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Penn State thanks seniors, looks to future

Penn State achieved its goal of sending its seniors off with a victory at the Pinstripe Bowl. Now coach James Franklin and his team seek to carry that momentum into off-season workouts.

Much emphasis was placed on the Penn State seniors heading into the Pinstripe Bowl, especially from the Nittany Lions' first-year coaching staff and underclassmen who wanted to send them out with a victory.

And when the game ended Saturday after almost four nail-biting hours with Sam Ficken's extra point in overtime that produced a 31-30 victory over Boston College and prompted a wild celebration at Yankee Stadium, fifth-year senior linebacker Mike Hull came up with the right response.

"I couldn't be more happy with how it went," said Hull, the undisputed leader of the defense and one of only six seniors who were starters in their final game in a Penn State uniform. "I'm just so grateful for everything. It's just fitting, getting a win in Yankee Stadium in overtime after the roller-coaster ride of a career we've had.

"I couldn't be more happy for the guys, and I think this is great for sending the program out in the right direction."

The up-and-down season of 2014 for Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions (7-6) ended on an up note – way up – and provided a spark for the Lions as they start winter workouts in preparation for spring football with a roster full of young and talented players.

Hackenberg, whose play slipped this season behind an inexperienced offensive line that had problems blocking for the run and pass protecting, found more time to throw against the Eagles. He passed for 371 yards and four touchdowns, including the 10-yarder to tight end Kyle Carter that set up Ficken's game-winning point-after.

A few days before the game, Hackenberg said the Nittany Lions needed a win and "use that to springboard into the next season.

"I think the Wisconsin win last year (31-24) helped us tremendously working into the off-season," he said, "and getting momentum and confidence in what we can do. So obviously it's very important the last game you play, you don't want to have that taste in your mouth stuck there throughout the entire off-season."

On Saturday night, Hackenberg said, "We will really be able to carry that momentum into our winter workouts and then spring ball. Guys scratched and clawed and that has been the story of our year."

The Nittany Lions had less than 50 scholarship players available late in the season because of injuries and freshmen who were held back as redshirts. Thanks to the NCAA's removal of scholarship limits, they will get closer to the NCAA maximum of 85 scholarships next season.

Franklin said the extra numbers are needed to "create the most competitive environment in the country" at practice.

"We want to get to a point," he said, "that at every single position, not only do we have a good player there as a starter, but we have another player behind him that can get the job done, then another player being groomed. We don't have that right now."

On the recruiting front, Franklin has oral commitments from 18 players for next season with national signing day 5 ½ weeks away. Two more players already have signed letters of intent – offensive tackles Paris Palmer, a junior college transfer, and Sterling Jenkins – and will enroll at Penn State next month. Palmer, considered one of the top JC offensive linemen in the country, should help the offensive line right away.

Franklin revealed Saturday night that redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton, the Lions' leader with 82 catches and 899 receiving yards, had played with a pulled hamstring "for the last four or five weeks" of the season.

However, no matter what thoughts were for the future, Franklin always went back to the impact of the seniors on his first Penn State team.

"These guys will be remembered forever," he said, "for standing strong when we needed them to stand strong, to lay the foundation for great things to come. Every win we have next year and for eternity will be on their backs.

"It really springboards us into the off-season and next season. The future is very, very bright here."

--Joe Juliano