter (https://twitter.com/Ben_Jones88)

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One of my favorite things about the recent stretch of Penn State/Michigan games is how much it has become the opposite of Penn State’s series against Ohio State. One is an annual nuking, Michigan or Penn State taking a turn blowing the other team off the field, while the other is four quarters of high tension football. The 2019 game notwithstanding.

In 2016 Penn State was many things early in the season and far from the team it would become. The Nittany Lions were injured, inexperienced and not yet riding the high of whatever super power they acquired after blocking a field goal a few weeks later.

From the outset that 2016 game felt like one of those afternoons where Penn State was going to have to do everything right to even have a chance. In turn the Nittany Lions did nothing right and proceeded to get pounded into the ground on an otherwise pleasant afternoon in Ann Arbor.

Penn State, despite its best efforts to be a program that looks forward rather behind, never really forgot about that beating. It never really forgot that Michigan was probably the difference (fair or not) between a playoff berth and a Rose Bowl appearance.

So enter the 2017 meeting. A White Out, at night, the Nittany Lions ranked No. 2 in the nation and all the hype in the world behind them. Saquon Barkley was becoming a household name to the point where he could drop the Barkley and Trace McSorley was going from the hot quarterback of 2016 to a viable Heisman candidate in his own right.

The thing I remember the most about the 2017 game is how quickly Beaver Stadium filled. I have not yet been to every stadium in the Big Ten but I have been to enough of the marquee ones to know what a big game looks like.

And the crowd had never gotten in that fast before.

45 minutes before kick and the place is packed. There is a stairwell in the press box that leads to a door, and if you open that door you can stand on a section of the very last row on the west side of the stadium and take it all. What most people don’t know is that a lot of press boxes are closed off from the crowd because usually it’s just one big glass panel with no windows to open. The crowd sounds more like a vacuum cleaner in the next room than 110,000 people screaming their heads off.

The nice thing about the Beaver Stadium press box is that there are windows above my head, so you can hear everything, but it’s still not quite like truly being at the game.

That night I snuck through that semi-secret door to watch team entrances and introductions. I wanted, for a fleeting moment, to really know what it was like to be at the game, not separated from it by a wall, glass, and a laptop.

I’ve been covering Penn State for almost a decade, but that was the first time I had felt jealous of everyone who was really going to the game. Not in the sense that I cared about the result, but there is an irony when it comes to sports writing that you give up the chance to go to games and enjoy them. You probably see more college football than I do on any given Saturday, and when I am watching them, I’m almost always working. Unless I’m in Philly, I’m rarely at a game to cheer, so I rarely get to experience the joys of fandom.

But standing in the back of that crowd, I envied the people who got to watch one of their favorite teams take part in that spectacle. I wanted to just stand there all game and watch people enjoy the moment. Sadly, that wasn’t really an option.

To me -aside from the Big Ten title- that night was the pinnacle of the James Franklin era. It was everything Penn State had been trying to become, a program with national stars, national relevance, explosive plays and a crowd to match it. That was a night that Penn State flexed its muscle and said it was a force to be reckoned with. Penn State has always been relevant, but there was something different about that night.

And boy did the stars shine. Saquon was Saquon, Trace was Trace. Mike was Mike, and the defense was up to the challenge.

I’ve always had a theory that Penn State fans want to beat Ohio State more but enjoy beating Michigan the most. It felt that way as Saquon bobbled a pass, catching it in the end zone and whirling his arms in his now patented celebration in the second half to really put the Nittany Lions out of reach. There was a release in that moment, one that lasted hours into the night as Penn State blew Michigan out, returning the favor from 2016.

And of course the Wolverines responded in kind come 2018.

But on this night, nobody knew about the losses that lay ahead, or a Fiesta Bowl appearance. All anybody knew was that Joe Moorhead, James Franklin, Brent Pry and a whole bunch of players didn’t forget what happened in Ann Arbor the year before.

And sure, it’s a little petty, but it also makes for great theater. And nobody complains about that.

 



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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