Offense helps year end on right note

NEW YORK – Penn State picked the perfect way and the perfect place to get back in the postseason bowl business.

At hallowed Yankee Stadium, the most famous venue in sports, the Nittany Lions rallied from four deficits to defeat Boston College, 31-30, in overtime, before a Pinstripe Bowl record crowd of 49,012 Saturday.

“Must have been a helluva game to watch,” BC coach Steve Addazio said.

It was. Even the ghosts of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle had to be impressed at the resiliency shown by a Nittany Lion team that finally found its offensive groove that had been missing since the season opener in Ireland.

“We have a way of starting the season in dramatic fashion and ending it in dramatic fashion,” James Franklin said.

Indeed. The Lions ran around hugging each other and slapping five with all their fans after Sam Ficken’s game-winning field goal beat UCF, and they repeated the scene all over the Yankee Stadium turf.

The common denominator was an offense that began the season with lofty expectations, endured unfathomable struggles for most of the next 11 games, and then ended with Saturday’s exclamation point.

Penn State has had its share of championship moments in bowl games, clinching national titles (1982 and ’86) and unbeaten seasons (1968-69-73-86 and ’94) so this isn’t to suggest that this game or finishing 7-6 will rank in the PSU annals.

But after enduring three seasons of sanctions and pure hell, really, the wildly entertaining matchup against an old eastern foe and ally will rank among the Lions’ better bowl efforts.

And they’ve had their share.

Penn State’s fans who turned Yankee Stadium into its usual sea of blue surely appreciated the effort. So did Franklin, who said, “These (senior) guys will always be remembered for standing strong and staying strong. It really springboards us into the offseason and next season.”

And it does so, most importantly, by removing the large question mark about the Nittany Lions’ offense, its offensive organization and its quarterback that had dogged the team since the calendar flipped to October.

Suddenly, Christian Hackenberg was the Hackenberg of 2013 and against UCF, throwing for 371 yards and four touchdowns and looking like his NFL self.

The line, virtual matadors all season, was providing solid protection and even overcoming the unfortunate loss of guard Miles Dieffenbach, a popular senior captain, to injury in the second quarter.

Receivers that Franklin didn’t think were easy targets because of limited separation were much more open as three of them – DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis and freshman Chris Godwin – each caught seven passes and a touchdown.

“We got our swagger back,” Hamilton said, “and our offensive line obviously did a great job today.”

Hackenberg was more relaxed in the pocket, and he overcame two fumbles caused by miscommunication on the snap count – “I take responsibility,” center Angelo Mangiro said – while bringing the Lions back from deficits of 14-7, 21-7, 24-21 and 30-24 by making some superior throws.

“Ultimately, the character of the team showed,” Hackenberg said.

And it helped produce the most unsung of heroes in tight end Kyle Carter, who could not get on the same page with Hackenberg all season and whose drops seemed to be a weekly occurrence.

Saturday night, though, in the left corner of the end zone that is left-center field of the baseball stadium, Carter went up and pulled down the game-winning touchdown over BC safety Ty-Meer Brown.

“When we were able to protect Christian, I’ve been saying if our receivers had the time to get into their routes, we could do some good things,” Franklin said.

The Lions’ running game wasn’t great, but they stayed with it long enough to spring Akeel Lynch for 75 yards and a 4.4 average on 17 carries.

Lynch took particular satisfaction in being a key part of a unit that more than carried its share.

“Our defense held us all year long,” Lynch, whose 35-yard run to the BC 1 set up the Lions’ game-tying touchdown. “It was time for our offense to step it up.”

BC gashed the Lions for a season-high 289 yards rushing, one reason the Penn State offense knew it couldn’t keep putting pressure on its defense (even though the Lions punted 10 times).

“We could have scored even more,” Lynch said.

Even when down 21-7, the Lions showed a resolve missing when November games were on the line.

“As a player, you can feel when the game plan is good, and we felt that this week,” Mangiro said. “BC has a great run offense, and we knew we couldn’t keep putting our defense out there. We had to score and control the ball.”

In doing so, the 2014 Nittany Lions left as a winner – “7-6 is a lot sweeter than 6-7,” Mangiro said – and, though it took all year, ultimately became a team.

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