Penn State went to Iowa City, stared down defeat and didn’t blink. Teams that end up playing for the championships often have to go through one or more defining games like Saturday’s to reach the ultimate pinnacle, and the Nittany Lions got through the fire with the biggest of goals still alive.
I don’t know if Saturday’s instant classic in Iowa City is going to mean a more than a hill of beans to Penn State when it’s all said and done, but there’s a good chance it will. You can point to almost any team that goes through a championship run, and there’s more than likely at least one game in which adversity strikes, putting dreams and goals in serious jeopardy.
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NC State put a scare in Clemson last year. In 2015, Alabama dodged a checkerboard bullet in a close one with Tennessee. Ditto for Ohio State who lost to Virginia Tech in 2014 and also needed double OT to beat Penn State on the road.
Ah, Penn State. That’s where we pick up this little story.
Make no mistake about it, Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and company dominated the game in Iowa City, but here we were late in the fourth quarter, and thanks to an Iowa team that fought like crazy to hang around, the game was in doubt. When Iowa running back Akrum Wadley found a seam through the left side of the line and down the sideline to pay dirt with just 1:42 left, Iowa finally wrangled away the lead, and potentially the game. The score stood at 19-15.
It all happened despite the human highlight, Saquon Barkley coming out of a telephone booth to make no less than five sick plays that cemented his status as the Heisman front-runner.
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A loss on the road wouldn’t have completely dashed the hopes of a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance for Penn State, but it would have made the margin for error razor thin with many big tests against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and potentially the Big Ten West champion in Indy still to go.
But it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter because Penn State did what championship ball clubs do. It took possession with the sands of the hourglass running out and everything on the line, and moved the ball efficiently down the field. It did it against a defense that had given up yards but stiffened when it really mattered.
Then, somehow, someway, with just :04 left when everything mattered the most, Trace McSorley delivered a throw off the back foot on fourth and goal from the seven, through a mass of arms and bodies, and into the hands of wide receiver Juwan Johnson for a walk-off game winner. The game will likely be replayed on BTN, ESPN Classic and many DVRs in and around Penn State fan households for years to come.
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And say what you will about breaks, bounces of the ball, luck or whatever else you want to call it. Teams cut out of championship cloth are the ones that always seem to be on the right side of the inches game, and make their own breaks and bounces.
And it happened Saturday night for the team wearing the Plane Jane uniforms that are as timeless as the game itself.
So off we go, onto the next chapter in this season that could prove to be a very special one for Penn State. After all, it’s got superhuman running back Saquon Barkley and a supporting cast that can move the ball on anyone. It’s also got a defense that looks to be much more improved over the version from last year.
This is a complete team, or so it appears four games into the season.
More importantly though, because of what we saw in Iowa City, it appears to have the hear of a champion that believes it can win with the chips down and the stakes all in. This team is good enough to win it all, and thanks to the clutch 65 yard drive that sent Hawkeye fans home in despair, there’s still plenty to play for.
They are … Penn State.
Phil Harrison is a contributor to Talking10 and the featured Big Ten writer for Collegefootballnews.com. You can get his analysis and opinion all year long on Talking10.com. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB