Penn State's stunning win and No. 24 ranking show it's on right track

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It was a night no one in Happy Valley will ever forget.

Some Penn State players dove on the turf and mimed making snow angels. Thousands of students rushed the field to hug and high-five the Nittany Lions players, while dozens audibly screamed “Oh my God!” to no one in particular.

The Nittany Lion mascot crowd-surfed in the middle of the field. One Penn State walk-on climbed onto the shoulders of a fan. And thousands screamed, hugged, skipped and jumped until the Nittany Lions finally retired into the locker room after a stunning 24-21 upset of No. 2 Ohio State.

“I literally can’t put this into words,” said a hoarse tight end Mike Gesicki. “I lost my voice. That’s why all of us came here, you know? Nobody believed in us. Literally nobody believed in us.

“Everyone’s talking about how we just shocked the nation. We might’ve shocked everyone outside this room, but we believed that we would win this game.”

Penn State is now ranked -- at No. 24 -- for the first time since its unprecedented sanctions began in the summer of 2012. The program has dealt with fines, a reduction in scholarships, a bowl ban, and it’s still not entirely back at full strength. But somehow, Penn State upset one of the top teams in the nation Saturday night.

Maybe the win doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions are “back” just yet. But that doesn’t really matter. Saturday's victory showed Penn State is either a sleeping giant or a waking giant -- but it’s still a giant. This program finally has direction, and it’s on the rise.

“Hopefully, when they make the 30 for 30 on the bounce-back, this game will be in there,” Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said, referring both to the Lions' recovery from the sanctions and the ESPN series of sports documentary films. “And they’ll put me in there.”

After the game, wideout Saeed Blacknall fell to his knees in the end zone as sprinting fans patted his shoulder pads. Safety Malik Golden couldn’t stop smiling while fans lined up to hug him. And an emotional coach James Franklin lingered on the field while fans yelled “We love you!” and “Yeah, Franklin!”

This was Penn State’s biggest -- and most emotional -- win in more than a decade. Fans last rushed the field like this Oct. 8, 2005, when Penn State marked its return to national prominence with a mild upset against the No. 6 Buckeyes. This was bigger.

Penn State last beat a top-two team in 1990, when it upended No. 1 Notre Dame. This was bigger.

Saturday night’s victory was one of the biggest home wins in Penn State’s 129-year football history. You might have to go back to 1982 to find a win that rivals this one.

“I feel sorry for the people that left at the beginning of the fourth quarter because there was a part of the section that was empty and I’m like, it was full five minutes ago,” Gesicki said. “I feel bad for the people that left because they just missed one of the biggest wins in school history.”

Police estimated that as many as 10,000 fans spilled onto the downtown streets of State College Sunday morning to celebrate. It wasn’t always a great look for the university -- some fans rioted and tore down street signs -- but it wasn’t a surprise. This school has lived on moral victories and wins against unranked opponents for far too long. Before Saturday night, Penn State last beat a ranked team three years ago. It last defeated a top-10 team eight years ago.

Saturday night through early Sunday morning was filled with raw emotion. Penn State hasn’t had much reason to celebrate lately, and the past several years of doubt and frustration instantaneously gave way to surprise and ecstasy.

“You don’t understand,” safety Marcus Allen said. “I wanted to cry. Like, we did it, man. We did it.”

Offensive guard Brendan Mahon added, “Nights like tonight are what you live for -- and why you come to Penn State.”

Four weeks ago, Penn State stood at 2-2, and most wondered if Franklin could survive another season of hot-seat talk. His athletic director had to issue a vote of confidence to ease concerns. Recruits and their parents wondered aloud if PSU was still on the right track.

This past month couldn’t have gone more different.

First, after a poor half against Minnesota, Penn State rallied to beat the Golden Gophers in an emotional 29-26 overtime victory. Then, Penn State played its most complete game of the season -- maybe its most complete game since 2014 -- in a 38-14 dismantling of Maryland. And then came Saturday night.

Penn State is going to be all right -- and that’s not something that could have been said a month ago. It's evident by the scenes Saturday night. Some fans who rushed the field leaned down to pluck out grass as souvenirs. Franklin swayed with student fans and sang the alma mater -- even some police joined in. Players stopped and savored the moment before ringing the victory bell.

Franklin stopped at the bell, too, and gave it a few tugs before turning and embracing linebacker Manny Bowen.

“Wow, wow,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said shortly after fans filtered out through the tunnel and left the stadium. “I’ll tell you what: Me and Manny stayed up last night and started finally falling asleep. And we talked about just how great it would be to pull this off, and how we believe we could pull this off, and how it would be like writing history.

“And we did it.”