Joey Julius lay still, facedown on the Beaver Stadium grass.
Penn State’s 258-pound kickoff man, a fan and teammate favorite, had just taken a shot from Minnesota linebacker Jaylon Waters in the third quarter that pinwheeled Julius and flipped him onto the ground. The hit came after a clear touchback on the kick return.
The crowd lost its collective mind; half of the 90,000-odd in the stadium stood and screamed and part of Penn State’s sideline cleared as Julius lay still, then was helped up and off the field. Waters was ejected.
“I’m not going to say a whole lot about that,” said defensive end Evan Schwan, after the 29-26 Penn State overtime win. “But that hit was the nail in the coffin for Minnesota.”
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Penn State had to feel something; a bucket of cold water to the face after a sluggish first half. If it was anger, so be it.
“It was like two completely different games,” head coach James Franklin said after the win. “…I do think that play fired everybody up. There’s no doubt about that.”
The hit on Julius certainly spurred on Schwan, whose sack on Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner on the Gophers’ overtime-opening drive helped hold the team to a field goal.
“I had been rushing hard outside the entire game,” said Schwan, who added that he was still shaking from all the adrenaline. “… Absolutely not (have never experienced a big play like that). I’m like, euphoric right now. It feels amazing.”
A play later, running back Saquon Barkley took the first Penn State overtime snap, an inside zone run, and shed two tackles on his way to a 25-yard touchdown, and straight into the arms of the hysterically happy fans behind the end zone.
“Thank you for trusting me,” Barkley was caught saying on camera to offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
“I remember saying something like that,” said Barkley. “The run game, we weren’t really popping big (runs), so I was just like, ‘Thank you for trusting me, thank you for trusting the offensive line.’
“That was probably one of the greatest feelings in my life.”
Lost in the glory were offensive linemen Brian Gaia, Ryan Bates and Brendan Mahon. Bates got to the second-level (linebackers) and Mahon wrapped up a defensive tackle in their blocks on the play, while Gaia shoved a would-be run-stuffer outside to break Barkley loose. The line also did not give up any sacks.
“It means a lot,” Bates said after the game. “That run was a simple inside zone. And we just executed well, got a hat on a hat. I got up to the linebacker, Brendan took care of the defensive tackle, and watching Saquon run down the field, we know nobody is going to catch him.”
Before that, kicker Tyler Davis had to stay perfect.
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Davis nailed a 40-yard field goal, his 17th on 17 attempts in his career, to force overtime at 23 points apiece.
“I go into every kick like it’s a game-winner,” Davis said. “The team is counting on me every kick. It’s a mentality thing and preparation thing that just really helps me. ... I tried to just block everything out.”
Before that, Trace McSorley had to help get Davis there.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback, like the rest of the offense, struggled in the first half. But on third down, with less than a 30 seconds to play in the fourth quarter, McSorley scrambled for 26 yards and went out of bounds to stop the clock and set up the field goal.
“I just dropped back, and pre-snap I had an idea that they were going to be running man coverage,” he said. “Everyone dropped out, and stepping up through the pocket I saw green grass. And I just took off. My first thought was, ‘Get to the sideline.’”
It was a comeback from a 13-3 halftime deficit, one in which both teams were a combined 2 for 14 on third down by halftime, with Penn State 0 for 7.
“We talked about making adjustments here and there, and then we just said, ‘Hey. This is on our shoulders. This is what we want,” McSorley said.
Penn State opened the second half with a three-and-out, but converted its first third down of the game on an 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run by receiver Irvin Charles. It was Charles’ first career catch, and when the ball was darted into his hands by McSorley it seemed to throw the young receiver off guard before he ran in the score.
“Irv’s catch today was huge,” said Franklin. “I mean, he’s not even looking for the ball and then he turns around at the last second and it hits him in the chest. Then he’s just so big, strong and fast that he turns around and makes the play.”
Along with the Julius hit, the touchdown catch sparked the Nittany Lions, whose celebrations caused their head coach to chuckle in his postgame presser.
“This is a game that we can grow from, there are a lot of things we need to get cleaned up,” said Franklin. “But those guys believed and that was big. And they’re having a great time in this locker room, it’s awesome in there. ... They are partying. Have you guys ever seen the movie ‘Soul Plane’? That’s what it looks like in there.”
Added Barkley, “This means a lot, because we’re back on track.”