MINNEAPOLIS — Penn State fans were calling for James Franklin’s head when the Gophers took a 13-3 halftime lead in the 2016 Big Ten opener.
Alcohol-fueled students and their elders booed the Nittany Lions off the field and didn’t want to see the head coach ever again in Beaver Stadium.
“Fi-re Frank-lin! Fi-re Frank-lin!”
Happy Valley was anything but thrilled at that half hour of football, the previous week’s 49-10 loss to No. 4 Michigan and Franklin’s 16-14 record in two-plus seasons in State College, Pa.
The Gophers, in Tracy Claeys’ only season as head coach, started to crack in that second half, allowing the Nittany Lions to scored 17 straight points in the third quarter and win 29-26 in overtime.
That started Penn State’s run of nine consecutive victories, including the Big Ten Championship Game, a streak that finally stopped in a Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal. Since beating the Gophers, the Nittany Lions have returned to the grandeur of the Joe Paterno era with a 37-7 record, a win total that is tied for fifth-most in the nation over the past four years.
Penn State — which received the fourth of four coveted spots in the College Football Playoff ranking Tuesday, Nov. 5 — will travel to TCF Bank Stadium to face 17th-ranked Minnesota at 11 a.m. Saturday, and the Nittany Lions would be excused if they wanted to bring thank-you cards for the Gophers for helping turn their program around.
Franklin said Tuesday that the Gophers’ game in 2016 has been etched in his memory.
“I remember it very clearly, how the stadium was, and how the stadium was with me and how the stadium was with the team,” Franklin said. “I remember that very clearly. I probably always will.”
Early in the second half, Penn State students were back to calling the shots.
“We Want Les!”
As in Miles, the head coach who had been fired by Louisiana State earlier that week. Also in the run-up, Penn State AD Sandy Barbour gave Franklin a vote of confidence.
“He’s not on the hot seat … I believe in where this football program is going under James Franklin,” Barbour said.
But PennLive.com reporter Greg Pickel, who has covering Penn State since Franklin took over in 2014, said in hindsight Franklin’s future hinged on that game against the Gophers.
“I would say that if they lose that game, then James Franklin is somewhere else right now, who knows where,” Pickel told the Pioneer Press on Wednesday. “… I’m not sure if Penn State would have found somebody that could have had the recruiting success that he and his staff have had in the last three years.”
But things quickly turned in Penn State’s favor in that game back in 2016 when Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley found receiver Irvin Charles for a big gain over the middle. That play was exacerbated by Minnesota safety Kunle Ayinde’s inexplicable tackling; he wrapped Charles’ waist and then let go. The 80-yard touchdown cut the U’s lead to 13-10.
With the score tied 20-20 after Shannon Brooks’ 37-yard touchdown for the U in the fourth quarter, the Gophers drove to Penn State’s 12 before Mitch Leidner threw an interception in the end zone.
Current key Gophers were freshmen in that game. Rodney Smith recalled turnovers, but Leidner’s was the game’s only one and might have felt like multiple given the magnitude and the fog of time.
Meanwhile, Antoine Winfield Jr. won’t forget it because it was his first career start in a freshman All-America season.
“I remember being excited to play in that game,” Winfield said Wednesday. “They were even a great team back then.”
Then Winfield and Smith both had one word to sum up how it ended: “Saquon.”
As in Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions’ All-America running back the Gophers contained for 38 yards on 19 carries through four quarters. But on Penn State’s first play of overtime, Barkley broke free, with Ayinde missing another tackle, for a 25-yard touchdown run.
The Gophers finished 9-3 and won the Holiday Bowl that season, but losing the Penn State game cut short a higher ceiling for that Minnesota team.
“It hurt,” then-freshman Thomas Barber said Tuesday. But the now-senior added, “We’ve got to focus on being 1-0 right now and doing what we have to do to win that game.”