GLENDALE, Ariz-- When it comes to the Rose Bowl, Mike Gesicki remembers the confetti most of all.
"I remember it falling down, the noise it made," Gesicki said. "It wasn't for us."
And as Penn State defeated Washington 35-28 in Fiesta Bowl on Saturday evening there was no confetti, but there were smiles. Because the Nittany Lions had done what had sometimes felt so hard, they won, in one of their biggest games.
It would be unfair to say that Penn State has somehow not done well the past two seasons. The Nittany Lions have gone 22-5 with a Big Ten title. Four of those losses happened via a total of just 10 points. Penn State has been one of the best teams in the nation with one of the most explosive offenses and consistent defenses in the country. That's simply a fact.
But for this group, they lacked a certain amount of punctuation, two straight bowl game defeats, a handful of games that were within reach. A loss on Saturday would have meant blowing a commanding lead, struggling to close yet again. The Nittany Lions would have gone from a Big Ten title winner and playoff hopeful to a team that never really could live up to its own hype.
So in a world that focuses so heavily on playoff games, this was a bowl that actually meant something to a collection of players that could feel like it had done so much yet somehow still fell a little short. This was not a routine trip for an indifferent result. It would help solidify a legacy for a team that is already among the best Penn State has ever fielded.
"We get to leave here with Fiesta Bowl championship ring, which is awesome," Gesicki said. "And we get to send out this senior class with back-to-back 11-win seasons and a Big Ten Championship ring."
Those smiles could be found all across the locker room following the win. Where hugs and tearful embraces had been a year before a few hours north in Pasadena, there were tears of joy instead. Trace McSorley wiped an eye as he talked about the game, coaches hugged each other, new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne looked like a man with a huge weight lifted from his shoulders.
"We haven't [closed] for the past couple of years, so this, it's awesome," Linebacker Jason Cabinda said with a smile. "It took a while, but when Trace took that knee, it just felt so great."
If Saturday was a reminder of anything it was that bowls can still matter, that sometimes winning the big one after coming so close before means more than TV ratings or ticket sales. It means ending a four or five year stretch on a high note, celebrating the conclusion of a historic run. Sports will always suffer from the weight of its own self-importance, but at its core, Penn State football has been a collection of kids living the dream, and with one final shot and one final to put the exclamation point on a season they did just that.
"This just means just getting Penn State back where we were, back where we're supposed to be, as far as we had a chip on our shoulder coming into this game," Safety Marcus Allen said grinning. "I know the defense and offense kept on harping on playing our butt off and just remember what happened last bowl game. And I'll just say this is just fantastic. And I'm ecstatic."
And as the smiles and hugs and tears flooded a packed locker room there was no confetti to be found.
Gesicki wouldn't have it any other way.
"We get to go out on top, and that's where we belong."