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Twenty-Five Years of the Big Ten: Penn State Football 2013-2017

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This fall will mark the 25th season for the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten. To celebrate that milestone, we’re taking a look at the past 25 years; today we take a look back at the football team from 2013 to now.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Wisconsin vs Penn State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

2013 - Hello Christian Hackenberg

Following an emotional 2012 season that featured senior leaders like Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich, and Matt McGloin, the 2013 season was best remembered for the beginning of the Christian Hackenberg era. The five-star freshman beat out JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson for the starting job, becoming the second freshman quarterback to ever start a game at Penn State.

Hackenberg’s debut, oddly enough, came at his future home field — MetLife Stadium. He put up impressive numbers, throwing for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns in a victory over Syracuse. From there, Hackenberg’s hype grew, and for good reason. He led Penn State to a 3-1 record, the only loss coming against Blake Bortles and a BCS-bound UCF squad. Once Big Ten play started though, the Nittany Lions’ season was filled with highs and lows. They had embarrassing road losses to Indiana (Penn State’s first loss ever to the Hoosiers) and Minnesota. There was also that 63-14 thrashing at the hands of Ohio State.

Fortunately, there were bright parts to the season too. Penn State defeated an undefeated Michigan squad 43-40 in a four-overtime thriller that will go down as one of the whackiest games in the program’s history.

To cap off the season, Penn State went to Camp Randall and upset what was thought to be a BCS-bound Wisconsin team. Hackenberg was brilliant that day, throwing for 339 yards and 4 touchdowns.

2014 - Franklin’s Rocky Start

With O’Brien heading back to the NFL, Penn State turned to Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. The “Pennsylvania kid with a Penn State heart” was taking over a program that was just starting to feel the effects of NCAA sanctions, but had the uber-talented Hackenberg returning for his sophomore season. As expected, a lot of pressure was placed upon Hackenberg, and for the first couple weeks of the season, he rose to the occasion. Despite playing behind a porous offensive line, Hackenberg delivered when Penn State needed him most, leading the Nittany Lions to final-drive comeback victories over UCF and Rutgers.

The Nittany Lions also picked up victories against Akron and UMass, giving them their first 4-0 start since the 2008 season. Was the magic back in Happy Valley?

Not exactly.

Penn State would go onto lose their next four games, losing to Northwestern 29-6, Michigan 18-13, Ohio State 31-24 in 2OTs, and Maryland 20-19. It’s weird looking back on this now, but if things break a little bit differently, the Nittany Lions — despite being super mediocre — very well could have been 7-1. Penn State led against Michigan and Maryland, and obviously the game against the Buckeyes had some interesting calls.

That being said, Penn State could have also been 2-6 if Sam Ficken doesn’t make the field goal against UCF, and if Gary Nova wasn’t Gary Nova. But hey, this is a Penn State blog, and I’m not paid to be impartial.

The rest of the regular season was pretty ugly. The Nittany Lions beat Indiana 13-7 in a game that featured 20 punts. TWENTY. PUNTS. They defeated Temple, but also dropped games to Illinois and Michigan State, finishing the year 6-6. Unlike the previous two years though, the season wasn’t over, as Penn State’s bowl restriction was finally lifted. The Nittany Lions matched up against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, picking up a thrilling 31-30 overtime victory.

2015 - Hello, Mr. Barkley

Question: Would the offensive line show any improvement come 2015?

Answer:

In quite possibly the most embarrassing defeat since 6-4 against Iowa in 2004, Penn State lost its opener to Temple 27-10. Granted, that ended up being a very good Temple team, but as you can see above, the Nittany Lions were completely manhandled, giving up 10 sacks on the day. It wasn’t just a loss; it was utter domination. Penn State had no answer for the Owls, a program that the Nittany Lions hadn’t lost to since 1941.

Things did get better though, as a true freshman named Saquon Barkley (maybe you heard of him) razzled and dazzled in the following weeks against Buffalo, Rutgers, and San Diego State.

Barkley would miss the next couple of games with a leg injury, but returned for a primetime showdown in the Horsheshoe against No. 1 Ohio State. While the Nittany Lions fell to 5-2 that night, the nation was officially introduced to Penn State’s stud freshman.

Following its defeat against the Buckeyes, Penn State picked up two more wins, reaching 7-2 on the year. Unfortunately, that was as good as the Nittany Lions were going to get, as they let one get away against Northwestern, lost to Michigan on Senior Day, and then got shellacked in East Lansing.

Following the regular season, Penn State moved on from offensive coordinator John Donovan, and brought in former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to man the unit. Would the change have any impact on the offense?

Uhhhhhh, ya think?

2016 - “Big Ten Champs, Baby! Penn State Is BACK!”

The Nittany Lions went into 2016 with not a whole lot of momentum. There was a change at quarterback, the offensive line and defensive lines were concerning, and there was little depth at linebacker. Critics began to point out that Franklin needed a signature win at Penn State, otherwise he would find himself squarely on the hot seat.

Penn State didn’t get off to the best start. The Nittany Lions got out of the gate 2-2, losing to in-state rival Pitt and getting massacred against Michigan. Things only got worse, as Penn State trailed Minnesota 13-3 at halftime, staring a 2-3 (0-2 in the Big Ten) start right in the face.

What was said in that locker room will always be a mystery, but a new Penn State team took the field in the second half. The Nittany Lions fought and clawed back to upend the Gophers 29-26 in overtime, and while this wouldn’t be Franklin’s signature win, it proved to be a victory that sparked a Big Ten Championship run.

The Nittany Lions easily took care of business against Maryland, and then waited for the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes to come to town. What happened next: college football magic.

Finally, Franklin had his signature win. But the Nittany Lions weren’t done turning doubters into believers. Joe Moorhead and the offense were just finding their groove, dropping 62 and 41 points points in back-to-back weeks against Purdue and Iowa, and then picking up a gritty win against Indiana. Thanks to some help from those Hawkeyes, all of sudden Penn State had its eye on a Big Ten East Title.

On the final Saturday of the regular season, Ohio State defeated Michigan in the JV Big Ten East Title Game, paving the way for the Nittany Lions to book their ticket to Indianapolis. Penn State took care of business against Michigan State, and even had time for a little fun at the end.

Penn State squared off against Wisconsin for the Big Ten crown, and like they did so many times throughout the year, the Nittany Lions faced a sizable deficit in the second quarter. The Haters™ doubted, but once again, Penn State found magic in the second half.

Although Penn State was left out of the College Football Playoff, the Nittany Lions played USC in the Rose Bowl in one of the greatest college football games in recent memory. Unfortunately, Penn State was on the losing end of it, falling to the Trojans 52-49 in a heartbreaker.

2017 - National Championship Dreaming

What comes of Penn State’s 25th season in the Big Ten remains to be seen. But after multiple years of relative mediocrity, Penn State has completed its return to national prominence. For this upcoming season, the expectation is simple — compete for a National Championship. There’s no longer concerns of sanctions or questions about Franklin’s lack of a signature win. With guys like Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, and Grant Haley in place, the Nittany Lions aren’t just hoping to crash the party this year; they’re planning to win the whole thing.