Penn State Defined by Resilency

Since 2011, here’s a list of some of the things that plagued the Penn State Nittany Lions football program: Sandusky Scandal, the firing and death of former head coach Joe Paterno, NCAA-imposed sanctions, heavy media scrutiny, the loss of several key players who transferred, reduced scholarships, and five different head coaches – two interim and three full-time.

Essentially, football at Penn State was left for dead in the aftermath of the Sandusky Scandal. The only thing worse than what they’ve been through in the past few years is the death penalty. Despite the gray cloud over Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions never focused on the negativity that constantly surrounded them. Instead, they chose to be resilient.

For the past three seasons, the chances of being a winning program weren’t in their favor. But as those on the outside continually doubted how successful the Lions could be, they always demonstrated a “never give up attitude,” which couldn’t have been more prevalent this weekend.

After an up-and-down season in which the team finished with a 6-6 record and limped into postseason play on a two-game losing streak, Penn State capped off 2014 with an exciting 31-30 victory over Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night.

Resiliency proved to be the difference maker once again, as they fought back to force overtime and eventually win after being down 21-7 in the third quarter. The game served as the perfect narrative for how Penn State football has been and will be defined moving forward.

It also describes the team’s senior class, who stuck with the program during its toughest times. Over the past four seasons, Penn State’s seniors exceeded expectations, finishing with a 31-19 record and extending the program’s consecutive winning seasons mark to 10 years. Given everything they’ve been through during their tenure, Saturday’s win was a much deserved fairy tale ending.

Two seniors who Penn State fans will remember most are linebacker Mike Hull and placekicker Sam Ficken. Both served as captains this season and have set the precedent for younger players such as sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Hull finished his Penn State career as one of the best linebackers in the history of the program. His senior season ranks among Penn State’s all-time best at the linebacker position. In the Pinstripe Bowl he made six tackles, which gave him 140 total for the season, tied for No. 4 in the school’s history.

Not only was Hull a leader on the field, but he was also one off the field, as he demonstrated a work ethic like none other. He was very instrumental in convincing other players on the roster to stay with the team after the sanctions were initially announced.

Ficken, who has made a case for Penn State’s offensive MVP of the season, has faced more adversity than any player on the roster during his time with the Lions. After a poor kicking start to the 2012 season, he received several death threats. He hit just 65 percent of his field goals over the course of his first three seasons, but made 80 percent of his attempts as senior, going 24-of-29 for 100 total points. His longest kick of the season was a 50-yarder at home against Temple.

Ficken came up clutch for the Lions their Pinstripe Bowl win. On a day when he had the honor of using retired Yankees legend Derek Jeter’s locker in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse, Ficken sent the game into overtime with a 45-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining in regulation. In the additional period, he kicked the game-winning extra point to seal Penn State’s first win in a bowl game since 2010, sending the Lions and their fans into a frenzy at Yankee Stadium.

When the sanctions were initially handed down, Penn State did not expect to have great moments such as Saturday for a while. Players such as Ficken and Hull still recall the unbearable silence in the player’s lounge on the day NCAA President Mark Emmert announced the sanctions. Having being banned from postseason play for four years as a result, Hull briefly considered a transfer to Pittsburgh, before informing then-head coach Bill O’Brien that he would stay.

The thought of never being able to play in the postseason during his career weighed heavy on Hull at the time. But when the ban was lifted in September, new life was restored. Making the postseason for the first time as a senior served as the perfect motivation.

Moments after Ficken’s game-winning score, the Lions stayed on the field and soaked in all of the excitement. Head coach James Franklin thanked the seniors and proclaimed to the fans dressed in blue and white that the win was a reflection of Penn State culture.

Just a bowl win? Hardly. It also signified the end of the sanction era. Because of those sanctions, this team was never supposed to make it to this point this soon. Down 21-7 in the third, it was never supposed to win that game. In 2012, no one ever would have believed that Penn State would have three winning seasons and a bowl victory this early. Especially not with a roster that boasts just 64 recruited scholarship players. There are only seven seniors compared to 31 freshmen – making it the second-youngest team in the FBS this season.

But as they’ve been doing for the past three years, the Nittany Lions made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. Those prognosticators from three years ago who predicted that the end of Penn State football was here, didn’t stand a chance the entire time. Saturday night was much more than a win, it was Penn State’s display of its culture. A culture of resilience.

*Section Photo credit to Alex Goodlett, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports

Belk Bowl Recap: (13) Georgia vs. (20) Louisville
Belk Bowl Recap: (13) Georgia vs. (20) Louisville