One blocked field goal changed ev­ery­thing

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Ralph D. Russo

The dou­ble thump of foot hit­ting and then ball hit­ting hand. A per­fect bounce. A race for the end zone barely won.

A blocked field goal in the fourth quar­ter against Ohio State changed Penn State’s sea­son. The Nit­tany Li­ons have not lost since and Happy Val­ley is happier than it’s been with its foot­ball team in the five years since a scan­dal shook the pro­gram and the school.

Win­ning might not cure ev­ery­thing, but it cer­tainly makes it eas­ier to shift the fo­cus away from law­suits , stat­ues and how best to com­mem­o­rate an­niver­saries . For the first time in the postPaterno, post-scan­dal era, the Nit­tany Li­ons are cham­pi­onship con­tenders. No. 8 Penn State (10-2, No. 7 CFP) makes its first ap­pear­ance in the Big Ten cham­pi­onship game Satur­day in In­di­anapo­lis.

“The com­mu­nity’s been through a lot. This is a place where the foot­ball pro­gram re­ally

has al­ways been sta­ble,” ju­nior line­backer Jason Cabinda said this week. “It was tough for the com­mu­nity to see us kind of fall off a bit. To fi­nally see us kind of ar­rive again, I think it’s been huge.”

At the very least the game against No. 6 Wis­con­sin (10-2, No. 6 CFP) will de­ter­mine which team goes to the Rose Bowl. Penn State has not won the Big Ten or played in the Rose Bowl since 2008. It could also send a team to the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

Paterno was fired in 2011 af­ter Jerry San­dusky, his for­mer long­time as­sis­tant was ar­rested for sex­u­ally abus­ing chil­dren. Penn State foot­ball was sanc­tioned by the NCAA in 2012 and has been dig­ging out since. The Nit­tany Li­ons had three straight 7-6 sea­sons be­fore this year’s resur­gence un­der thirdyear coach James Franklin, who got a vote of con­fi­dence from ath­letic di­rec­tor Sandy Bar­bour ear­lier this sea­son amid spec­u­la­tion about his job se­cu­rity.

Franklin has de­flected most ques­tions this week about where he and Penn State have been.

“I do think it’s sig­nif­i­cant that we’re at a time in our his­tory where peo­ple are talk­ing about what we are, what we cur­rently are, what Penn State is,” he said.

And it all started with that blocked field-goal at­tempt against Ohio State on chilly late Oc­to­ber night in State Col­lege, Penn­syl­va­nia.

Penn State had chipped a 14-point, fourth-quar­ter lead down to four, but the Buck­eyes were look­ing to add an­other three with a 45-yard field goal with 4:39 left in the fourth quar­ter. The Nit­tany Li­ons at that point had only man­aged a cou­ple sus­tained drives against the Buck­eyes’ de­fense.

The night game drew a mas­sive white-out crowd to Beaver Sta­dium, but the en­ergy was rel­a­tively sub­dued through­out the game. Penn State fans were hope­ful of an up­set but not op­ti­mistic. Penn State came into the game 4-2, a three­touch­down un­der­dog to the Buck­eyes. The Nit­tany Li­ons had not won a game like this in years.

Ohio State had daw­dled be­fore send­ing kicker Tyler Durbin and the field-goal team on the field to try to ex­tend the fourth-quar­ter lead. By the time, Durbin had stepped back into po­si­tion, there were 4 sec­onds left on the play clock. Penn State de­fen­sive back Mar­cus Allen was 5 yards off the line of scrim­mage. At the snap he broke to­ward the line, slipped through a crease on the left side, and leapt high with both arms raised.

Cabinda, who was lined up slightly to the right of the cen­ter, heard what hap­pened be­fore he saw it.

“Re­ally, all I re­mem­ber was just the dou­ble thump and see­ing Grant (Ha­ley) scoop the ball and take off,” Cabinda said.

The bounce of a foot­ball is just about the most un­pre­dictable thing in sports. Pick­ing up the ball as it bounces around like an ex­cited tod­dler is one part hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion and two parts good for­tune.

Allen blocked the ball down and to the left. It bounced once, twice and a third time when Ha­ley, who had lined up on the far left, cra­dled it on the run. The de­fen­sive back had about a 5-yard head lead on Ohio State holder Cameron John­ston when they both broke into a sprint.

“Grant’s one of the fastest play­ers on our team,” quar­ter­back Trace McSor­ley said. “Once I saw him get the ball I knew he was go­ing to be able to take it all the way.”

Well, it wasn’t quite so easy. John­ston, the Aus­tralian foot­ball player turned punter, has got wheels.

“I mean their kicker is prob­a­bly one of the fastest kick­ers I’ve seen,” star run­ning back Saquon Barkley said.

John­ston closed and dove for Ha­ley at the 15, grab­bing at his waist but slid­ing off. Ha­ley stum­bled into the end zone and Beaver Sta­dium erupted in way it has not in for­ever.

Penn State has been one of the best teams in col­lege foot­ball since that mo­ment. The Nit­tany Li­ons don’t look back on that block as the turn­ing point of the sea­son, but there is no deny­ing that beat­ing Ohio State was worth a lot more than beat­ing Mary­land or Min­nesota.

“To kind of see how much that win im­pacted not only our team, but the en­tire com­mu­nity here at State Col­lege and Penn State, I think it re­ally opened our eyes to how im­pact­ful Penn State foot­ball is just among the Penn State com­mu­nity. How much peo­ple do care about it,” McSor­ley said. “It made us ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery­thing we have here that much more and made us work harder.”

ABBY DREW — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Penn State’s Grant Ha­ley re­turns a blocked field goal for a touch­down against Ohio State on Oct. 22. The blocked field goal in the fourth quar­ter against Ohio State changed the Nit­tany Li­ons’ sea­son.

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