More than just a Penn State football victory? ‘We remained ourselves. We remained a family’

Victories must not be impressive in all means, through any particular fashion, to forge meaning and impact.

Penn State did not solve many of its dilemmas Saturday in Michigan.

But it found a way to win for the first time in nearly a year.

It figured out ways to own small moments that would eventually build into a positive outcome the Nittany Lions hope can ripple out from here.

Nov 28, 2020; Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Will Levis (7) receives congratulations from tight end Brenton Strange (86) after he dives for a touchdown in the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach James Franklin, and at least some of his players, believe that’s all that was needed from their 27-17 victory over the Wolverines, some parts of which were numbing, other parts clumsy.

They will acknowledge it not only for what it is but what it can be. They will celebrate it during their upcoming day off.

For the first time in 11 months, they will eat after a win.

“We’re going to have Victory Monday dinner, which is going to be the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted in my life,” Franklin said.

Defensive tackle and team leader P.J. Mustipher joined in a bit later: “That meal on Monday, I’m going to kill that. I’m probably going to have four plates and take home two as well.”

He said that and smiled, and you could sense he believed.

Isn’t that really what a victory over an equally disjointed Michigan team really is about, anyway?

Belief and confidence, especially with so many young players, that can carry over even when most everyone on the outside can’t see it.

Go back to 2001 when the Lions stunned the college football world by losing their first four games. Some wondered if they would win even once all season.

And then they found a way at the very end against Northwestern, and through it all, players who struggled to finish anything suddenly looked as if they couldn’t miss again.

Five victories in seven games followed and carried over to the next season.

Go back to 2004, too, the last losing season at Penn State. Six straight defeats for one of the most anemic offenses in school history.

Then came a goal-line stand at lowly Indiana, and the players celebrated like they had won a Big Ten title. They demanded that it meant something. They were right. They discovered an unlikely offense and won 12 of their next 13 through 2005.

Nov 28, 2020; Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) grabs his knee in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Which brings us back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and these Nittany Lions trying to rally together to save something after losing more key players and games to start a season than any time, ever.

They had to come together during a pandemic, traveling to play without being able to even hold team meals or meetings. Then the WiFi went out in their hotel, and they couldn’t even meet on video calls.

An 0-5 team relying on freshmen at receiver, tight end, the offensive line and running back.

You try to fix your problems like that.

“The whole year’s just been strange,” Franklin said. “You drive up to the Big House, and there’s not a car on the road. There’s nobody giving you the middle finger … like you get at every place. The parking lots are empty.”

Then, during his usual pregame walk around the stadium, “you’re looking at a bunch of cardboard cutouts, and there’s nobody there and this is Big Ten football. … I could have never imagined this in my wildest dreams. I can’t even put into words how surreal this whole year has been.”

Nov 28, 2020; Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Keyvone Lee (24) rushes in the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

But then they play again, and his beaten-down quarterback makes the biggest runs of his life after getting whacked on the knee. The team that yields more devastating turnovers than any other abruptly doesn’t give the ball away once.

His rookie receiver catches nine passes, and his rookie running back goes off for 134 yards.

And when the football demons strike again, when a quizzical officiating call wipes away a sack and a game-clinching fumble recovery and gives Michigan new life?

Even then, when this team could have found another way to fall apart, it did not.

It doesn’t really matter that the opponent was 2-4 Michigan instead of undefeated Ohio State.

Breaking bad karma and believing is what matters.

“Aw, man, I don’t know if anyone in the program has slept since, what, October 23rd?” Mustipher said. referring to that heartbreaking, opening loss at Indiana.

“Losing’s hard, man. It’s tough, it really takes a toll on everybody. But that’s the great thing about this team — we didn’t give in, (and) we didn’t ever quit,” he said. “We remained ourselves, we remained a family. We knew the tide would turn — it was just when, and if we would stay committed to each other.”

Just like that fourth-quarter play when the officials called it off the game-clinching fumble recovery because Shaka Toney illegally “batted” the ball.

When giving the chance to shatter, Penn State’s defense held tough, didn’t give up even a yard on third down, and then fourth.

They secured an elusive win.

One that many will push aside. One that many will even joke about.

Much like that one in Indiana all those years ago. 

Franklin seemed most pleased that when things began to go wrong this time, even in ways unimaginable, his players found resolve.

And maybe a simple belief in themselves.

“They stood in the corner and took body blows and head shots, and they kept swinging. I’m just really proud of the guys,” he said.

A reason to believe that something like this can mean much more than a forgettable success against a broken opponent in a lost season ruled by a pandemic.

Maybe, much more than that.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.