If it was easy, it wouldn't have been reminiscent of the past 23 months in State College.
With about 100 recruits in attendance, Bill O’Brien and Co. had the ideal opportunity to showcase the program. With the Nittany Lions facing a ranked Michigan team, all 107,884 fans were wearing white in what ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit labeled the best atmosphere in college football
Penn State needed to rebound from an embarrassing loss the week prior against Indiana, and a similar defeat on a day they were persuading so many to become Nittany Lions wouldn’t look good.
It seemed like Penn State wouldn't be headed down that road when it took a 21-10 lead into halftime. But just when Penn Staters thought it was going to be easy, Devin Gardner brought Michigan back and put the Wolverines on top heading into the fourth quarter.
What ensued after that will go down as folklore in Happy Valley. Because just when it appeared the Nittany Lions wouldn't survive, they somehow did.
Down seven with 50 seconds left and no timeouts, it looked like Penn State was done. An 18-year-old freshman had other ideas, though, as Christian Hackenberg marched the team down the field on five plays for the game-tying score.
It appeared Penn State was done again when Sam Ficken missed a field goal in the first overtime. But Kyle Baublitz decided otherwise, blocking what would have been the game-winning field goal off the foot of Brendan Gibbons, sending the game to a second overtime.
And when it appeared Penn State had swung and missed for a third time after an Allen Robinson fumble, a stroke of luck pushed Gibbons' field goal wide—his third potential winner of the night.
All three of those plays symbolized Penn State’s situation over the past 23 months. Whether facing severe scholarship reductions or a fumble, Penn State football has been able to find new life just when it appeared it was finished.
The sanctions levied in July 2012 appeared to be a crushing blow to the program. Many, including Christine Brennan of USA Today, thought Penn State football would enter a downward spiral. The following tweet has since been deleted:
— Christine Brennan (@cbrennansports) July 23, 2012
But winning football games and impressing in recruiting so far have suggested against an ailing program. Penn State is 12-6 through the first 18 games of the sanctions, despite players being able to leave without penalty and top recruits losing interest. And even though they won’t be going to a bowl game for another three seasons, the Nittany Lions still managed to pull in the 34th-ranked recruiting class in 2013, according to Scout.com.
The above accomplishments are a good sign. And while the turbulence created by the sanctions isn’t over yet, the end is in sight.
That couldn’t be summed up any better than by the above picture of Bill Belton’s two-yard dash to seal the victory over Michigan. On that run, there was a split second when he hadn't yet crossed the goal line, but everyone knew the game was over.
That’s symbolic of the juncture Penn State is at right now with regard to its progression through the sanctions—not quite there, but looking good.