Lions deserve Big Ten glory

Commentary

INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State won its first Big Ten championship game Saturday night, and its heroic performance was more than fitting as the Nittany Lions have shown the heart of a champion all year.

But never did their heart pound harder than at Lucas Oil Stadium against a bigger, stronger Wisconsin team that pushed them around for the game’s first 30 minutes.

The Nittany Lions fell behind 21 points — just like they did at Pitt — only this time, they rallied all the way back in dominating fashion and beat the Badgers, 38-31, to win their ninth straight game while clinching a berth in the Rose Bowl, likely to be announced today.

That’s unless the College Football Playoff committee comes to its senses and takes the Big Ten champ.

The Lions have been college football’s Cinderella story all year, and just when their chariot looked like it might turn into a pumpkin, they showed why this program has come all the way back from its darkest days a half-decade ago.

Another slow start did not deter them as they contributed to Wisconsin building a 28-7 lead.

In fact, it fueled them as their fearless leader, sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley, once again put the offense on his back and triggered another double-digit comeback.

McSorley won’t win the Heisman Trophy, but he should get votes. He’s been that valuable to the Nittany Lions’ attack as he put together another sterling four-touchdown performance, 375-yard plus showing in which PSU hit bomb after bomb.

The offensive line gave McSorley enough time to work his magic, and his receivers showed why collectively, they’re one of the best units in the country.

Just as it has done all year, the defense, through its liberal substitution up front, got stronger as the game wore on, allowed just three second-half points, and gave the offense enough chances to win the game.

Full of character and resiliency, this team is without question the most improved in Penn State history from September to December.

It improved from the first to the second half in just about every game, the ultimate tribute to James Franklin, coordinators Brent Pry and Joe Moorhead and the entire coaching staff.

Saturday night’s victory should take its place as one of the most meaningful in Penn State’s long and decorated history not only because it’s the first Big Ten championship game crown but because of the extraordinary effort it took to achieve.

The Lions’ performance was so strong that they overcame three two-score leads and some questionable first-half strategy in which they went for a fourth-and-2 at their own 42, down 21-7, which didn’t work and turned into an 28-7 deficit.

They didn’t flinch. Having been down by the same score at Pitt on Sept. 10, only to rally back before falling 42-39, this time they would not be denied.

Not only are the Lions winning, but they’re doing so in a wildly entertaining fashion that had Lucas Oil Stadium rocking with the vast-majority of white-clad Penn State fans who made the trip.

And as if an 11-2 record and a likely pending appointment with USC isn’t enough, consider that the Lions lose just four starters from their first-string offensive and defensive units.

Clearly, this is a program on a meteoric rise and one that has served notice that no matter which Big Ten teams may be ranked ahead of Penn State in the CFP poll today, the Lions’ future is only getting brighter, and they are here to stay.

During the post-game celebration, Franklin challenged the committee to consider the Lions’ body of work and acknowledge their standing as the Big Ten champion.

Either way, it should not take away from one of the most remarkable seasons in Penn State history — as good a coaching job as has ever been done, especially considering the circumstances — and even though the system may not measure up, this team has done everything in its power.

There’s one team in college football that can stand alone today, and that’s Alabama.

But Penn State wakes up this morning with as much right to believe it deserves a chance to play the Crimson Tide as anybody else.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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