Coming into the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday, first-year Penn State coach James Franklin downplayed the significance of playing in a bowl game for the first time in three years after sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal were lifted.
But when senior placekicker Sam Ficken drilled the winning extra point for a 31-30 overtime victory over Boston College, there was no mistaking the cathartic effect.
The Nittany Lions (7-6) swarmed Ficken at the centerfield end of Yankee Stadium, where his kick landed in Monument Park, and then streamed to the opposite end of the field, climbed on top of the Yankees' dugout and celebrated unreservedly with legions of Penn State fans in a bowl-record sellout crowd of 49,012.
The finish bordered on a miracle, considering quarterback Christian Hackenberg led his team back from a 14-point third-quarter deficit, a three-point deficit in the final 2:10 of regulation and a six-point deficit in overtime.
Penn State got a little help from BC kicker Mike Knoll, who was wide right on the extra point after Eagles quarterback Tyler Murphy completed a 21-yard touchdown pass to David Dudeck on the first possession of overtime, leaving the score at 30-24.
When Penn State got the ball, Hackenberg converted a third-and-15 situation with a 17-yard pass to tight end Jesse James and then got the tying touchdown on a 10-yard pass to tight end Kyle Carter on third down.
Asked if Ficken's extra point felt like a walk-off homer, Franklin said: "It was a football stadium tonight and an awesome one. We loved it."
The restorative value for Penn State's faithful of such a thrilling win over traditional Eastern rival Boston College (7-6) wasn't lost on Franklin.
"We've been fractured the last three years, but experiences and games like this have restored hope," Franklin said. "When we're all pulling together, the sky is very high at Penn State."
Ficken said the coach's message to the team, especially the senior class, was similar. "Coach said we will be part of every win from here on out," Ficken said. "That means a lot."
Credit for the remarkable comeback must go to sophomore quarterback Hackenberg, who was the target of an avalanche of criticism in a season in which he threw only eight touchdown passes against 15 interceptions while operating behind an inexperienced offensive line.
On this night, Hackenberg completed 34 of 50 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, setting school bowl records for completions and passing yardage and tying the mark for TD passes.
"I'm happy for him," Franklin said. "I love Christian Hackenberg. I wouldn't trade him for anything."
Hackenberg started quickly with a 72-yard scoring bomb to Chris Godwin, but BC tied it 42 seconds later on a 49-yard run by Jon Hilliman, who carried 25 times for 148 yards against Penn State's No. 1-ranked rushing defense.
The Eagles built a 21-7 third-quarter lead on a 19-yard pass from Murphy to Shakim Phillips and a 40-yard run by Murphy, who carried 11 times for 105 yards and passed for another 97.
But Hackenberg threw a 7-yard scoring pass to Eugene Lewis to end the third quarter and a 16-yard TD pass to DaeSean Hamilton with 6:48 left in the fourth to tie it at 21.
The Eagles responded with a 20-yard field goal by Knoll to go ahead 24-21 with 2:10 left.
That was time enough for Hackenberg to take the Lions 49 yards and set up Ficken's field goal to force OT.
Reflecting on such a momentous win, Hackenberg said, "I think the bowl game and everything it meant to the program, not just this team, but the alumni, the guys that played here before us, the guys that stuck through it and graduated, I think that had a little motivation for everyone."