With the 2020 Penn State football season in absolute limbo right now, it seems like a rather appropriate time to look back at the 2010’s, a time when football games were played in stadiums packed with 107,000-plus fans high-fiving and hugging one another after big plays.
Initially, I thought this would be a top five list, but as I thought of more and more memorable wins, the list suddenly ballooned well into the double digits. I knew I had to pare the list down to ten, because as the late, great, George Carlin once said: “Ten sounds official. Ten sounds important.” Thus, in the spirit of the 10’s, we present you our top ten Penn State football games of the 2010’s, as well as the games that didn’t quite make the final cut:
10. 2014 Boston College (Pinstripe Bowl) - James Franklin’s first season as Penn State’s head coach began with Sam Ficken booting the game-winning kick against UCF in Ireland’s Croke Park and ended with Sam Ficken booting the game-winning kick against BC in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Normally, a Pinstripe Bowl appearance would be nothing to write home about. However, this was PSU’s first bowl game post-sanctions, and given how it was conveniently located in an area with tons of alums, Yankee Stadium turned into Beaver Stadium North.
Christian Hackenberg also ended a tumultuous sophomore season on a high note, going off for four touchdown passes. It was also a coming out party of sorts for Chris Godwin, as the then-freshman receiver caught a long bomb from Hack in the first quarter to open up the scoring. BC would rattle off 21 unanswered points before PSU would finally answer right at the end of the third quarter, setting up a comeback that saw Ficken force OT with a 42-yard field goal in the final minute of regulation.
BC would score a TD on their first OT possession, but a missed extra point would come back to haunt them. PSU’s ensuing possession would see Hack twice convert on third-and-long, first to tight end Jesse James, who valiantly fought off a tackler to just get past the sticks, and later to Kyle Carter, who made a nice grab in the end zone. Ficken, who ironically had been using Alex Rodriguez’s locker to suit up, calmly nailed the game-winning extra point to cap a roller coaster of a debut season for Franklin.
9. 2017 Michigan - Ranked No. 2 and rolling, College Gameday showed up to Happy Valley for the first time in nearly a decade, and the team lived up to the hype, as they waxed Michigan 42-13 in the White Out. Saquon Barkley’s last-second shift into the wildcat formation for a very nice 69-yard TD run to open up the scoring helped set the tone, as he recorded a hat trick of TD’s for the night and Trace McSorley racked up a few more on the ground and through the air.
The game even featured a little karma as Michigan kicker Quinn Nordin missed what should’ve been the game-tying extra point after the Wolverines battled back from an early 14-0 deficit. The 14-13 score was the closest Michigan would come the rest of the night, as Trace led a TD drive in the final minute of the half and PSU never looked back. Just a fun night all around.
8. 2010 Northwestern - Joe Paterno’s 400th win happened thanks to the largest comeback in program history. After spotting Northwestern a 21-0 lead, Matt McGloin led a two-minute drill to hit Brett Brackett in the back of the end zone with just a few seconds left to cut the deficit to 21-7 going into halftime. That play turned out to be a momentum-shifter, as McGloin continued to pick apart a shell-shocked Wildcat defense for a couple more TD’s to start the second half, before Silas Redd ran in the go-ahead TD towards the end of the third quarter. PSU would go on to rattle off 35 unanswered points for the 35-21 victory, as JoePa was hoisted upon his players’ shoulders to celebrate another milestone win.
7. 2011 Illinois - Aka, the “409 game.” This is the game where the demarcation line between the Penn State football generations had come to know and the turbulent future that awaited the program can be drawn. Other than Joe Paterno breaking Eddie Robinson’s all-time Division 1 wins record, the game itself was mostly forgettable. Both teams struggled offensively on a snowy day in Happy Valley, leading to a scoreless tie at the half. Illinois would finally break the scoreless tie late in the third quarter with a touchdown and PSU would answer with a field goal.
It was on the final drive for PSU where things truly got interesting, as wide receiver Derek Moye, who was sitting out the game with a foot injury, was brought back in to help desperately spark some offense with the Lions running out of chances, still trailing 7-3. Sure enough, Moye made a couple of critical catches on PSU’s final drive and even drew a pass interference flag in the end zone when Matt McGloin took a deep shot at him on fourth down. Silas Redd would finish the drive with a TD run from the goalline to put PSU up 10-7.
Illinois would counter with a drive of their own, and ultimately would set up their kicker Derek Dimke, who at this point in the season had been a perfect 10-for-10, with a 40-yard field goal attempt to force OT. The image of the student section all moving towards behind the goal posts in an attempt to distract Dimke’s kick is one that will remain permanently etched in my brain.
The jubilation after Dimke doinked his kick off the right upright is rather bittersweet to watch, in retrospect, as virtually nobody was aware of the unimaginable shit storm that was about to descend upon Happy Valley merely a week later and forever change Penn State.
6. 2016 Minnesota - Not-so-spoiler alert: This is the first of three memorable wins from the 2016 season. It’s still crazy to think about how we went from the student section chanting “Fire Franklin” as PSU went into the locker room trailing 13-3, to ultimately winning the Big Ten championship, and it can be traced back to that critical third and long play early in the second half.
Trace’s unlikely TD connection to Irvin Charles helped bring a spark that saw PSU exchange blows with the Gophers the remainder of the game. Trace used a critical 30-plus yard run to set up PSU with a makable field goal for Tyler Davis, who sent it to OT. Saquon Barkley of course, finished the deal with his walk-off TD on PSU’s first play in OT, and the rest, they say, is history.
5. 2012 Wisconsin - This will go down as arguably the most memorable Senior Day in Penn State history. In what was an emotional pre-game ceremony, the senior class who elected to stay and keep the program afloat despite NCAA sanctions allowing them to transfer anywhere and immediately be eligible to play were honored, and an unveiling of a 2012 banner on the suites immortalized their legacy. The players also donned the number 42 on their helmets, in honor of Michael Mauti, who had torn his ACL the prior week against Indiana and was regarded as one of the team’s emotional leaders.
The game itself was a crazy back-and-forth affair, as Badgers jumped out to a quick 14-7 lead in the first quarter, before both defenses took over. Slowly but surely, PSU clawed their way back with a pair of Sam Ficken field goals in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 14-13. The Lions finally took the lead early in the fourth quarter, when Matt McGloin on 4th and 6, launched a dart to Jesse James, who rumbled down the sidelines into the end zone.
With PSU clinging to a 21-14 lead in the final seconds of regulation and the Badgers facing 4th and goal, Wisconsin QB Curt Phillips delivered a strike to his receiver Jeff Duckworth to force OT. Ficken nailed his field goal try in OT, while Wisconsin’s kicker Kyle French shanked his to the left, as head coach Bill O’Brien and the PSU bench emptied onto the field in jubilation, having ended the season on such a high note. O’Brien then followed it up with his emotional post-game interview that featured his famed use of the word ‘fighters’ .
4. 2017 at Iowa - Kinnick Stadium is regarded as a place where ranked teams go to die. It sure looked Penn State was about to become yet another ranked victim despite dominating the stat sheet with Saquon Barkley making insane play after insane play to move the chains, as Iowa’s bend-but-don’t-break defense practically worked to perfection, forcing the Lions to mainly settle for field goals in the red zone.
I remember being glad when Iowa’s Akrum Wadley ran for Iowa’s go-ahead touchdown with a minute and a half left to play, instead of being tackled somewhere in the red zone. All the Hawkeyes needed to win at that point was a field goal, and I feared another ending similar to the 2008 game at Iowa. Instead, it gave a Joe Moorhead-led and Trace McSorley-quarterbacked offense enough time to drive downfield for the game-winning touchdown.
Even though the 2017 team ultimately crapped the bed in back-to-back weeks at Ohio State and Michigan State, the Saquon Barkley highlights and Trace’s walk-off TD pass to Juwan Johnson as time expired still make this game stand on its own as a classic re-watchable.
3. 2013 Michigan - As rough as the sanctioned years were, they sure did produce their share of memorable wins. The four-overtime classic against Michigan under the White out is probably the most heralded of the sanction era wins, and for good reason. I was fortunate enough to be in attendance for this game and it’s hard for me to think of another game that had so many emotional highs and lows like this one did. One moment, Christian Hackenberg was slinging TD’s like it was backyard football, the next moment, Michigan’s quarterback Devin Gardner was torching PSU’s secondary as his receivers seemed to be at least 20 yards past any PSU jersey.
While Allen Robinson’s catch will be forever etched into my brain, another thing that I will never forget is when Michigan lined up to kick a 33-yard field goal right down the center to clinch the game in the third OT period (after A-Rob inexplicably fumbled on a reverse to open the third OT), I turned to the Michigan fan sitting right below me and congratulated him on the win. The Michigan fan replied “college kickers” and sure enough a few moments later, Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons went full college kicker, shanking an easy game-winner.
2. 2016 Ohio State - Some of you may raise an eyebrow or two at the fact I did not make this number one on the list. It was an incredible, seemingly improbable win, alright. However, the team still had five games remaining, including a dreaded road contest at Indiana, who had tripped them just a few years earlier. Plus, PSU still remained on the outside looking in as far as the conference championship picture was concerned, because Michigan was still undefeated and needed to trip up twice in order for the Lions to jump ahead in the pecking order.
Everyone knows that Marcus Allen blocked a field goal and Grant Haley did indeed, score. What some people seem to imply (wrongly) is that a “fluke” play like Haley’s scoop-and-score was the only reason PSU won the game, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Although the Buckeyes led until the final five minutes of the game, PSU was doing just enough to hang around the entire game, even when the offense wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire like it had been in the prior weeks. It allowed them to remain within striking distance for something as improbable as the block-six to occur.
Even then, there were still over four-and-a-half minutes to play in the game, which was plenty of time for J.T. Barrett to lead the Bucks down the field for a game-winning drive. As painful the losses were in 2017 and 2018, the upset win over OSU in 2016 was just as euphoric and is one we will be talking about for years to come.
1. 2016 Wisconsin (Big Ten Championship Game) - I put this one in the driver’s seat, because does it really get any better than a team that nobody had pegged to play in Indianapolis for all the B1G marbles rally from a 21-point deficit against a solid Wisconsin team to put a rose on a special season? This was a game defined by big plays: Mike Gesicki’s acrobatic grab in the end zone get PSU on the board, Saeed Blacknall’s pair of catch-and-run TD’s to suddenly make it a ball game again, Saquon’s wheel route that ultimately put PSU ahead for good, and Grant Haley stopping Wisconsin running back Corey Clement inches short of the marker on fourth and one to seal the game.
In an alternate universe where there is no COVID-19 pandemic, we would be dreaming right now of seeing the 2020 squad end up hoisting that Stagg Championship Trophy and having a banner dedicated to them amongst all the other special years on the wall of the Beaver Stadium suites (le sigh).
2012 Northwestern - Staring at an 11-point deficit heading into fourth quarter, Matt McGloin led a tremendous comeback that included connecting with Allen Robinson in the end zone on fourth down and on the ensuing drive, running it in himself for the go-ahead TD. The win sent PSU into the bye week with some much-needed momentum, having won four straight games after starting the season 0-2, and would ultimately help them achieve an 8-4 record that defied expectations after the fallout from NCAA sanctions.
2013 at Wisconsin - Bill O’Brien’s final game as PSU’s head coach was yet another upset victory over the Badgers, this time as 24-point underdogs. Christian Hackenberg connected with Adam Brenneman in the early going to put PSU up 7-0 and while Wisconsin clawed back to take a 14-7 lead, the Nittany Lions never backed down, as Hack continued to make clutch throw after clutch throw (Hack would finish with 339 yards and four TD’s). Meanwhile, the defense and their much-maligned coordinator John Butler finally put together a solid game, garnering three interceptions and keeping Wisconsin’s run game in check.
2014 UCF - James Franklin’s debut as Penn State’s head coach saw him travel across the pond to Ireland in a game which saw Christian Hackenberg throw for a school single-game record 454 yards and ended with Sam Ficken booting the game-winning field goal as time expired, despite PSU blowing a double-digit second half lead in the final couple of minutes.
2014 at Rutgers - Despite struggling most of the night offensively in front of a hostile sellout crowd, PSU’s defense kept itself within striking distance, thanks to five interceptions. With only a few minutes left in the game, the offense managed to string together a go-ahead TD drive that ended with New Jersey native Bill Belton rumbling into the end zone to silence the crowd. Rutgers hasn’t come anywhere close to beating PSU since.
2015 Rutgers - Saquon Barkley had his coming out party under the Beaver Stadium lights as the Nittany Lions waxed Rutgers 28-3 behind Saquon’s 195 yards rushing and two TD’s. In addition to Barkley, the ground game was out in full force, as Brandon Polk scored on a jet sweep, and Akeel Lynch took advantage of the biggest gaping hole for a running back I’ve ever seen.
2017 USC (Rose Bowl) - This is the only loss that gained any consideration for the list. It was a wild, back-and-forth contest probably best remembered by PSU fans for Saquon Barkley’s most famous run in a blue and white uniform. Had PSU hung on to win this one, there’s no doubt this game would’ve made the final cut.
2018 Appalachian State - Aka “KJ Hamler saves the day.” After App State’s backup quarterback turned into Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter, hitting receivers in stride left and right, helping erase a 14-point PSU lead and put App State up by seven with less than two minutes to play (on the 11-year anniversary of App State’s monumental upset over Michigan, no less).
Hamler had other plans though, as he turned what appeared to be an ill-advised kickoff return from deep in his own end zone into starting field position across midfield. He would follow up several plays later by catching a TD pass from McSorley. Amani Oruwariye came up with the game-clinching interception in overtime as PSU narrowly avoided being on the wrong side of a historic upset.
2019 Michigan - You could make an argument for this one being in the top ten, given the crazy finish. After taking a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, it sure felt like the game was going to end up being every bit the blowout under the White Out that the 2017 edition was, but that did not end up being the case, as the offense continually stalled on three-and-outs, while Michigan took advantage of a tired PSU defense, whittling the deficit down to just a TD. How the final drive for Michigan didn’t end with a game-tying TD is beyond me, but I was certainly exhaling a sigh of relief when Ronnie Bell dropped that fourth down pass in the end zone.
2019 Memphis (Cotton Bowl) - Despite this game being a high-scoring, back-and-forth contest, we witnessed a good amount of old-school Penn State football, as the team racked up nearly 400 yards rushing, thanks in large part to Journey Brown accounting for half of that with 202 yards and a pair of TD’s. Micah Parsons also balled out in what we now was his final game in a blue and white uniform, racking up 14 tackles, and a pair of sacks, including a clutch fumble with PSU clinging to a two-point lead in the fourth quarter, that Garrett Taylor scooped up and ran into the end zone to kill Memphis’ momentum. It may also end up being the last game PSU will have played in until at least 2021.