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Penn State Football: The Impossible Turns Reality As Nittany Lions Stun No. 2 Ohio State 24-21

by on October 23, 2016 2:00 AM

As fans and teammate swarmed past him in a flurry of celebration Malik Golden fell to the ground near the south endzone of Beaver Stadium. He didn't seem to notice as fans pounded his shoulder pads, offering up congratulations before rushing off to the growing crowd around the center of the field. He didn't seem to notice anything.

Just the grass.

And Golden stayed there his face covered in tears and sweat, looking down at the grass, a torn up field that had seen so much in the past several hours and remembered so much from the past several years.

It had seen Golden since 2012 when he redshirted, it had seen him change positions from receiver to safety. It saw him go through years of sanctions, through years of finger pointing and confusion and coaching changes. It saw him play special teams and make sparse appearances on defense.

By 2015 that field has learned a lot about Golden and Golden learned a lot about it. He knew that under his watch Penn State would never be the Penn State it once was. It was never going to be a perennial Top 25 team fighting for a playoff spot, it was going to be a football program fighting for its life, fighting to prove that all those good things people had said about it were still true. Golden's success would be getting Penn State football to stable ground, not to a championship title. Evil may have tainted its legacy, but Golden was here to prove that the people by in large are still good and still there for the right reasons.

When 2016 finally rolled around Golden knew that field like the back of his hand and the field knew him. Both perhaps on some level had accepted that their time was up. This summer the sod was replaced and Golden and his fellow seniors find themselves only a few games from they too being replaced by the passage of time. Big Ten titles and national title hopes were for other teams down the road. But this year, this was about a step forward.

Ultimately, Golden's story is the same story of every fifth year senior on Penn State's roster. A small handful of players who still came to Penn State in the face of NCAA sanctions and stayed when the going go tough.

"What this program has been through," Saquon Barkley said after the game. "And these seniors, they stuck with it. It's not only for them but for the past guys who stuck with it. The Nassibs the AJs the Zettels the Hackenbergs, the Goldens the Gaias. They put their heart on the line every single day for us. That's one of the big reasons why this program was kept intact, it was special to see a win for those guys."

So on Saturday night it was unlikely Penn State was going to pull off the upset. The past several years have largely been punctuated by near-upsets and the occasional come-from-behind wins. Glory in the form sports provides had been found in simply going above .500 despite crippling sanctions.

And Ohio State entered Saturday a great team headed by a coach that never loses and a program with national title hopes yet again.

So you might have called it improbable, or perhaps impossible.

But words don't play the game.

And Penn State opened with 54-yard drive, but a blocked field goal. All told though massive progress from a mistake filled opening against Michigan ages ago. Ohio State answered with a short drive of its own, Penn State's injury filled defense standing strong against one of the highest scoring teams in the nation their two leaders in Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell returning from their own injuries.

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Suddenly it didn't seem so improbable after all.

And yet Ohio State did what Ohio State does. An early field goal to open the second quarter was eventually parlayed into a 26-yard pass and tackle-breaking and spinning reception by Marcus Baugh to make it 9-0 following a missed extra point. A field goal from 30-yards out with 1:14 remanning in the half extended the lead farther.

So down 12-0, Penn State faced an otherwise daunting task. A second half comeback against the No. 2 team in the nation with an offense that was sputtering and a crowd slowly becoming less and less convinced that the improbable would become reality.

But a minute later and 74-yards behind them Chris Godwin's 20-yard reception in the right corner of the endzone turned the tide. Suddenly the impossible felt quite possible again and a 12-7 margin at the half reinvigorated a crowd praying for the impossible.

Like all good stories though it wasn't without drama in the second act. Penn State's 74-yard drive to end the half was answered by a Curtis Samuel 74-yard touchdown run with 10:10 to play in the third quarter. That was followed up by a high snap turned safety that gave Ohio State a 21-7 lead.

Impossible. 

Improbable.

If anything has been the calling card of the sanction era at Penn State is would probably be fight. Or as former head coach Bill O'Brien said "a bunch of fighters." And for yet another week Penn State found that fight, driving 90-yards in five plays, Trace McSorley running wide and seemingly forever towards the right pylon, diving into the last inches or the field to make it 21-14.

A stop and a 34-yard field goal later and it's 21-17 with 9:33 to play.

But nearly 10 minutes of football is an eternity and with it ample chances to see fleeting hopes turn into heartbreak. Ohio State seemed all too aware of this fact, going 11 plays for 59 yards with 4:27 left on the clock.

And then it happened.

Maybe it was the field giving Golden and his fellow seniors a moment. Maybe it was just a football play because all plays have a beginning a middle and an end. It almost certainly wasn't by mistake but was almost so improbable that it felt impossible.

Whatever the reason, Penn State safety Marcus Allen launched into the air and blocked a field goal that would have meant Penn State's path to victory was almost certainly a touchdown and overtime.

It turned out it was simply 60-yards away.

The ball rolled left, bouncing on the sod a few dozen yards away from Golden would late rest his head. Grant Haley scooping up the ball and racing the other way. Somehow never getting caught by several Ohio State players, seemingly never quite slowing down enough to come up short.

Suddenly the impossible was very real. 

It was a sack on 4th and 23 that finished the deal for Penn State and gave the Nittany Lions one of the biggest victories in program history.

On paper Saquon Barkley finished with 103 yards rushing, Trace McSorley with 154 passing on 8-of-23 completions. Chris Godwin had two catches, Mikes Gesicki a hobbled four receptions. DaeSean Hamilton a lone 34 yard haul. Defensively the returning Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda totaled 31 tackles, Garrett Sickels 2.5 sacks and 9 tackles in just a half of play.

On the field though, that's where things will be remembered. And where a handful of seniors who have remembered more heartbreak than anything else will have something to hold on to. Something good.

"Those older guys," Cabinda said. "For them to be able to leave with this memory, that's what this is. That's the kind of thing you're going to be able to hold on to for the rest of your life. This moment will be dear to me."

Football is just a game and perhaps a game that State College has taken a bit too seriously at times. Ohio State is not short on its own collection of stories and players who have given their hearts and bodies to a program trying to do all the same things Penn State is.

So no, Penn State didn't deserve to win because of divine intervention or because karma was shining down on players who had tried hard and come up short.

But as Golden cried, it was hard to argue that anyone deserved it more.

"This is for everybody," James Franklin said eyes red following the game. "This community has been through so much in the last five years, and this is a big step in the right direction in terms of healing. I said this very, very early on that for us to get where we wanted to be we need this entire community together and a win like tonight, I know I’m biased, but I believe that football has the ability to bring a community together like nothing else, so I want to thank everybody."



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