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Penn State Football: From Shoop To No. 2, The Power Of Belief As Nittany Lions Beat Michigan 42-13

on October 22, 2017 1:00 AM

On paper Penn State and Michigan were not terribly different. Both found themselves entering Saturday night's contest ranked, a single loss between them, Big Ten Title aspirations on the horizon. A conference familiarity that could make any perceived gaps between the two teams all the smaller. 

They both fielded a defensive unit that found itself among the nation's best. Offenses with an ability to score points. Coaches considered to be in the high echelon of the sport. 

For all of the numbers, all of the analytics and all of the finer details, Penn State has something that has made it nearly impossible to beat for the past year.

Belief. 

It's a cliched concept in sports, even if it's the reason why we watched them. Upsets are built on belief as much as championships. Belief is why fans show up, to imagine their favorite team becoming that image they hold in their head. In truth it is the foundation of so much of life, the idea that we are in fact as good as we think we are, and chasing it all the way to wherever it may lead.

"It's huge," Linebacker Jason Cabinda said of the word after the game. "It's the difference between the first two years I got here and the second two years I got here. We've just got everyone pulling the rope in the same direction right now, and everyone is believing in what Coach Franklin is saying and it's paying off."

Sunday marks 365 days since Nittany Lions' upset then No. 2 Ohio State. A year later the teams find themselves just a week from a game that will determine much of the season ahead. This time though Penn State enters with the target on its back, and Buckeye dreams renewed if defeated.

It is also in many ways the birth of that belief. That Penn State can be a program among the nation's best, rather than an onlooker more relevant for its past than it present.

So on Saturday night Penn State believed again like it has since that fateful night a year ago, another week of confidence coupled with skill. It's not an arrogance that carries the Nittany Lions. Just a roster full of players and coaches pulling the same way, knowing that if that happens, it will all work out in the end.

Of course that belief always requires patience. So as Penn State's 14-0 lead slowly turned and the tide drifted towards a 14-13 margin an explosive Beaver Stadium crowd was suddenly far more subdued. And then Trace McSorley took the field, engineering a seven-play, 75-yard drive that lasted all of 52 seconds. The Nittany Lions back ahead 21-13 heading into the half.

By the second half Penn State had seen all it needed to. The running lanes were there, the wildcat wrinkle had proved to be yet another weapon in an arsenal of many. DaeSean Hamilton worked his way to a 115 yard receiving night that somehow went largely unnoticed. 

"Believing in yourself," Hamilton said. "A confident football player is a very, very dangerous person. Once you believe in yourself and the people around you and basically all of the other factors around you that go into football, a lot of things will go your way."

Michigan would try, but it would never really believe. It had a form of attack but no real form of being. Penn State would answer punches with punches of its own, and the Nittany Lions turned out to be what everyone had already said they might be, the No. 2 team in the nation. If the Rose Bowl proved Penn State was in fact the Big Ten's best team in 2016, for at least a week, the Nittany Lions proved that their claim to a playoff bid was not a factor of good fortune and an easy early schedule.

It's fitting really that Penn State has come so far with the players and coaches that it has. On the sideline James Franklin is surrounded by people who believe in their role, no more Bob Shoop, who never really believed. No more John Donovan, who never really fit in. One survived on ability, the other surviving on loyalty. Both gone, and for Penn State, neither missed. Both replaced, both upgraded.

On the field the wins are coming at the hands of players who had to believe along the way. Saquon Barkley, a somewhat overlooked prospect, believing that he was the player he has become. DaeSean Hamilton, a career strewn with glimmers of self-doubt only to be erased by a confident and effective reinvention. Mike Gesicki, a young prospect whose early career was a collection of what-ifs and mistakes, only to see his belief rewarded as he makes a legitimate argument that he is the best tight end in the country for the second straight year.

There's Juwan Johnson, a player thrown into the spotlight having erased social media accounts, starting over and quite literally believing, becoming closer to God.

There's Trace McSorley and Grant Haley, players that believed in James Franklin so much he followed him from Vanderbilt to Penn State both with their own timeless moments in the program's history.

So really, Michigan may have never had a chance.

It's what makes next weekend against Ohio State an interesting moment for the Nittany Lions. Belief should not be confused for fate or some divine intervention, but it is a powerful tool.

And as Penn State left the field on Saturday they believed in themselves as much as they always have. And as they take the practice field this week they will believe that they can and that they will beat Ohio State, taking a major step towards a playoff bid in the process.

And the question is simple. Is there any reason to believe that they're wrong?

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