I don't think I've ever shared this with you guys, but I grew up a Notre Dame fan.
You see, I have a cousin who went to Notre Dame and played linebacker. He wasn't anything special, but when you're a kid and you hear you have a relative on one of the greatest football teams of all time, you buy completely into it. You cheer for that team like crazy, and it becomes your team. So I cheered for Notre Dame like crazy. I cried when they lost. The 2005 loss to USC is still the hardest football game I've ever had to watch that didn't involve David Tyree.
However, I always respected Penn State. I didn't like the school, per se, but I respected it. Sure, from the outside, the school's run-run-pass-punt offense wasn't exactly appealing, but whatever. That's great. I always wanted the school to do well, and if it lost, I'd fall asleep that night easily, because I didn't really care, I was all about Notre Dame.
Fast forward a bit, to my senior year of high school in the hellhole that is Danville, Pennsylvania. I just got into Penn State. I got a bit of a ribbing from PSU fans who knew I was a Domer, and my stance was pretty firm: I was a Notre Dame fan going to Penn State, and that wasn't going to change.
I get to PSU in 2010, and my freshman year, I did a good job cheering for them, but I was all about ND. I'm guessing it's like the relation Jared had with Kent State: he cheered for them and wanted them to do well, but in his heart, he was a Penn State fan. I cheered for Penn State and wanted it to do well, but I was a Notre Dame fan. I guess the issue was I just didn't have the lifelong connection to the school that most fans had. Hell, I had a transfer form to UNC all filled out during my sophomore year, and I was ready to fill out more transfer forms and leave Penn State forever. I needed something, something that rallied the entire university together, so that when I said "We Are Penn State," it was an affirmation of my fandom and not me randomly screaming something at a football game.
Then, 2011 happened. And it was weird on a number of levels, but on a more personal level -- as an outsider who had never really been fully integrated into the Penn State community -- I saw everyone associated with Penn State put their arms around on another and come together. We all rallied around something, some around Joe Paterno, some around the football team, some around other members of the community, but everyone rallied around each other. It was weird, and for the first time ever, I actually felt like a Penn Stater. I was no longer a Notre Dame fan at Penn State, I was a Penn Stater, and the entirety of the school completely consumed me.
I guess, then, you can say that the first Penn State team I ever loved was the 2012 squad. Yeah, it was the post-scandal team, and yes, it was (arguably) the best team I saw during my four years at Penn State, but just look at all the elements of it. There were two senior leaders in Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti who played football with a "fuck you" mentality that I've never seen. There was a superstar linebacker in Gerald Hodges (and Mauti, but really, Mauti was everything). There was Matt McGloin, who SUUUUUUUUCKED but somehow because a really solid QB under new head coach Bill O'Brien. There was Allen Robinson, who came out of nowhere to metaphorically teabag the entire Big Ten.
Mostly, there were (however many players were on the team) guys who were playing for each other. This team was lovable as shit. The entire mentality of the squad was, "we're playing for each other and Penn State and and fuck everyone else." If you can't cheer for a team that put on for their school and wanted everyone else to die for a fire, who else are you supposed to root for?
Oh, also, one last thing: this team was supposed to SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK. I think we forget that this was a team that lost most of its talent on offense, still had an uncertain QB situation, and was fortunate to keep Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden around to help out on defense. But still, nobody was expecting Penn State to do anything, and the team would have probably been happy with five wins.
It went 8-4, and you can argue pretty easily that 10-2 would have happened if one or two things bounced the right way. Hell, 11-1 was a possibility. Penn State, after getting its ass handed to it by the NCAA, was a few bounces away from possibly being 11-1. Just think about that for a second. Ok, let's move on.
The first two weeks looked like what should have happened in 2012: Penn State lost a heartbreaker to Ohio, 24-14, in the first game of the O'Brien era. Then, the Virginia game happened. Sam Ficken. 1-for-5. 1-for-2. I still don't like talking about it. It makes me feel all sad.
And then, something clicked. I have no idea what that something was. But all of a sudden, Penn State absolutely tore into Navy, ripping into the Midshipmen 34-7. McGloin threw for four touchdowns. Zordich was the featured running back. Robinson had five catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns. It was AWESOME.
The thing I will always remember about that game was how surreal it was. Everyone I knew was bracing for Penn State to continue its downward spiral to irrelevance, just like Mark Emmert wanted. We were almost mentally prepared for a three win football team, because if you can't beat Ohio and Virginia, who were you supposed to beat? If you told me PSU would beat Navy as I walked into Beaver Stadium that day, I'd probably say you're crazy. Then the Nittany Lions went out and, in the words of Jim Ross, stomped a mudhole in Navy, and then shit got real.
Penn State ripped off four straight wins after the Navy game. The Nittany Lions beat Temple the following week, 24-13. The team followed it up by beating the piss out of Illinois, 35-7, in a game that could have been 42-7 if Michael Mauti's feet were a size smaller.
The craziest game of the year was, unquestionably, against Northwestern. The Wildcats were the No. 24 team in America, and came into the game 5-0. Penn State lost to Ohio. It wasn't supposed to be all that close, and that was evident, when Northwestern took a 28-17 lead into the fourth quarter. This usually doesn't happen when PSU and NW play, but this wasn't played under normal circumstances. Penn State was supposed to have a down year, while Northwestern was supposed to be pretty good. Hell, the Wildcats ended up going 10-3, so the talent was there. It just had no way of expecting Penn State to score 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win 39-28.
My favorite game of the season was probably against Iowa, in Iowa, when the least Penn State/Iowa thing in the history of Penn State/Iowa happened. In a series that is defined by ugly games Penn State went out, scored 38 unanswered points over three quarters and 35 seconds, then decided it would let Iowa score a few sympathy points. If you doubled the amount of yards Iowa gained (209) it still wouldn't have been close to the number of yards Penn State gained (504). The series which gave us this -- which as an outsider at the time made me kind of hate football -- gave us some of the most beautiful and well executed football I've ever seen. It's still weird to me.
Then there was the Ohio State game. I'm still pissed about the blatant hold that happened to Mauti, and the absolutely absurd holding call against Brad Bars. Maybe if they go Penn State's way, things change. Sure, PSU had a scant 32 rushing yards, but in a 35-23 game, one or two bounces can make a huge difference. We'll never know. I'm still mad about this game. Not as mad as I am about the Nebraska game, but we'll get there in a sec.
Penn State whooped Purdue 34-9 its next time out. Who cares. It's Purdue.
Ok, Nebraska time. Now, here's the thing that people sometimes don't understand: without the benefit of instant replay, bad calls can and will happen. It's human nature. More often than not, when we see that a bad call was made, it's after we've seen it three times in slow motion from various angles. As a ref, you get one angle at game speed when the play is 20 yards away from you. Shit happens. We move on...unless there's instant replay.
That is what makes the horrendous call to not rule this a touchdown for Matt Lehman absolutely unacceptable. The referee looked at it. It saw it from various angles, at various speeds, zoomed in various ways. He saw what we saw, and we saw a touchdown. Everyone saw a touchdown. If you had a pulse and you kind of knew what a touchdown was, you knew that was a touchdown. Penn State should have had a 30-27 lead.
It was called a fumble, recovered by Nebraska.
Now, Devon's usually the one who goes all Alex Jones "CONSPIRACY" when stuff like this happens -- actually, he did! -- but when this happened, everyone thought something was up. This was beyond a bad call. This had to be intentional, right? Screw it, I'm still gonna tell myself Penn State won this game. You should too. The final said Nebraska won 32-23, but let's face it, that should have been a 33-30 win for Penn State.
The worst game of the year, worse than anything else, was actually a win: a 45-22 win over Indiana in Happy Valley where McGloin damn near threw for 400 yards. Yeah, it SHOULD have been great, but Michael Mauti's knee had other ideas.
By know, you know everything there is to know about Mauti: he's a PSU legacy guy whose first few years in Happy Valley were good but plagued with injuries. He tore both ACLs in his first few years, which is actually considered a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. But 2012 was different. He was, unquestionably, the leader of the 2012 team. He worked his ass off to keep it together, and when he did, he then rallied the entire school around the team and just went insane on the field, tackling anything with a pulse. He was the best linebacker in the conference...until he tore his ACL against Indiana and had to miss the rest of the season. It still is the only time I ever heard Beaver Stadium 100 percent silent.
Three ACL tears is the kind of thing that, under most circumstances, should have torn the heart out of your chest. Then you add in Mauti's Penn State pedigree, how good he was, how much he meant to PSU and, more importantly, how much Penn State meant to him, and the team probably could have asked to end the season right there.
However, there was one game left: Wisconsin. The same Wisconsin team that would go on to ruin Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game, 70-31. Penn State should have gotten destroyed. But Penn State fought, and Wisconsin was perpetually a little off all game. In a game that should have been a beatdown, Penn State won in overtime, and Ficken redeemed himself for earlier in the season by drilling the game-winning field goal in a 24-21 win. Because sports. Also: this happened and it was AWESOME.
The 2012 Penn State football team will always be my favorite team. Not just among PSU teams or college teams or football teams, I mean across all sports (at least until the USA wins a World Cup). It was the team that best defied doing something for the love of the game, and gave zero shits about anything but representing the name on the front of the jersey to the best of their abilities. They didn't always win, but they always fought. Those fuckers fought hard.
Most importantly, it was the team that made me love Penn State. On a personal level, nothing will ever be more important.