From 2013 to 2015, Penn State put up three straight seven-win seasons. It was three straight winning seasons, but it wasn’t living up to the standard that was Penn State football — and 2016 didn’t start much differently.
Entering his third year as head coach, there was no question James Franklin’s seat was hot, and there wasn’t anything leading into 2016 that said the trend would stop.
Trace McSorley hadn’t come into his own yet, and there was a multitude of young and unproven talent around the roster.
Former Nittany Lion linebacker and captain Brandon Bell saw all the uncertainty surrounding the program and knew the season would play out in one of two ways.
“It was either the season could go really well — which I’m glad it did — or it was a possibility of some struggles,” Bell told The Daily Collegian.
Five years later, the end product of the 2016 season isn’t a secret, but the path to get there was undoubtedly rocky.
After a season-opening win against Kent State, Penn State fell in a close game to in-state rival Pitt, a final score that certainly left a bad taste in many Penn Staters’ mouths.
The Nittany Lions took care of business at home against Temple the next week before traveling to Michigan — where they were subsequently dismantled 49-10 at the Big House.
Franklin’s squad sat at 2-2, suffering a pair of road losses in rivalry games and experiencing injuries up and down the lineup.
Despite the shaky start, then-junior cornerback Grant Haley wouldn’t have been surprised to hear his team would later win a Big Ten Championship due to the “heart” and “grit” the group had.
“There’s no excuses, but I think once we kind of gained the confidence, after we sat down and had a team talk after Michigan, you can see the positive attitude that we had and the outlook we had the rest of the season,” Haley told the Collegian.
The team rallied around each other, and after a reality check in the first few weeks of the season, everyone was still clearly on the same page and ready to move forward.
"A lot of things were going wrong for us — I can say easily — but I just think the leadership, the coaches, the mix of the older guys with the younger guys… I think everyone was just truly on board, pushing the ship in the right direction,” Bell said. “That’s what you need to be successful, and I think that year was a proven fact of that.”
In addition to having a push-forward mentality, the tight-knit nature of the 2016 Nittany Lions started to shine through more and more as the team faced adversity.
Former linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White said from offense and defense to seniors and freshmen, the close relationships on the team made the season feel special from the start.
“What I remember most from that team is just how close everyone was,” Wartman-White told the Collegian. “It was one of those seasons that just felt different. I think that’s what helped when we got off to a slow start. That’s what helped when things weren’t going so good in the season.”
While the team had to take a moment to regroup and gather itself after the Michigan loss, Wartman-White said he never thought the team had the cliche mentality of “we’re still in it” — it never felt like it was out of it in the first place.
Going “1-0” has become a familiar phrase for Nittany Lion faithful in Franklin’s tenure, but Wartman-White said that mentality took on a new form in the offseason before the 2016 campaign.
“We all got together in the offseason prior in January. Coach Franklin met up with a lot of the guys, and we got the chance to basically talk about what the players’ goals were and also what the coaches’ goals were,” Wartman-White said. “The theme was go 1-0 every day, but what we added more to that was ‘What is the 1-0 for?’
“That’s when we started talking more about championships, Big Ten Championships and putting the word association with the larger goal.”
The day-by-day, game-by-game mentality seemed to take hold shortly after for Penn State, and the dominoes started to fall one by one.
The blue and white welcomed Minnesota into Beaver Stadium in Week 5 and won a 29-26 thriller over the Golden Gophers in overtime. Then, Penn State picked apart Maryland in Beaver Stadium en route to a 38-14 win.
The offense was clicking, the process was working — and it couldn’t have come any sooner. The Nittany Lions were set to host No. 2 Ohio State for the White Out the following week.
In the week leading up to the clash with the Buckeyes, there was something noticeably different in practice, according to then-junior safety Marcus Allen.
“It was a lot of preparation and a lot of physicality,” Allen told the Collegian. “In practice, [we] had a lot of physicality. We were thuddin’. And me, I always went hard, but I was flying around hitting.
“It was a lot of competition. The offense was scoring. Saquon was being Saquon, but it was really fun that week.”
Penn State had rattled off a pair of wins, but the true test was rolling around with more than 100,000 fans draped in white set to witness it in the stands.
Allen said the team knew it needed a “big win,” and the atmosphere against the second-best team in the nation was nothing short of a fairy tale.
“I remember a lot of hostile energy, but it was everybody motivated to just give their all,” Allen said. “The whole stadium was into the game — you could feel that. Every time we play Ohio State, we want to beat them and give it our all. When they came to our stadium, it was like do or die.”
The game rolled around, and Penn State found itself down 12-7 heading into halftime.
Wartman-White, who suffered a knee injury earlier in the year, said he was watching the game from the recruiting area.
In his typical routine, he would go down to the locker room to check in on everyone before heading back up.
Something kept him on the field for the second half of that game, though.
“I remember watching it, going down at halftime and finishing the game on the field, because I just had this feeling,” Wartman-White said. “I think everyone knew what was on the line, and that just increased the urgency and the preparation that week. If you win this game, you give yourself a legit shot at the Big Ten Championship.”
The second half kicked off, and a long touchdown run put Ohio State up 19-7. Then, a safety pushed the Buckeyes’ lead to 21-7.
Penn State answered, making the score 21-14 off of a McSorley touchdown run. The defense stood strong, and a field goal closed the gap to 21-17 for the Nittany Lions.
With four and a half minutes left, one of the most iconic plays in Penn State history shook the college football world.
It was a play Bell and Allen said the team practiced multiple times throughout the week, and Allen said he’d gone three for four in blocking kicks leading up to the game.
But when Ohio State’s “super reliable inside of 40” Tyler Durbin lined up for a 45-yarder, almost no amount of practice could’ve prepared the inhabitants of Beaver Stadium for what came next.
Allen blocked the kick, Haley scooped up the ball, and Penn State took a 24-21 lead that stood until the final whistle.
“It was surreal that I saw Grant running with it about to score,” Allen said. “In practice, it didn’t go down like that. It just kept getting blocked. It was crazy. To see it pop up right in Grant’s hands — it was meant to be.”
In the aftermath of the game, the buzz around Franklin’s Nittany Lions was growing. The buzz was easily drawing prominent former Nittany Lions around the team.
Matt McGloin, former Penn State quarterback from 2008 to 2012, said he noticed the team was playing with a ton of confidence and starting to trend in the right direction.
“I remember thinking you had a bunch of guys who bought in to what Penn State was trying to accomplish at that time. They bought in to what James Franklin and Joe Moorhead were selling. They understood what Penn State football was about,” McGloin told the Collegian. “When you see Penn State beat Ohio State, you automatically think to yourself, ‘OK, Penn State is now becoming one of the top teams in not just the Big Ten, but in the nation.’”
The Beaver Stadium field was filled with Nittany Lion faithful after the game, and the Penn State team certainly took their time to bask in the moment.
However, the veteran leader and captain Bell didn’t want his team to lose sight of how far they’d come and where they were still going.
“I was very emotional that day pre-game, post-game. Everyone’s exhausted. I know I was exhausted. It took a while to get off the field, because the crowd’s there and everyone’s hugging, but I wanted to make sure the guys knew that this is expected,” Bell said. “I know it’s a big upset but at the same time, we’re Penn State. We’re supposed to beat Ohio State.”
Just as the team’s performance was starting to click after the Minnesota win, the vision of where the team could go started to click after the upset of Ohio State.
All of a sudden, players around the locker room had a chance to experience something new — and Penn State football was back in the national spotlight.
“That’s when our confidence started growing stronger, and that’s when we started playing with a little bit more swagger,” Allen said. “We’d be in the locker room looking at the TV to see where we were ranked. We were like, ‘Dang, this is crazy.’ It was exciting to us and new to us. We could go to the playoffs and everything and play [Alabama] in the national championship.
“That’s literally what we had in our head the whole time, so that’s what we kept fighting for. We wanted to be ranked with the top dogs the whole time.”
The rankings certainly started to climb for Penn State. After being unranked heading into the Ohio State game, the Nittany Lions emerged from the victory as the No. 24 team in the country.
Then Franklin and company took down Purdue and Iowa handedly, and Penn State made the jump to No. 9 in the Week 11 AP Poll.
After the Iowa game, the buzz, attention and celebration reached an all-time high for the Nittany Lions.
They took on a booming trend, the mannequin challenge (which Bell said was originally his idea), in the postgame locker room.
The video blew up, and Penn State wasn’t just a college football sensation — it was an internet sensation.
More than becoming increasingly popular on the national stage, the mannequin challenge showed just how close of a bond the members of the 2016 team had built.
“I think it was one of the funnest times I had playing football. We always joke and say fall 2016 was the best time of our lives,” Haley said. “The energy was so good. You felt good just walking around campus and going to class. Some of my best friends still talk about those little moments, those little things that just pop in our head from that year.
“From the star player to the last walk-on, they were all dancing in the huddle with us after we won. That shows how close that group was.”
And there was plenty of dancing as that year went on.
Penn State went on to defeat Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan State to close out the year at 10-2 — at that time the best record of the Franklin era and the best overall since 2009.
The chips all fell in in perfect order for the Nittany Lions, and the goals they talked about all offseason were then on the horizon.
“[Big Ten] teams just started losing, and as I started looking down the schedule, I’d been joking around with people saying ‘Hey, if we continue to win, there’s a chance that other teams will lose, and we’ll get a chance to go to the Big Ten Championship,’” Wartman-White said. “Lo and behold, as each week went by one by one, one by one the confidence just kept gaining… I truly believe if we didn’t have that bond, we would’ve just fell apart that season”
Sure enough, the stars aligned. The No. 8 Penn State Nittany Lions had a date in Indianapolis with the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers.
Penn State knew who Wisconsin was. The Badger program has alway had a distinct identity, one it carries with it to this day.
Wisconsin runs the ball, and it runs the ball well behind some of the biggest offensive linemen in the country. Knowing exactly what to expect from the Badgers didn’t help Franklin and company out of the gates, though.
The Badgers walked all over the Nittany Lions in the first half, jumping out to a 28-7 lead late in the second quarter.
However, a late, 40-yard touchdown connection from McSorley and wide receiver Saeed Blacknall gave Penn State an inkling of momentum, down 28-14 going into halftime and receiving the ball first in the third quarter.
Especially defensively, Franklin’s squad was far from playing its best football of the season.
Wartman-White, who was giving “dummy signals” on the field that game, said he knew Wisconsin wasn’t doing anything Penn State didn’t expect — they just needed to execute.
“Watching the first half, if you just go watch the film, most of the mistakes or when they got points or when they drove the ball was mostly self-induced,” Wartman-White said. “It was just guys not doing their job, just guys trying to do extra.”
While the Nittany Lions expected Wisconsin to be a tough opponent, Bell said they “definitely” didn’t expect to be down 28-7 at any point in the game.
The 2016 team had a reputation for slow starts and being a “second-half team,” so Bell acknowledged everyone was calm in the locker room and knew what had to be done to get back in the game.
Everyone except Wartman-White, that is.
Bell, Haley and Allen all recalled the injured Wartman-White’s halftime speech. As bad as it may have felt to be down in that game, it was probably even worse having to watch it from the sideline.
Wartman-White fought through “passionate tears,” according to Allen, and rallied his troops back for the second half.
“I don’t know — I just started talking. And then talking turned into yelling. And then yelling turned into telling people this is a simple task,” Wartman-White said. “If they can score 28 points, why can’t we? If they can hold our offense to seven points in a half, why can’t we? I just saw heads hanging… That’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.”
Haley said all he remembered from that halftime was Wartman-White’s speech.
“He stood up in front of the team, and he screamed at us,” Haley said. “It was something that brought energy to the team. We knew we were better than we were playing.”
After that moment, Wartman-White said McSorley stood in front of the team and did his own speech, and the feeling of the locker room started to shift.
“Everyone went from their tail between their legs to their ears perked up and tails wagging, biting at the bit to get back in the game,” Wartman-White said.
As much as Franklin, Haley and the team may have wanted to buck the “second-half team” denotation, they’re certainly thankful to this day that it represented their team in Indianapolis that night.
On the first play of the second half, McSorley and Blacknall connected for another touchdown, this time for 70 yards.
The rest of the way, Penn State tacked on two more touchdowns and a field goal while only allowing a single field goal from the Badgers.
In its final drive of the game, Wisconsin faced a fourth-and-1 situation with one minute left and a 38-31 deficit.
“I believe they ran a similar play they’d been gashing us on all day, some type of off-tackle play. You know Wisconsin, big o-linemen, those guys are maulers. It’s what they do,” Bell said. “Instantly, everyone knew he was short.”
Penn State regained possession, ran four plays and the clock hit zero. Confetti fell, and Franklin and his team completed the comeback to win their first and only appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Bell said the moment was an “awesome” experience and something he’d only seen on TV and in movies.
Haley recalled the “I love you, bro” statements made around the locker room, and he said it was one of those things you hope to be a part of in a winning culture.
As for Wartman-White, seeing the confetti fall and taking the trophy home felt like “the greatest thing ever.”
“If you flash back to 2012, and then you go all the way to 2016 and ask yourself, ‘Are you going to see confetti fall?’ You might say ‘I don’t know,’” Wartman-White said. “To know that you took it one day at a time, and then you’re finally in that championship game, and you face that adversity again where you’re like ‘S---. We worked too godd--- hard to be down 28-7.’ And then to come back and pull it off — it’s a surreal moment.
“[There were] so many ebbs and flows… Once you get to that last moment, you just skyrocket to a rush of emotion.”
As the mannequin challenge and the bond between the team showed, the 2016 Penn State team certainly knew how to celebrate its victories.
The aftermath of the win in Indianapolis could have been the perfect wrap-up scene to a movie about the Nittany Lions, at least in the way Allen described it.
“That hotel was packed. We had so much fun, man. We were drinking. All our parents — the hotel was just packed full of people,” Allen said. “All the fans, it felt like the club for real. Everybody was so proud of us. And then we got to celebrate together again as a team.”
Perhaps larger than the win itself, though, was what the 2016 season meant to the Penn State program.
After the turmoil the program had endured in the early 2010s, undergoing two head coaching changes, scholarship depletions, playoff bans and a string of average years at best, Penn State football was best described as “in limbo,” according to Wartman-White.
When Penn State had just 65 scholarships compared to 85 for other programs and younger players had to step up and play for two or three years immediately after the penalties, the Nittany Lions were written off by many.
The 2016 campaign changed that narrative.
“It was the return of Penn State, and that’s the only way I can explain it,” Wartman-White said. “People [are] now arguing over, ‘[Penn State] should be in the playoffs.’ They’re back in people’s mouths, and people were talking. The buzz is just different.”
It may be a popular cliche to say you’ll leave a place better than you found it, but Wartman-White took pride in being a part of that mantra at Penn State.
For McGloin, who endured the adversity between the 2011 and 2012 seasons and stayed with the team, he took pride in watching the representatives of his alma mater prove themselves to the outsiders.
“I think it just shut everybody up outside of Penn State football,” McGloin said. “I don’t think ever for a second that anybody inside of the program or inside of those locker room doors doubted Penn State football… If you ever wore a Penn State shirt, you wore the blue and white, I don't think you ever doubted what that program or university was capable of doing — it was just everyone outside.”
Despite the season ending in a Rose Bowl loss for the Nittany Lions, history had already been made, and the program was indeed back in the national spotlight.
For longtime believers around Happy Valley, all that was left was to enjoy the moment.
“You were kind of just able to sit back and smile,” McGloin said. “You didn’t really need to say anything because you knew you were right, and everyone else knew they were wrong. That was an awesome moment — not just for me, but for all of Penn State.”