Comeback against Gophers in 2016 was monumental
James Franklin was in big trouble. The Penn State football program was going nowhere fast.
Then came a vital second-half comeback against Minnesota at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 1, 2016 that turned everything around.
The Nittany Lions returned to national prominence with a huge upset of No. 2 Ohio State in late October of that year, but three weeks earlier, it was a win over the Gophers that proved to be much more monumental than anyone could have realized at the time.
It wasn’t that long ago, so the story is probably still fresh in the minds of many PSU fans.
The Lions were coming off a 49-10 drubbing at Michigan, leading to speculation that Franklin could be fired if he didn’t right the ship.
Athletic director Sandy Barbour had given Franklin a vote of confidence after the Michigan loss, telling the Mirror the Wednesday before the Minnesota game, “James is not on any hot seat.”
But the Lions found themselves down 13-3 at the half against the Gophers. Can you imagine how much heat Franklin would have been under had PSU lost that game?
A play that would go on to define Trace McSorley’s career ignited the Lions’ comeback. The quarterback avoided pressure, kept looking downfield, stepped up in the pocket and fired a pass to Irv Charles down the middle for an 80-yard touchdown.
“If you think about it, that game was going the other way and that play really gave us life,” running back Saquon Barkley said later that year as Big Ten champ PSU prepared to face USC in the Rose Bowl.
Minnesota has a long history of giving Penn State fits in key games, and the Gophers hung tough in that 2016 contest. They took a 23-20 lead on a field goal with 54 seconds left.
That turned out to be enough time for McSorley to work his magic. He hit Chris Godwin for a 20-yard pass to convert a third-and-10 from the PSU 25, and McSorley later converted a third-and-3 by scrambling 26 yards to the Minnesota 22.
That play came to signify McSorley’s great ability running the RPO offense — knowing when he needed to take off and run.
The Lions tied the game at 23 with 2 seconds left on a 40-yard field goal by Tyler Davis.
At that point, being the home team going into overtime, it seemed pretty clear that Penn State was going to win the game. The Lions did just that on Barkley’s 25-yard TD run in OT.
It was a great win. No one had any idea at the time just how big it was, but had Penn State lost that game, Franklin very well could have lost the team that season.
Instead, the Lions found themselves that night against Minnesota. They gained a lot of confidence, and once they had that, we began to see just how immensely talented so many players were on that team.
Cory Giger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.