Game Ball and Helmet Stickers: UNRIVALED
Sometime early in the second half on Saturday night, for the first time since this era began, I allowed myself to just sit back and fully appreciate what we were witnessing. What I was watching was a good football team. In fact, a REALLY good football team. A team that Rutgers had no answers for, despite Penn State struggling more than usual mostly due to good old Mother Nature. I heard former Nittany Lion Matt Millen make a point during his commentary to point out several times that we were playing with an offensive line that had three freshmen, a sophomore, and senior, Brian Gaia. Despite the inclement weather, an injury-decimated and inexperienced O-Line, and perhaps a little bit of looking ahead, the Penn State offense still managed to ring up over 500 yards and 39 points. The scary thing is, we didn’t win because of our offense, we won despite it at times. We won like Penn State has always won. We won because of our defense. It was suffocating and smothering. There was nowhere the Scarlet Knights could move, and they were completely stifled all night long. It was a show of dominance to say the least. It was a Penn State defense that gave up a grand total of 70 yards and registered 11 tackles for loss. The 39-0 shutout was the first over a Big Ten opponent since 2005. Rutgers was an inferior opponent on the field in every way.
When I looked back at that 2014 contest, I remember vividly a sea of red, a crowd fully expecting to upset the wounded Lions. They were loud, rowdy, and yes, as rude as could be. They smelled blood two years ago and almost got their wish. On Saturday night, right around halftime, those fans completely disappeared. Not long after the second half kickoff it became clear that the home team ship had been abandoned. All that was left were the pockets of white that had so dutifully answered Coach Franklin’s request to wear our good luck color. Before long we heard the “WE ARE” chants and watched as the Penn State students overtook the so-called “R Zone”. I waited and waited for our dear old Sweet Caroline to play all to no avail, the only disappointment on the night. Most likely, the High Point Solutions Stadium house DJ had already dipped out with the rest of the fleeing crowd. Despite the wind, the cold, and the ice pellets hailing down, there was no quit in the contingency of fans that came to cheer on Penn State. It got to the point we at home began to feel a little sorry for the Scarlet Knights who were left without any fans to cheer them on. It was a complete takeover of Blue and White Saturday night in Piscataway, New Jersey and it was fun to watch.
To be clear, Rutgers came into the game 2-8 and going nowhere fast. On any given Saturday in the rugged Big Ten, anything can happen, but the Scarlet Knights truly posed little to no threat and they proved it. But, that’s not my point. The point is, two years ago we were dangerously close to being on their level, whatever that may have been. Two years later, we have the look, the swagger, and the grit of a champion and it’s only in its infantcy. Two years later, the difference between us and a team we have always used as a tune-up, is like night and day. It’s back to being just as it has always been between these two programs. Tonight, I searched high and low for a game ball recipient on a day when we saw plenty of big plays but no real standouts. Our star Saquon Barkley tallied his usual 100+, our gritty QB Trace McSorley continued to guide his offense with efficiency, and the rebound king, Mike Gesicki etched his name in the record books by catching his 42nd pass of the season, the most of any tight end in Penn State history. Our defense was at its ferocious best and Tyler Davis continued to be on the money in spite of the driving rain and gusts of wind. The field was littered with freshmen and sophomores making plays, and yet, the guidance of our seniors such as Brandon Bell, Brian Gaia, Malik Golden, and Evan Schwan was unmistakable. It wasn’t always pretty but it was total team domination, including the fans who stuck it out and cheered till the final whistle blew. Back on September 24th, McSorley and many of his teammates put the weight of that 49-10 loss to Michigan on their shoulders and promised to do better. Seven straight wins later, they find themselves on the cusp of a conference championship and possibly much more.
Today, the game ball goes to Penn State Football as a whole for proving that dreams really do come true, as long as you keep grinding. Today, a game ball goes to us as well for staying loyal and true to Dear Old White and Blue. Five years ago, we all stood at a crossroads. Players past and present, alums, and fans all stood together as one. Back then, “One Team” and “Next Man Up” became the rally cry. Five years later, WE ARE as strong as we’ve ever been. Today, we can finally claim “UNRIVALED” just as the man predicted the moment he landed in Happy Valley two years ago.