DUBLIN - Penn State planned to celebrate during its long flight back to Pennsylvania on Saturday night after a thrilling finish 3,000 miles from home.
"We're going to be partying all the way back to the United States," an exuberant James Franklin said after his first game as coach of the Nittany Lions.
There's a small margin for error in sports, and there figures to be one with this Penn State team all season. The Nittany Lions outplayed Central Florida for most of Saturday's game, and yet they still nearly lost the Croke Park Classic after a late comeback by the Knights.
The Associated Press
Penn State coach James Franklin and quarterback Christian Hackenberg celebrate a touchdown. Hackenberg broke Penn State’s single-game passing yardage record in Franklin’s first game.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Loyal Penn State football fans Todd and JoZane Cardamone of Bellwood watch the start of the Penn State-UCF game at the Belmar Hotel in Altoona.
Trailing inside the final minute, the Lions turned to star quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who had a record-setting day with 454 passing yards. He wasn't nervous about being behind with so little time left.
"We were excited," Hackenberg said. "We've been there before. We've been down before. Even though we're young, we understand what we can do."
He did it several times last year, and Hackenberg did it again Saturday as he led the team down the field into scoring position. Sam Ficken then booted a 36-yard field goal as time expired for a 26-24 victory.
More than 100 Penn State players and coaches rushed onto the field celebrating as if they had just won a championship or a bowl game. Franklin lifted Ficken up off the ground with a massive bear hug, then the coach joyfully yelled the school's "We are" chant to more than 15,000 Penn State fans who traveled to watch the program play its first international game.
"When you win, it makes the trip more exciting," PSU receiver Geno Lewis said before later adding, "I'm just glad I got the opportunity to come overseas and see how different it is from America."
Franklin admitted he
wasn't exactly thrilled about coming to Ireland, a trip that was set up by previous head coach Bill O'Brien as a reward for the players since NCAA penalties prohibit them from going to a bowl game. But after a win, particularly one in which his players showed grit and determination at the end, Franklin was ecstatic about how things played out.
"These guys never stopped believing in each other, never stopped believing in the program, and they found a way to win," Franklin said. "That's a very, very important ingredient to have, and we have that."
Penn State appeared to be in good position to win throughout, especially when holding a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. But the fans in Ireland - some of whom may not have understood exactly what they were watching with American football - got to see the game come down to the wire.
"Who won the game," a young college girl in attendance asked shortly after it ended.
That would be Penn State.
But not without some tense moments at the end, which Franklin joked about afterward.
"We talked with the people from Croke Park, and they really wanted us to win it in the last 10 seconds or so for TV ratings and everything else," the coach said. "So that's what I talked to these guys about at halftime. I said, 'Let's find a way to make it interesting and then win it with the last 10 seconds to go in the game.'"
As for how much fun the team would have on the plane ride home Saturday night?
"Unbelievable," Franklin said. "Gatorade, Chick-fil-A sandwiches, water. Yeah, we're going to enjoy it. That's kind of what we do. We're really going to enjoy the win."