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The Plays That Beget “The Plays”

Penn State fans will always remember some iconic plays, but what came before those?

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Ohio State at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Full disclosure, I’ve never seen the 2004 film “The Butterfly Effect” that starred Ashton Kutcher.

But the concept addressed in that film, small changes impacting overall resolutions, applies directly to the sport that we love. Change one thing and the big result is altered.

At least I think that’s right. I hope so, because otherwise I say “butterfly effect” way too often to be using it wrong.

So how are we applying this to sports?

As a longtime basketball coach, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get my players and fellow coaches that making one extra free throw in the first half or that one turnover didn’t necessarily make the exact difference in the game. The way in which those last minutes or moments would be altered based on that free throw having been made or that turnover instead turning to a made 3-pointer.

So, come on Bennett, are you going to get to your point as it pertains to Penn State football?

Sure, here goes.

I spend an inordinate amount of time re-watching old Penn State football games. I’ll throw on a game as I’m on the treadmill. I’ll find an old YouTube broadcast as I clean the house. Often, I get drawn into those games where I know the end result and I find myself thinking about the butterfly effect (seriously, am I using this right?). What would have happened if a couple plays had gone differently? What would our memories have been then? What plays would have never been etched in our minds?

With that in mind, I picked five “classic” Penn State wins - writer’s choice and organized from most recent to oldest - and I started thinking about forgotten plays or moments that came before those unforgettable moments. You’ll remember all of these and a play or drive that define them.

But do you remember these that came first and set the stage?

I’ve thought of plenty of other examples in the time since, but what about you? What other plays from bygone games might apply?

Game: October 22, 2016 vs. #2 Ohio State

Result: 24-21. “Fluky”. Mass Hysteria. Whiteout. Best win of the Franklin era.

The play you remember: Just smile and think about Marcus Allen blocking that field goal and Grant Haley taking it back.

The play you might not: Garrett Sickels sacks J.T. Barrett on the penultimate play of the third quarter.

Explanation: This is the game that started me thinking about this whole series. My initial thought has always been the touchdown that Blake Gillikin saved in the third quarter by falling on an errant snap and only allowing Ohio State to get a safety. That’s a critical play, no doubt. But as I re-watched that portion of the game, it was the play, really plays of Sickels, that really shifted that game.

Leading 21-7, Ohio State had seized momentum, quieted the crowd, had field position, and stood repeatedly on the verge of breaking the game wide open.

Remember that Sickels didn’t play in the first half, serving a two-quarter team-mandated suspension. In the third quarter, Sickels was motivated and he made a handful of key plays to slow the Buckeyes.

But the one I’m pointing to came late in the third. On second down with less than a minute to go in the quarter that Ohio State had dominated, Sickels got to Barrett and forced a sack that put the Buckeyes behind the sticks. On the next play, Sickels was involved again, teaming with Marcus Allen for the tackle on a third-down check down.

Following a punt, Penn State went 90 yards in five plays (EXPLOSIVE!), the game was 21-14 and the comeback was officially on.

Film: Check 1:56:05 for Sickels sack and 2:22:30 for your the world’s fastest placekicker not quite making the tackle.

Game: 2005 Northwestern

Result: Penn State starts an iconic three-week stretch of football with a thrilling rally in front of approximately 785 fans for an 11 a.m. local start in Evanston.

The play you remember: Under duress, Michael Robinson lofts a ball into the waiting arms of Derrick Williams, who slips under a tackle for his first career touchdown that proves to be the game winner.

The play you might not: E.Z. Smith recovers Michael Robinson’s fumble with 1:49 to go.

Explanation: Got you, didn’t I? I know you were probably thinking about Isaac Smolko’s 20-yard catch over the middle on fourth down. Do you remember what happened two plays before that? Taking over at its own 20-yard line with just over two minutes left, Robinson was sacked on 2nd-and-10 by Northwestern standout defensive lineman Barry Cofield. According to Northwestern’s box score, it was Tony Hunt who recovered the fumble. But, in fact, through exhaustive research, it was E.Z. Smith who arrowed his way to the bottom of the pile to save that day - and shot at a Big Ten title.

Film: You can head to 8:50 on this video to clearly see that it wasn’t Hunt who recovered that fumble. Meanwhile, Robinson’s touchdown pass to Williams comes at the 9:18 mark.

Game: 1999 Miami

Result: One of the most captivating, albeit disappointing, Penn State teams of all time won an instant classic in the Orange Bowl against a Hurricane team that would rule college football in the very near future.

The play you remember: “No flags. No flags. No flags.” Quarterback roulette turned up Kevin Thompson on this drive and he connected with Chafie Fields for the epic touchdown. Fields loved South Beach so much he makes it his home now.

The play you might not: Maurice Daniels providing help in making tackles on back-to-back plays against Miami running back James Jackson.

Explanation: Maurice Daniels had only 14 tackles in the 1999 season playing on a star-studded defense that had LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short playing linebacker. But it was on two plays, cheating I suppose, that Daniels provided just enough help to get Penn State one more shot. As Miami was looking to finish grinding out the clock following an Ed Reed interception, Daniels aided Askari Adams on a third down play in stopping Jackson for a minimal gain. Then, on fourth down, it was Ron Graham who made first contact with Jackson, but it was Daniels who provided the help in wrestling the Miami back to the ground just a few chain links short.

Film: Head to 3:09:05 of this video to see the back-to-back short-yardage stops for the Lions, while Fields makes the unforgettable grab at about 3:12:00.

Game: 1997 Ohio State

Result: Two top ten teams battle it out on a Saturday afternoon that shows why State College is the most picturesque college football town - ending with Curtis Enis scoring the game-winning touchdown for the #2 Lions in a 31-27 back-and-forth thriller.

The play(s) you remember: You remember Enis’s touchdown scamper and you certainly remember Aaron Harris going full-on bowling ball to help Penn State back from a 27-17 deficit.

The play you might not: Chafie Fields goes from wide receiver to defensive back in the fourth quarter.

Explanation: Momentum was back with the Lions after Harris’s touchdown run and a defensive stand. With a second and short in Ohio State territory, Fran Ganter went for the big play in calling for a play-action pass intended to get Fields in the end zone. But senior quarterback Mike McQueary was flushed deep to his right and threw off his back foot. The ball would have been intercepted by Buckeye defensive back Ahmed Plummer, but Fields made the hustle play to rip the ball from his hands and it fell harmlessly to the Beaver Stadium turf. Instead of a backbreaking interception, Penn State was able to convert on third down. One play after that, Enis was celebrating in the end zone and Penn State’s defense would make the four-point lead hold as a special season seemed on the horizon.

Film: ABC’s replay angles are perfect for Fields’s big defensive play at about the 11:20 mark, while Enis’s touchdown happens shortly thereafter.

Game: 1994 Illinois

Result: The most famous rally in Penn State history culminates with a 97-yard drive through the mist and wind against a fearsome defense.

The play(s) you remember: Maybe that entire final drive that was capped by Brian Milne’s touchdown. The offense, renowned for its explosiveness, was at its most clutch with all the stars (Engram, Carter, Scott, Collins, and Brady) contributing mammoth plays.

The play you might not: Collins to Engram on fourth down on the previous drive.

Explanation: As much credit as is given to Illinois’s stout defense, Penn State’s biggest battle in the second half was really against the clock. Down 31-21 and coming off a missed field goal, Penn State had a do-or-die drive before THE DRIVE. Facing a fourth down, Kerry Collins looked to throw quick. The coverage was there and Collins wound up waiting and waiting and waiting before connecting with Engram for a 17-yard gain. That drive ended with a touchdown to pull within 31-28 and ultimately set up the ‘94 team’s most famous 97 yards.

Film: Collins to Engram happens at 37:17, while the full 97-yard drive begins at 39:50.

Any other nominees or plays you’ll never forget sparking a rally? Share them below!