STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The early White-Out frenzy, long gone. Attire can not keep nerves away.
A 21-0 Penn State lead, fully earned. And a memory.
The final score -- Penn State 28, Michigan 21 -- you can argue it any way you want, but Penn State made plays to preserve it.
A last big play was something completely different, their speedster wide receiver putting his shoulder down, getting four yards when Penn State had to get three to hold on.
“Whatever I have to do,’’ KJ Hamler said later. “If I have to jump, skip.”
There’s little rational reason to believe either of the teams inside Beaver Stadium Saturday night have what it takes to contend for a national title, or maybe even beat Ohio State. Nonetheless, the drama here was real. Somebody was going to survive to stay in legitimate Big Ten contention.
“We were able to win the field position battle, the turnover battle, the penalty battle … “ said Nittany Lions coach James Franklin.
In the toughest times, Penn State, now 7-0, has somebody special to call.
A 100-yard Penn State second-half opening kick return by Hamler, a work of art down the left sideline, had been nullified by a holding call … actually, two holding calls.
He’d have to wait for to pull off the game-winner. Fourth quarter, Hamler got behind a Michigan safety and that safety must have known how badly he was beaten because he pulled up as Sean Clifford’s pass hit Hamler’s hands.
Just as big, the play before, Hamler had run a slant and gained eight yards on third and five. Until then, Penn State’s best second-half offense had been waiting for a Michigan penalty.
Hamler already had a second-quarter 25-yard TD catch from Sean Clifford for Penn State’s third TD.
“He’s the hot hand,’’ Clifford said.
That 53-yarder was the game-winner, but hardly the game-clincher. Michigan got down the field and a QB sneak on fourth and goal … stopped? The White-Out folks went nuts. The officials kept digging through a pile. Finally, two arms raised. Was the call right? Who knows? It stood. Michigan within seven.
Michigan got about as close as you can to tying it. First and goal from the seven, Michigan couldn’t score. A dropped pass in the end zone on fourth down. Penn State took over, 2 minutes left.
“We had a lot of mistakes,’’ said linebacker Micah Parsons. “But we also did a lot of good things that helped us win.”
Still not over. Penn State had third and three at its own 10-yard line, four ticks under 2 minutes left.
The call? Give it to Hamler. Have the receiver take it on an inside run. Franklin explained that with Michigan overloading the box, a simple handoff to a tailback probably wasn’t going to get it done. He joked about Hamler being his new power back -- “I didn’t really expect that, all 137 pounds of him.”
Hamler got popped, hard. When he got up, the students began chanting his name. Their nerves hadn’t affected their eyes. More than anyone, Hamler had saved their night.
Saying that Penn State won’t win a national title is hardly a sign of disrespect. This group has already overachieved. It was Michigan ranked in the preseason Top Ten, not Penn State.
So 7-0 isn’t what you predicted before the season or even when Penn State was trailing Buffalo at halftime or barely hanging on against Pittsburgh.
This season has proven to be a ladder to be climbed. After surviving Iowa and Michigan, the Nittany Lions has an interesting trip ahead to Minnesota and a visit from Indiana, but now they can now look way up … there’s a trip to Columbus, Nov. 23. The real meaning of this one -- only one team got to leave Beaver Stadium Saturday night with the ability to dream a little.