The storybook season authored by the 2016 edition of the Penn State Nittany Lion football team is nearly over. The final chapter is an improbable date in Pasadena against USC, a team who came back from the dead after a 1-3 start to reel off 8 wins in a row. USC entered the season as a preseason # 17/20, and with PSU having to replace the two principal coordinators coming off double-digit losses to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, no one could have predicted this Rose Bowl matchup.
It seems like a forever since Penn State was playing relevant football on (or around) New Year’s Day. The last conference championship was 8 years ago, with an appearance in the Rose Bowl against these same Trojans. Onward State alluded to some similarities between the 2008 squad in this article earlier this month. Some of the cited parallels are that both head coaches (Joe Paterno and James Franklin) won Coach of the Year awards, both teams had elite, record-setting running backs (Evan Royster and Saquon Barkley) and both teams had a stable of reliable receivers.
But that 2008 team, the climate around the program and the year in general had other parallels worth exploring. The season took place in an election year, where the incumbent party was unseated in favor of a dynamic (though polarizing), paradigm-busting candidate. Michael Phelps was the story of the summer Olympics which concluded shortly before the season. And though on very different scales, both football seasons had remnants of scandals. The 2008 season began under scrutiny derived from the ESPN Outside the Lines exposé detailing Penn State’s off-field incidents several years before. The 2016 team would have been the first team to be eligible to play in a bowl game under the original term of the NCAA sanctions, which still significantly affected the depth and experience level of key contributors to the team.
The respective teams entered the seasons having disappointed the previous year. The 2007 Penn State team was thought to be national title contenders, but finished 9-4. The 2015 Penn State team looked to build on the previous year’s result, but finished an identical 7-6 with a bowl loss. Those seasons were marked by bad November losses at Michigan State and Northwestern, respectively, in which they blew 4th quarter leads. The 2008 and 2016 teams both saw the exit of a 5-star, pro-style QB with a cannon arm in Anthony Morelli and Christian Hackenberg. Both of those QB’s generally underperformed during their tenure, with moments of success balanced against frustrating developmental regressions.
Both schedules of the 2008 and 2016 teams included narrow road losses which ultimately cost the team a shot at a national title. Penn State blew a two-score 4th quarter lead in the heartbreaking 2008 loss to Iowa, 24-23, which dropped then-#3 Penn State from the ranks of the unbeaten. It is highly probable that they would have played Oklahoma for the national title had they won that game, instead of 1-loss [eventual champion] Florida. The 2016 Pitt game saw Penn State nearly erase a two-score fourth quarter Pitt lead, as DaeSean Hamilton dropped the likely go-ahead touchdown with 2:51 left. If he makes that catch and Penn State holds on, they certainly would have secured at least the 4th position in the playoff assuming the remaining games resulted as they did.
Both seasons had lopsided defeats against Michigan, with the home team winning by at least 3 scores in each game. And both seasons were catapulted to stadium-recognition-status by comeback wins over Ohio State. Both games saw a defensive back make a pivotal play to propel the team to victory, with Lydell Sargeant intercepting Terrelle Pryor to clinch the win in 2008, and Grant Haley returning a blocked field goal attempt for the winning touchdown in 2016.
As I mentioned, the most obvious similarity is a Rose Bowl matchup against USC. Like in the 2008 season, both teams come in ranked numbers 5 and 8 in the official championship-defining rankings (BCS and CFP), though the rankings are flipped. But while the 2008 team came up short against Mark Sanchez and USC, hopefully that is where the similarities end.
The 2016 team bears some similarity to another Penn State Rose Bowl team, which also boasted prolific offense with an elite running back, a big-play QB and a stable of talented receivers. That is of course the 1994 team, which was denied a chance to play Nebraska for the national title on the field by voters, much the way a committee opted to deny the Nittany Lions a playoff bid in 2016. Here’s hoping the 2017 Rose Bowl ends up like the 1995 game, to show the college football world that not only is Penn State back in the upper echelon of the game, but also that it should be included in the national title conversation next year.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn