Here's the thing about movies: they always know how to leave on the emotional high note.
I read yesterday's post, in which you proclaimed that Penn State's drubbing of the Hawkeyes, in Iowa City, was the best game of the 2012 season, and, while I wanted to thank you for making my job easier, that was a hypothesis only the Onion could have come up with. Woohoo, we beat up on a 4-8 football team! One that lost to the likes of Central Michigan and Indiana! What a remarkable achievement!
Okay, fine, so it seemed bigger at the time. Iowa entered that October 20th matchup at 4-2, and it was only after getting blown out by the Lions that the wheels fell off for good. Meanwhile, you could say that Penn State was still on shaky ground, though they were coming off the incredible fourth quarter comeback to beat Northwestern. I'll give Cari this--the Iowa game was the first time we looked at our team and said, "You know, these guys just might be pretty good," because the beatdown of Iowa was systematic, complete, and thorough. It was cathartic. It was fun. For the first time, I went to a bar to see a Penn State football game, and I'll be damned if that wasn't as good a time as I've ever had watching one. But it doesn't hold a candle to the season finale squeaker against Wisconsin.
If I were lazier, I'd just link to my recap of that game here, tell you to read it, and declare the whole thing over. But I'm better than that, just slightly, so I'll just pull up one sentence:
Sure, maybe my perspective is a bit off. But hell, from where I'm sitting, the most important game played last weekend, all month, and this whole damn year matched up a pair of 7-win teams.
That Wisconsin game was, literally, the storybook ending to a season so full of peaks and valleys that it seemed like it had to have been written by some overzealous writer. It was like they cribbed something from every football movie ever. Penn State overcomes getting screwed by the officials in a pair of previous games. Michael Mauti gets hurt, and the whole team stages a tribute to him. Sam Ficken singlehandedly blows a game earlier in the year, and earns his redemption. The guy who entered the season as the backup fullback runs for a thousand yards on the season. And Matt McGloin, the gunslinger from Scranton who nobody but himself wanted to see under center this year walked off a legend. Hell, it had even been snowing all day.
Point is, if somebody had submitted Penn State's 2012 season as a screenplay, it probably would've been dismissed for being too fantastical.
But no, it was real, and it was us, and it was the Wisconsin game. That day, we were all fuckers.
You'll remember that the game got off to an inauspicious start. On the fourth play from scrimmage, Curt Phillips hit Melvin Gordon on a bootleg swing pass, and Gordon just blew past a half dozen blue jerseys en route to a 57-yard touchdown. Penn State responded with a signature 16-play, 78-yard, Zwinak-led touchdown drive, but then once again, the Badgers made it look easy; after some poor kickoff coverage, it took just four plays for Wisconsin to regain the lead. From there, the game settled down, neither team making mistakes nor big plays, and played the field position game through the second quarter.
And then came the third, the one that had done Penn State in before, in the losses to Nebraska and Ohio State. And had threatened it in the wins over Northwestern and even Indiana. These Lions had been a team that, all season, went into the half strong and came out limp. But not that day. The opening drive brought Penn State inside the 10-yard line when Matt McGloin hit Brandon Moseby-Felder in the back of the end zone for a touchdown that would be, curiously, reversed, but Sam Ficken was able to hit the chip shot. Two drives later, it would be Ficken nailing one from 32 to pull Penn State within one--but just as importantly, the Badgers didn't have a single first down that entire quarter.
But it was just seconds into the fourth that Bill O'Brien decided to do what Bill O'Brien does, going for it on 4th and 6 from the 41, in time for McGloin to find a wide open Jesse James down the left sideline who got a whole lot more than 6 and put Penn State on top for the first time that day, and Zwinak added the conversion. When Penn State later intercepted a driving Wisconsin with just 5 minutes to play, it was over, right?
Of course not. We all know what happened next--Wisconsin got the ball back, and with half a minute left, Curt Phillips found Jeff Duckworth to tie it up. To send it into overtime against a tired Nittany Lion team that all season had lacked the depth to finish out games as strongly as they'd started them. Surely, the emotional high would wear off.
And when Penn State got the ball to start overtime, and couldn't pick up a first down, surely we all cringed when Sam Ficken came out for that 37-yard field goal. But no, he drilled it, right down the middle. The guy who couldn't hit an extra point two months earlier had come through. Then came the Wisconsin drive--it started with a run into the middle, and another stuff by Jordan Hill, which was followed by two plays that made our hearts skip a beat. A strip sack by Sean Stanley ended with the ball juust out of his reach. The Badgers recovered, and Curt Phillips hit Glenn Carson for the easiest interception of his life. And then... Carson couldn't hang on. Wisconsin would have the chance to tie.
But they didn't. Kyle French missed wide left and Beaver Stadium, only maybe three-quarters full, erupted, but as though the Lions had just clinched the Rose Bowl. It wasn't just a celebration. It was every emotion we'd kept suppressed for the better part of a year finally being let out. We cried, we laughed, we jumped with joy and hugged whoever was sitting next to us. It was absolution.
It was the surreal culmination of an unbelievable year, and a finish that reminded us that even if Penn State's been neutered by Mark Emmert and the NCAA, we still have so much to play for. It was validation of ourselves. It was so beautiful.
And I sure as hell can't think of anything better than that.