From the moment Saturday night's game began, it was impossible to ignore the memory of what happened a year ago and how much things have changed for Penn State since then.
The No. 2 Nittany Lions beat No. 19 Michigan 42-13 in front of a white out crowd of 110,823, the largest in Beaver Stadium history. Thirteen months after Penn State lost to Michigan by 39 on the road in the Big House, it took less than a minute for a new tone in the series to be set: On the second play of the game, Heisman candidate tailback Saquon Barkley took a direct snap and burst past a confused Wolverines defense for a 69-yard touchdown.
Warning: White Out conditions in Happy Valley.- Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 21, 2017
Also, GIVE THIS MAN THE TROPHY RIGHT NOW: pic.twitter.com/9mNmGYo45s
With an off week to prepare, Penn State didn't let up. After a quick Michigan punt, Trace McSorley ran for 23 yards, then lofted a 35-yard pass to Mike Gesicki. Barkley followed with a 15-yard touchdown, and within five minutes, the Lions had scored more points than they did in the 2016 Michigan game.
A McSorley interception on a miscommunication with Gesicki on the next drive changed the flow of the game, as Michigan fought back and trailed just 21-13 at halftime. But against Michigan's vaunted defense, Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead created favorable matchups for the Lions, opening the door for big games from McSorley (282 yards passing, 76 yards rushing, four total TDs), Barkley (108 yards rushing, 53 yards receiving, three total TDs) and DaeSean Hamilton (six catches for 115 yards). The Michigan offense struggled to keep pace, as Penn State's defensive speed teed off on Wolverines QB John O'Korn, who was sacked seven times.
McSorley had a crafty 13-yard run to get Penn State on the board in the third quarter, and the game turned into a blowout when Barkley -- who had dropped a wide-open pass earlier -- bobbled a deep ball but hauled it in for a 42-yard touchdown, further boosting his Heisman stock in Penn State's biggest game of the season so far.
Michigan's defense had not allowed more than seven yards per play in a game since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2015. The 2017 Wolverines entered Saturday ranked second in the category, allowing 3.7 yards per play. Penn State ran 61 plays for 506 yards, an average of 8.3 -- 4.8 more than it put up against Michigan last year.
Since that defeat last September, Penn State has not lost a regular-season game. It engineered a stunning in-season turnaround following that loss, winning nine straight games and the Big Ten title before falling in the Rose Bowl. This year, with its highest preseason expectations since 1999, it has risen to No. 2 and just beat a ranked team for the first time, in convincing fashion, to improve to 7-0. That means the Lions have won 16 of 17 since that loss in Ann Arbor.
There's a lot more work to be done: The next two weeks, Penn State travels to No. 6 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State, meaning that Saturday was merely the beginning of a season-defining gauntlet.
But after what happened last year, the Nittany Lions couldn't have gotten the three-game stretch off to a better start.
a GeSICKi celebration pic.twitter.com/2uQls4YoFB- Amy Gill (@amygillsports) October 22, 2017