It would have been too easy to execute a goal-line stand on fourth down, run out the clock and celebrate a Senior Day victory ending in regulation.
The tumultuous journey of Penn State’s senior class has rarely been easy, and that theme held strong in the team’s 24-21 overtime defeat of Wisconsin Saturday. The Badgers scored a 4-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds remaining to send the game into an extra period and the resolve of the Lions was once again tested.
“It was definitely a blow,” senior Pete Massaro said of the Badgers’ late score. “But was there honestly one person in the stadium that thought this team was going to quit?”
Similar to how the team has responded throughout the past year, the Lions, led by their seniors, responded after being punched in the mouth. A 37-yard field goal from Sam Ficken, followed by a forceful defensive stop and a missed field goal helped them go out on top.
Defensive tackle Jordan Hill said the emotional finish to the game was reminiscent of how the senior class has had to react ever since last season.
“This game told our whole story of what we’ve been through since last November, just in game form,” Hill said. “We’ve been knocked down, we got back up…We weren’t just going to let that stop us.”
From the chaos of last season to the sanctions in July, the seniors have remained faithful to Penn State.
The pregame commemoration — including a “2012” sign unveiled on the stadium’s east facade — served as a reminder of all they have done.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said the group has demonstrated its perseverance despite being forced to play with many distractions.
“They proved people can take some external things from you but they can’t take your heart,” Roof said. “You can’t take a warrior’s heart. Our guys are warriors.”
Capping their career with such an emotional victory will help cement the seniors’ legacy even further.
Coach Bill O’Brien said coming out with a win made a huge difference given the circumstances of the Senior Day celebration.
“It would’ve been terrible to come in here and not win that game after that pregame ceremony,” O’Brien said. “When they put your 2012 team up there with those other teams, those are undefeated, championship teams. That means a lot.”
In a back-and-forth game, the seniors led the Lions to their eighth win of a season in which many counted them out.
Excellent campaigns from Hill, Matt McGloin, Gerald Hodges, Matt Stankiewitch and Michael Mauti — who missed the game with a knee injury — among others were completed with a win in which many seniors shined.
Even with a slow start to the game, McGloin ended up throwing for 200 yards, including a 41-yard strike to Jesse James. Meanwhile, Hill dominated the line of scrimmage and finished with 12 tackles, including two sacks, while Hodges added seven stops himself.
Hill said the senior class understood the role it had to play, especially when Saturday’s game was on the line.
“We knew we had to make a big stop,” Hill said. “As older guys, we always say this is the reason we’re here at Penn State, for games like this and for moments like this.”
And after the Lions were able to halt the Badgers in overtime, it became clear the seniors had succeeded in this goal, bringing about an overwhelming celebration on the field.
Cornerback Stephon Morris said his class naturally rejoiced together at the end of the game, and this moment reminded him of how lucky the group is to have been recruited to the program, albeit by a separate coaching staff, several years ago.
“Right after that kick that they missed, every senior pretty much just hugged and just thanked each other and I told them how much we loved them,” Morris said. “We were very appreciative of one another. You got to give a lot of props to coach [Joe] Paterno for putting this team together.”
Moving forward, this senior class has surely left its mark on the program and have provided a positive start to the once-feared sanction era.
Zordich said the way the seniors are exiting leads him to believe the program is in good hands.
“The [returning] guys are loving every second of it,” Zordich said. “And there’s a lot of talent. Yeah, it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be hard. But as long as we keep winning and there are recruits keep coming in…I have no doubt in those guys to get it done.”
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