TOMORROW'S Pinstripe Bowl is an opportunity for Penn State football.
Strictly on paper, it's an opportunity at a winning record. After finishing the 2014 regular season at 6-6, the Nittany Lions will look to avoid their first losing record since 2004.
Also, it's a chance to play in Yankee Stadium, a venue that, while relatively new, embodies so much history.
But most important, it's an opportunity the Lions weren't supposed to have.
Rocked by NCAA sanctions levied in July 2012 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, the Penn State program was supposed to wilt and die facing a 4-year bowl ban, scholarship limitations and a hefty $60 million fine.
But the bowl ban and scholarship reductions surpisingly were repealed by the NCAA earlier this season, and here the Lions are: about to play in a bowl game 2 years earlier than expected.
That makes tomorrow's matchup against Boston College significant.
"This is a special bowl," head coach James Franklin said when his team arrived in New York City on Monday. "[We want] to be able to send these seniors out the right way, to be able to end this season on a positive note and be really proud of what we accomplished this year."
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg committed to Penn State as a baby-faced high schooler knowing his only shot at a bowl game would be in his senior season.
The true sophomore said the bowl ban wasn't an issue when he signed with then-head coach Bill O'Brien and the Lions in February 2013. Even still, getting a bowl game sooner than planned is welcomed.
"Obviously, it's a great opportunity for not just myself, but everyone on the team. The guys that stayed, the seniors, it's a great reward for them," Hackenberg said. "That's what I'm most happy about with this opportunity, being able to go out and play again with these guys."
For the Lions, tomorrow comes as the pinnacle to a 2-week buildup.
After finding out their postseason fate on Dec. 7, Franklin and his staff prepared for what the first-year Lions coach calls, "the program development period." For the first handful of the allotted 15 bowl practices, team reps would be treated like spring ball, getting everyone involved.
Then, the focus shifted to Boston College (7-5), a team that defeated USC earlier in the season and nearly upset playoff-bound Florida State in Tallahassee.
Franklin said the Eagles run an unconventional offense, with a scrambling quarterback and multiple formations and personnel groupings. Defensively, Boston College blitzes a lot and showcases several fronts.
That considered, Franklin is thankful for the number of bowl practices the team had at its disposal.
"It's important to have these few extra days for these types of teams that give you looks you typically don't get, week in and week out," Franklin said.
But the lead-in to the Pinstripe Bowl has been more than only X's and O's.
After arriving in New York on Monday, the Lions have taken in the sights during their time in the Big Apple, including trips to the 9/11 Memorial and the "Top of the Rock" observation deck at Rockefeller Center.
There's a lot to see in New York, and Franklin understands that. But he also knows his team has a job to do, and it is his staff's job to keep them in tune with that.
"When you're dealing with 18- to 21-year-old males - the most unpredictable group of people on the planet - that's the hard part," Franklin said. "This is still a business trip for us."
Franklin said the same about the team's season opener in Ireland. The Lions, seeking a bowl atmosphere for a team originally bowl ineligible, scheduled a game against Central Florida in Dublin.
It was a success in two ways: Penn State won, and the time spent felt more than just a normal game week.
So far, the Lions have experienced the latter in New York City.
Tomorrow will determine whether they make it two-out-of-two yet again.
Penn State (6-6) vs. Boston College (7-5)
What: Pinstripe Bowl
When: Tomorrow, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Yankee Stadium, New York
Radio: ESPN (97.3 FM, 97.5 FM), WNTP (990 AM)
Three things to watch:
1. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy is dangerous inside and outside the pocket. Murphy, a senior transfer from Florida, totaled 1,526 passing yards, 1,079 rushing yards and combined for 21 touchdowns this season. He hasn't thrown for more than 173 yards in a game this season, so the numbers aren't too staggering. But watch him in Boston College's near upset of Florida State; he's a gritty quarterback.
2. Penn State's strength has been its defense, and its defense's strength has been stopping the run. The Lions, led by a nasty front four and a sure-tackling linebacking corps, rank first nationally against the run. But that unit will be tested by BC's rushing attack, which features more than just a dual-threat quarterback. The Eagles have Plainfield, N.J., native Jon Hilliman (712 yards, 12 touchdowns) and 5-6 wide receiver Sherman Alston (34 carries, 10.4 yards per carry, two touchdowns).
3. Penn State is no stranger to close games; the Lions have been involved in seven games decided by a touchdown or less. But the Eagles are acclimated to those nail-biting contests as well, having six games (three wins, three losses) decided by six points or fewer. Given the defensive outlook of this game, expect a close, low-scoring affair.