STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Anyone who ignored or scoffed at James Frankln's repeated warnings all week that Appalachian State was more than capable of pulling off an upset of his 10th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions became believers as the afternoon turned to evening at frenetic Beaver Stadium.
A four-touchdown fourth quarter by the Mountaineers turned a 14-point deficit into a seven-point lead with 1 minute, 47 seconds left in regulation. After the Nittany Lions scored the tying touchdown, the visitors came close on the potential game-winning 56-yard field goal, an attempt that had the leg but drifted wide right with 12 seconds to play.
Relieved to see overtime, the Nittany Lions went in front on Miles Sanders' 4-yard TD run, and cornerback Amani Oruwariye's end-zone interception on the visitors' ensuing possession gave them a hard-fought season-opening 45-38 victory.
A crazy game in which the lead changed hands four times and had its share of heroes for the Lions (1-0). Redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler caught a kickoff after the Mountaineers' go-ahead touchdown and hesitated, then came out of the end zone and returned it 52 yards. He ended the drive with a 15-yard TD catch from Trace McSorley to again tie the game with 42 seconds left in regulation.
Then you had Sanders, who made his first college start after sitting for two seasons behind Saquon Barkley, rush for 91 yards and score two touchdowns, including the game-winner, and look stronger as the game went on. And the 6-foot-1 Oruwariye, a second-team All-Big Ten cornerback last year, outleaped 6-3 wide receiver Corey Sutton in the end zone to make the pick that ended the game, the only turnover of the day.
"It just says a lot," Oruwariye said. "It says we're a gritty team, we're going to fight to the end. Coach Franklin always says that every great team always had that tough game throughout the season. Maybe this was ours right here, but we're just glad to come out with a win."
The Penn State bench emptied in jubilation to mob Oruwariye. The dejected Mountaineers (0-1), who came in as a 24-point underdog, left the field to an ovation from the crowd of 105,232.
There were plenty of moments that made Franklin wince. The Nittany Lions played a lot of young players and the coach said it was usually "one player each drive or each play that didn't do what we needed him to do consistently (on offense). It was the same thing on defense."
The Mountaineers were better on special teams, getting a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Darrynton Evans after the Lions scored on the opening possession of the game, and successfully executing an onside kick that led to their second TD in a 1:37 span of the fourth quarter that tied the game at 31.
Of course, it always helps to have McSorley, a fifth-year senior who got off to a slow start, completing just 4 of his first 10 passes for 19 yards. But he finished 21 of 36 for 230 yards, and the TD pass to Hamler extended his streak of games with at least one scoring pass to 29 games. He also ran for touchdowns of 12 and 10 yards.
On the final TD drive of regulation, McSorley hit Brandon Polk for 10 yards on fourth and 2. Then from the 15, McSorley backpedaled against three App State rushers but threw a dart on which Hamler made a leaping catch at the goal line.
McSorley said he knew the blitz was coming.
"We were able to talk about it on the sidelines, that that (look) was what they were doing," he said. "We got that look right before the snap. Then it was just a matter of buying enough time to let K.J. win and he did a great job."
Appalachian State almost made history exactly 11 years to the day when it recorded arguably the biggest upset in college football history, 34-32, at No. 5 Michigan. Defeating a ranked team on the road had happened only one other time since then, and it almost happened for a third time Saturday.