STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – As his team slogged through back-to-back 7-6 seasons in his first two years as Penn State’s head coach, Langhorne native James Franklin heard time and again that he was in need of a signature victory.
Now he has one, even if he refuses to admit it.
Junior cornerback Grant Haley returned a blocked field goal 60 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 4:27 left as the Nittany Lions stunned second-ranked Ohio State 24-21 on Saturday night.
“That’s for you (media) guys, all that signature stuff,” Franklin said.
“It’s just a game that put Penn State back on the map,” Haley said. “We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight.”
The fans stormed the field after the Lions, 5-2 after their third straight victory this season, beat a ranked team for the first time since 2013 (Wisconsin). It was also PSU’s first victory over a team ranked in the top five since 1999 (Arizona) and its first over a team slotted as high as No. 2 since 1990 (Notre Dame).
Ohio State (7-1) saw winning streaks of 20 straight road games and 17 straight Big Ten road games come to an end, despite building a 21-7 lead through three quarters.
The Lions whisked 90 yards in five plays to cut the gap to seven with 13:32 left in the game, with quarterback Trace McSorley running two yards for the TD.
Freshman linebacker Cam Brown then blocked Cameron Johnston’s punt to set up a 34-yard field goal by Tyler Davis with 9:33 remaining, making it 21-17.
Ohio State mounted a drive behind J.T. Barrett, their splendid quarterback, moving from its own 13 to the PSU 28. Barrett’s 34-yard connection with wide receiver Noah Brown was the big play.
But the Buckeyes stalled, and Tyler Durbin came on to attempt a 45-yard field goal. Penn State safety Marcus Allen made a leaping block, however, and Haley scooped up the bouncing ball and beat Durbin and Johnston, the holder, down the left sideline for the go-ahead score.
Ohio State’s final drive of the night ended with a pair of Penn State sacks, the last a combined effort by defensive linemen Kevin Givens and Evan Schwan with 1:02 left.
When the final gun sounded, several Penn State players sprinted toward the south end zone and launched themselves into the front row of the stands, Lambeau Leap-style, among the delirious students. And thousands of fans, all clad in white for PSU’s traditional White Out, flooded the field.
“This is for everybody,” Franklin said later. “This community’s been through so much in the last five years (a reference to the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and its aftermath), and this is a big step in the right direction, in terms of healing. I said very, very early on that for us to get where we want to be, we need this entire community together, and a win like tonight – I know I’m biased – but I believe that football has the ability to bring a community together like nothing else.”
Moments later, he caught himself and said he “didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the big picture.”
Rather, he added, “I just want to enjoy tonight.”