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Sep 2, 2014

‘Season of Saturdays’ offers personal, profound look at college football

Alumnus Michael Weinreb's latest book, “Season of Saturdays” (2014, Scribner), examines history, politics, popular culture and more -- all viewed through the appropriate lens of college football.

Aug 31, 2014

Irish Moments: Penn State students on lessons learned through Dublin visit

Editor’s Note: Eight students from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State spent eight days in Dublin covering the buildup to the Croke Park Classic, and the game itself, for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. In this piece, the students reflect on memorable moments from the journey.

Living history

From the moment we touched down at Dublin Airport, the European history and politics of my textbooks came to life. The first restaurant we ate at was a favorite of noted Irish republican politician Martin McGuinness. We stood on the grounds of Trinity College and heard its story, so deeply interwoven with Ireland’s religious and
political history.

We watched a Gaelic football at Croke Park, the field where the Bloody Sunday of the Irish War of Independence took place.

Across the street from our hotel was a bookstore associated with Sinn Fein, the Irish republican political party. On one wall was a campaign poster for Bobby Sands, an IRA member who won a seat in the British Parliament while in prison, and who led (and died from) a hunger strike while incarcerated. Scattered elsewhere around the store was memorabilia from freedom movements around the world.

How interesting it was, while covering an American football game, to be able to soak in so much rich history.

-- Bobby Chen

No Tie?

When Kerry and Mayo ended their spectacular semifinal match in the All-Ireland Gaelic football championship in a tie last Sunday at Croke Park, forcing a replay in Limerick, I was stunned. Mayo had fallen behind by five points at the break and stormed back to take a four-point lead with minutes remaining. Then Kerry tied the score with less than a minute left.

But seeing such a remarkable game rendered meaningless was disheartening. Imagine if last season against Michigan, after Allen Robinson’s soaring catch and Christian Hackenberg’s quarterback sneak into the end zone, the game was over. No four overtimes. No delirious Beaver Stadium. No Bill Belton game-winning touchdown.

Even a week later, I can’t help but feel a little empty. I’ll always wish I’d seen the end of that match.

-- C.J. Doon

Lay your money down

Downtown Dublin has Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC. One thing it has the American cities don’t? Bookmakers.

There seems to be a betting parlor on every corner here, offering action on everything from horse racing to dog racing to auto roulette to football.

It’s one of the many traditions of this town: If a game is on, it is also bet on. Heavily.

That included the Croke Park Classic. Nittany Lion fans could join locals in collecting their winnings from an activity that they can’t do legally in State College.

For an American, it’s an experience you can’t have unless you make a trip to Las Vegas. Or, back to Dublin. Which loves its sports. And gambling on them.

-- Greg Pickel

Feeling at home

The warm-up lasted for four days. It wasn’t until Wednesday morning, when the Penn State football contingent of more than 300 people stepped off the plane though, that widespread media coverage started to intensify.

he pictures had greater meaning, the words on the page resonated more deeply and the tweets spread more rapidly. Everyone’s responsibility became amplified.

Fans cheered, media snapped photographs, I tweeted 140 characters faster than I ever had before and fought for the best spot as people walked through the arrivals hall. In only a few minutes’ time, the city of Dublin became the second Happy Valley.

Seeing it made a foreign country feel like home.

-- Melissa Conrad

Deep Blue (and White) Sea

The closer I got to Penn State’s pep rally in Temple Bar, the louder the familiar sounds of Beaver Stadium rang in my ears. As I turned the last corner, I found so many Penn Staters I wasn’t sure how to get to the front to
make photographs.

I moved through the crowd, apologizing. I bumped into a woman who demanded to know what I was doing.

When she realized I was a Penn State student, she pushed me forward and said, “Anything for the University.”

I ended up in perfect position, in the center of the commotion, to take photographs of Nittany Lion dancing with a young Irish girl.

-- Hannah Byrne

Friday night lights

At the high school game between Cedar Cliff and Penn Manor, organized as part of the Penn State-Central Florida weekend, there was a decent showing of fans from both sides in the bleachers. There was no band or cheerleaders, but the parentns and other relatives that made the trip let the players know they were there.

One dad led the Cedar Cliff fans in a cheer, spelling out “Colts.” It was louder than expected, and the continued support throughout the game made the contest feel more like a typical high school football game in central Pennsylvania.

That genuine excitement from the parents who traveled, along with seeing and hearing the players at practice before the game, showed why all the work to get to that game was worth it for them.

It may have been just football, but it also was an experience that nobody there will forget. I doubt any of the players or parents regret selling as all those subs and PS4 raffle tickets to make the night possible.

-- Eric Shultz

Caught up in the moment

Having the opportunity to not only attend the All-Ireland semifinal match between County Kerry and County Mayo, but also to also photograph it was an experience I won’t forget.

As supporters of the teams cheered, jumping to their feet with flags and scarves waving in the air, it was like the sky was painted in green and red. Despite everything I’ve been taught as a photojournalist, I looked away from the game on the pitch and up into the crowd as a funnel of noise reached my ears on the field.

It felt like the student section at Beaver Stadium. It wasn’t just noise from rowdy fans -- it was the heart and soul of a community.

-- Kelsie Netzer

Get that story

I expected unique experiences in Dublin. I didn't expect any would involved sneaking into a jail.

But when I was covering Central Florida, Knights coach George O’Leary gave his team a little history lesson beyond the game at Kilmainham Gaol, a notorious prison that’s now a museum and tourist attraction. The media had been promised access, but that didn’t happen.

At least one reporter left. I knew I had to take matters into my own hands.

And I had already spent 10 Euros on a taxi, so there was no going back.

I pulled the same maneuver I used as a teenager to sneak into R-rated movies, and just followed in the team as if I belonged. It worked.

And, after all, we had been told we could take the tour with the team. I had a great experience learning about the prison’s history, and gathered interviews for a good story.

I also inspired some UCF media to follow my lead, and they joined us. The experience taught me an important lesson: When you’re on a story, sometimes you have to keep pushing.

-- Jake Somerville

Aug 30, 2014

Lewis, Hamilton establish themselves as Hackenberg’s top targets

By ERIC SHULTZ
John Curley Center

DUBLIN -- One of the biggest concerns surrounding Penn State this season was finding someone to replace Christian Hackenberg’s go-to target, Allen Robinson, who opted for the NFL.

Hackenberg may have found two answers to that problem on Saturday.

Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Geno Lewis caught eight passes -- including three on Penn State’s game-winning drive -- for 173 yards and a touchdown. And redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton made 11 receptions for 165 yards.

The two combined for 338 of Hackenberg’s school-record 454 passing yards in Penn State’s 26-24 victory over Central Florida in the season-opening Croke Park Classic.

“We knew we had playmakers outside,” Hackenberg said. “You just haven’t seen them yet, or a lot of them yet.”

Lewis’ final 18-yard catch set up Sam Ficken’s game-winning kick. Lewis got separation near the Lions’ sideline and cut up field after making the catch.

He said he knew he needed 10 or 15 yards to give Ficken a comfortable try, and he muscled out extra yards to set up the 36-yarder. And that play didn’t even top his personal highlight reel, which included two circus catches.

Also on that game-winning drive, Lewis made a bobble-and-catch for nine yards. It resembled a catch on the previous drive, when on third-and-9, Hackenberg connected with Lewis in stride down the right sideline.

A defender hit Lewis as the ball arrived, but Lewis stayed with the play and hauled in a 41-yard reception.

That catch extended the drive, which ended in a 24-yard Ficken field goal and a 23-17 Penn State advantage.

“That's basically just something off of reaction,” Lewis said. “You got to have strong hands, basically, that’s the main thing. Have strong hands and look the ball in the whole way.”

Lewis showed some speed, too. His touchdown came on a 79-yard pass late in the third quarter, after a double-move got him behind the Knights’ entire defense. Hamilton was just as important.

He broke Penn State records for freshman receptions and receiving yards in a game and was the first Penn State freshman receiver with 100 yards in a game since 2005.

The 6-foot-1 wideout said he was trying to make the season opener feel like a high school game in order to get rid of jitters.

It must have worked.

He caught Hackenberg’s first pass of the season for eight yards. Several snaps later, Hamilton took a 44-yard reception down the middle to the 2-yard line.

It ultimately led to a Zach Zwinak touchdown run from one yard out and an early 7-0 lead.

“I ran a post to the field and I think Hack slipped, maybe, because we were running that play all practice long, all week long,” Hamilton said. “And that was supposed to be for a touchdown. “I was like, ‘Please make this ball hurry up and get here so the other safety can’t come and get it.’ I just knew I had to make a play on it because it was just hanging a little bit, and I knew nobody else was going to get that ball but me.”

Hamilton sat out all of last year with a wrist injury, and played in front of Beaver Stadium fans for the first time in April’s Blue-White game. At Penn State’s media day, wide receivers coach Josh Gattis tabbed Hamilton as “by far, the biggest sleeper in the Big Ten.”

Hamilton’s performance drew comparisons to Robinson after the game, but the wideout thought otherwise.

“It makes me feel like people should stop sleeping on us,” he said. “The whole receiving corps, we have something to prove. ... We’re going to prove that we should be here, prove that there’s no drop off from last year to this year, that anybody can make plays at any given time.”

Eric Shultz is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

Aug 30, 2014

UCF finds a quarterback, just a half too late

By JAKE SOMERVILLE
John Curley Center

DUBLIN -- The biggest question for Central Florida heading into its season opener against Penn State was how it was going to fill the shoes of star quarterback Blake Bortles.

The Knights couldn’t get a win Saturday, falling 26-24 to the Nittany Lions in the Croke Park Classic, but they did find an answer to their question: sophomore Josh Holman.

Holman had to wait his turn last year as Bortles threw for 3,581 and 25 touchdowns as a redshirt junior. Bortles’s standout year set him up to be selected third overall in this year’s NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Coach George O’Leary named Holman his starter after spring practices, but after a lackluster preseason, O’Leary handed the offense to redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo. The first-year quarterback inherited a high-powered attack, which returned five of its top six receivers from 2013.

But DiNovo completed just 3 of 8 passes for a mere 18 yards against the Lions. With the Knights trailing by 10 after halftime, O’Leary turned to his backup.

Holman came in and completed nine passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. When he left the field for the last time, Holman had just given UCF a 24-23 lead on a 6-yard TD run.

“I thought Justin went in and did a really good job,” O’Leary said. “I thought he went in and he was really a spark for the offense going in and making plays. … I’m going to look at the tape and look at the problems.
Most of the same plays were open in the first half.”

The sophomore provided an instant jolt, completing his first two passes for gains of 6 and 18 yards and following up with a 50-yard bomb on the move to Breshad Perriman to get his team into the red zone. Holman finished up the possession with a 1-yard dive for a touchdown.

“He was more of a running type of quarterback so we figured we had to pay attention more on the zone reads and options,” Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes said. “He did a good job. He brought them back, but our
offense counteracted them.”

Try as they might, the Lions couldn’t slow Holman. With the Knights trailing 23-17, Holman opened his final drive with back-to-back completions for a combined 28 yards.

After three straight incompletions, and the Knights facing a fourth-and-10, Holman stepped out of a timeout and sailed a deep ball down the sideline to Josh Reese for a 37-yard gain. Holman finished the job on the next play, bolting up the middle 6 yards for the lead.

“He throws quick he’s not afraid to zip the ball in there,” O’Leary said. “I thought he handed the game very well. I threw him in there. He managed the game and did what I was hoping he’d do the whole preseason.”

O’Leary emphasized that he’d have to look at postgame film before deciding on a full-time starter, but Holman’s performance inspired his teammates.

“I feel like he’s more confident this year,” left tackle Torrian Wilson said. “He stepped in the huddle, he took control … there was more authority, he brought everyone together and said ‘Let’s take this downfield.’”

Jake Somerville is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

Aug 30, 2014

Penn State rallies to beat Central Florida, 26-24, in Croke Park Classic

By GREG PICKEL
John Curley Center

DUBLIN -- Christian Hackenberg had already set a Penn State passing record by the time he stepped onto Croke Park’s turf trailing by a point with 1:08 to play Satuday.

Then he led the Nittany Lions to a 26-24 victory over Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic.

The quarterback’s final drive mixed moxie with poise.

He picked up seven yards on a short out to Geno Lewis that stopped the clock on second down. After a long incompletion, Hackenberg stared down UCF’s defense and left the pocket, willing his way to seven yards and a first down to extend the drive.

“I knew it was fourth down,” Hackenberg said. “So if I was gonna go, I had to go.”

For all the unknowns of this Penn State team, it knows it has Hackenberg, who surpassed the program’s single-game passing record held by Zack Mills (399 yards in 2002).

Hackenberg threw for 454 yards on a 32-of-47 day. He twice had to stretch out his knees behind a play, but nothing was going to stop him. Especially not a crunching hit on that first down run.

Three more completions, one a rushed flip to back Bill Belton, and two to receiver Geno Lewis, were all he needed to set up kicker Sam Ficken for a 36-yard field goal as time expired.

Just like that, James Franklin had a victory in his debut as the Nittany Lions’ coach.

“I think a couple things,” Franklin said. “We didn't play the prettiest game today. We did the things that you typically can't do, we had too many penalties, and we had turnovers.

“But, the more important thing is these guys never stopped believing in each other, never stopped believing in the program, and they found a way to win.”

The game in Dublin’s historic Croke Park stadium was set up while Bill O’Brien was still the Penn State coach, and pitched as one coach of Irish heritage opposite another in UCF coach George O’Leary. But O’Brien left for a job with the Houston Texans in January, and Franklin was hired weeks later.

It was one of the many changes Penn State went through in the offseason. And the Nittany Lions came into the game with a long list of unknowns.

Would their thin offensive line, which returned just one starter from 2013, hold up? Would a flight across the Atlantic Ocean throw off their routine? Would Franklin, and his new staff, be able to mesh with a group of players that have had anywhere from one to four head coaches in their college careers?

The answers came in spurts.

There was the first half, when Hackenberg had plenty of time to throw and the
defense looked dominant.

Then there was the final drive, when Hackenberg never seemed to stray from offensive coordinator John Donovan’s calls.

“We were excited,” Hackenberg said. “This team’s been down before. Even though we were young, we understood what we could do.”

Finally, there was the kick by Ficken, still dogged by a series of misses against Virginia in 2012. He was a hero Saturday, though, and afterward Franklin was among the first to embrace and lift him up.

For Central Florida, its day began when a skydiver carrying a program flag and game ball missed the stadium completely. For a while, it seemed like an omen.

It wasn’t until Justin Holman replaced the ineffective Pete DiNovo at quarterback in the second half that the Knights got on track.

The sophomore put together back-to-back 70-plus yard drives to pull the Knights’ to within three. He then led an eight play, 75-yard drive capped by a 6-yard scamper to give UCF its first lead of the game with just over a minute to play, silencing a Penn State partisan crowd.

It wasn’t enough.

Hackenberg, who earlier heaved a 79-yard TD pass to Lewis, and his Penn State teammates wouldn’t allow it.

“I think everybody in the country would like to have [Hackenberg],” O’Leary said.

And so the first international game for both programs ended with the Dan Rooney Trophy in Franklin’s hands first, and then Hackenberg’s. Penn State coaches and players, the same ones who were strangers seven months ago, were hugging and high fiving.

An announced crowd of 53,304 was on hand -- including Rooney, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland -- for the first college football game here since 2012. Fireworks shot off from roof top canisters and confetti dotted the field as Penn State left victorious.

There’s a lot -- lots -- left to learn about this Nittany Lion team. If anything was discovered on a cool day in Dublin, though, it’s that Penn State’s newest parts are meshing with its familiar ones, even if they started by going five time zones from home.

“We're really going to enjoy the win,” Franklin said, “but by the time we land, it's going to be morning time, the coaches will go right into the office, the players hopefully will get some sleep, and then we'll be practicing that evening.”

Penn State agreed to the Ireland game partly because of the four-year postseason ban imposed by the NCAA after the Jerry Sandusky case. The Nittany Lions still have two seasons to go before they can play in a bowl.

But at least they won a classic.

Greg Pickel is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

Aug 30, 2014

The trip was worth it: Nittany Lion fans bask in victory

By C.J. DOON
John Curley Center

DUBLIN -- As long-time Penn State fan Doug Meisenhelter watched Sam Ficken’s game-winning field goal sail through the uprights, a single tear dripped down his cheek.

“I’ve seen the highs and the lows,” said Meisenhelter, a native of York, Pa., who’s been a Penn State fan for 50 years. “This is one of the great highs. This is so good. This is wonderful.”

With fans yelling and embracing in Section 704 of historic Croke Park after Penn State’s 26-24 victory Saturday over Central Florida, Meisenhelter said the last-second victory ranks second among all the games he’s ever seen, behind only the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, when Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions beat Miami to cap an undefeated season and win their second national title in four years.

“The trip was worth it, win or lose,” Doug’s wife, Sue, said after pausing to sing the alma mater. “But it was the icing on the cake that they won.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t come this far to see them lose,” Doug said with a chuckle.

The Meisenhelters were among the tens of thousands of Penn State fans who made the journey to Croke Park, located more than 3,000 miles away from Beaver Stadium in State College, for the season opener.

From a morning that started with fans sipping Irish coffee and toasting pints of Guinness in Temple Bar, to an afternoon that ended with the Nittany Lions storming the pitch where American football had been played only twice before, Saturday’s game was anything but ordinary.

“Breathtaking,” said Joyce Hafer from Harrisburg, Pa., as she watched Penn State players dancing after an improbable victory.

When the team huddled together on the sideline to receive the Dan Rooney Trophy, a replica football carved from 4,200-year old Irish bog yew and supported by steel from the construction of Heinz Field, Hafer took a moment to cheer and vigorously wave her blue and white pom-pom.

The players probably couldn’t hear her voice from down below on field level, but then again, she wasn’t trying to be heard. She was just happy to soak in the moment with her friends and fellow fans.

“At Penn State,” she said, “we’re always together no matter where we are.”

For the locals, fans who are used to watching Gaelic football and hurling at Croke Park, the game was something of a novelty.

“Very stop and start,” said Dermot Coran from County Kilkenny, who saw American football for the first time in person. “Timing is everything. The continuity can be inhibited.”

Coran, a hurling fan, said that early on, compared with his beloved sport, American football rated as a four on a 10-point scale. (Hurling got a 10.) After watching Ficken’s game-winner, he had other thoughts.

“I enjoyed that,” said Coran with a smile. “The passion, and the identity of supporting a team, is incredible. “I can identify with Penn State, like I can identify with Kilkenny. Brilliant.”

Is it exciting now? “Absolutely,” he said as he headed for the tunnel to exit the stadium. Maybe there’s hope for American football to catch on in Ireland, yet.

C.J. Doon is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

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