Rose Bowl Season Reaffirms Penn State Fan Support
In the moments that followed Penn State continuing an improbable season by claiming the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis earlier this month, Mike Gesicki spotted his head coach and had something to say.
“Hey,” Gesicki called out, prompting James Franklin to turn and see the New Jersey native.
“We earned that,” Gesicki said emphatically, embracing Franklin in a hug.
Gesicki repeated the line, though anyone close enough to hear what he said the first time could feel the emotional intensity from Gesicki, a junior who broke the program’s single-season mark for receiving yards for a tight end this season.
Gesicki then told Franklin, “I love you” — a sentiment that Franklin returned — and that moment could serve as a microcosm of Penn State’s breakout season. Gesicki shrugged off past struggles and dropped balls to become possibly Trace McSorley’s most dependable receiving target this year. That’s saying a lot, when you consider that the current receivers might be the Lions’ most talented group. Ever.
Against both Michigan State and Wisconsin, Gesicki elevated for touchdowns, receptions he snagged while being draped, and sometimes, double-teamed. He plays and talks with a confidence that’s a result of Franklin and his coaching staff, and the way they prepare each week.
No game is more important than the next one on the schedule, and while that can come across as standard, it’s generated a season that’s anything but.
It’s how Penn State bounced back from a 21-point deficit against Wisconsin. It’s how the Lions thumped seemingly strong opponents such as Iowa, Michigan State, and Maryland. It’s how they derailed Ohio State’s perfect season, pushed aside Rutgers in dreary weather, scored 24 fourth-quarter points to avoid an upset loss at Indiana, and perhaps most importantly, how the Lions salvaged their season — and maybe more — by clipping Minnesota at home on Oct. 1.
The blocked kick against Ohio State deservedly grabbed national headlines, and it’ll certainly stand as one of the most influential plays in recent Penn State history, and perhaps all-time. Though that doesn’t happen — none of this happens — if Joe Moorhead and the Lions offense don't stick with Saquon Barkley a few weeks prior. Penn State’s impressive sophomore running back was bottled up during much of the game against the Gophers, though Moorhead kept going to him, and it richly paid off when Barkley covered 25 yards for a walk-off win at Beaver Stadium that ended with fans embracing Barkley and his teammates behind the north end zone.
That was another microcosm moment. Many of the Penn State players talk about how Beaver Stadium is an intimidating atmosphere for opponents, and rightly so. The Nittany Lions completed a perfect 7-0 home mark this year, and have won 13 of their last 14 games at Beaver Stadium over the last two seasons.
Here’s what Barkley said about the crowd energy after the Homecoming victory against Maryland on Oct. 8:
“You feed off of it, and it makes you feel like you can do anything.”
In a season full of great memories, moments and quotes, that line from Barkley stands out as perhaps the best way to describe how the Nittany Lions parlayed that home energy into an iconic upset of Ohio State and this unforgettable year.
Back to Indianapolis.
As Penn State was completing the comeback that probably shouldn't have seemed so improbable — fans had seen the Lions come back time after time — the Blue Band played fight songs that kept fans energized and into the game. Afterward, center Brian Gaia said this:
“Our fans were definitely a factor on third down for them — a lot more than their fans were for us. Both teams have great fan bases, and ours really showed up this week and gave us an advantage.”
Those fans included students who bussed to Indianapolis on the day of the game, and returned right afterward. In total, 25 Fullington buses made the trip from State College to Lucas Oil Stadium. Also included was President Eric Barron, who was one of the first people to congratulate Franklin after the game; and it was so easy to see Barron’s genuineness as he celebrated with the Nittany Lion mascot on the field during the fourth quarter and interacted with Penn Staters during the weekend.
Fans also included alumni who traveled from across the country and significantly outnumbered Wisconsin fans on the sidewalks and in the local establishments of Indianapolis. For every red and white sweatshirt you saw, it seemed you saw 10 folks wearing blue and white.
That’s the great thing about Penn State football, and perhaps what people outside the program and university still don't understand. Penn State football isn’t about only what happens on the field. The Nittany Lion gridiron squad can galvanize a fan base and remind everyone why they love Penn State in the first place.
It’s about the people, and that’s why this year’s team is so easy to root for and support. From their community service projects, to more recently, Franklin calling and thanking a fan who became a social media superstar after video surfaced of his wife surprising him with Rose Bowl tickets, this becomes clear: We’re all in this together.
Additionally, Franklin and the Lions have repeatedly said the fans are an active part of all this winning; this doesn't happen without the support that’s created when tens of thousands of Penn Staters drop everything and travel to Indianapolis on less than a week’s notice.
Of course, you already know all this, but it’s still memorable when a season like this comes along and reaffirms that belief.
We have a feeling we’ll see many of you there.