STATE COLLEGE – With the official immortalization alongside the east skybox level of Beaver Stadium, the 2012 Penn State football team's legacy will be characterized by the players who stayed and the ones who fought through adversity.
The latter will be epitomized by Wyoming Valley Conference product Jacob Fagnano – one of several unsung, walk-on players to find themselves involved in game-changing roles in the late stages of key games down the stretch. Fagnano's big play just happened on one of the most important defensive drives of the season.
Fagnano intercepted a fourth-down pass in the red zone Saturday, halting a fourth-quarter drive in Penn State's 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin.
I think it's just great for Jake, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. I really, personally enjoy watching Jake play because Jake plays the way a safety should play. He's a tough kid. He's a tough tackler. He's a Pennsylvania kid.
It was a career-best day for the senior out of Williamsport High School, making his second start in his final game. He tallied five tackles and also deflected a third-down pass in the fourth quarter in Penn State territory.
With the Nittany Lions clenching a 21-14 lead with five minutes remaining, Fagnano made a dashing catch on an Adrian Amos deflected pass at the Penn State 6-yard line.
The quarterback was giving us a couple reads that we liked, and I felt comfortable out there so we decided to check to a defense where we play a little bit of man, Fagnano said. I was able to spy on the quarterback. On that particular play, I made the correct read on the ball.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof likened the play to backyard football. He said it was the type of play scripted for players like Fagnano.
He gave us a big, big play tonight when we really needed a big play. He's battled through injuries. He's battled through coming here as a walk-on, kept on keeping on. He made a big play in a big ball game in a big season tonight. That's what you hope for from guys who kept fighting.
Fagnano joined injured captain Michael Mauti in settling the defense following the interception. The two seniors told them that Wisconsin's caliber defense should provide its offense another shot at overtime, which it inevitably did.
The interception capped a long road for the safety. Fagnano came to State College as a walk-on and garnered just 14 tackles through his first three seasons. He started his first game last week against Indiana following Malcolm Willis' knee injury.
I guess in a way (the interception) describes my journey through Penn State, he said. I'm a Central Pennsylvania guy, dreaming on playing here my whole life. It's been a tough journey. I've had bumps and bruises along the way. Things went my way, and things didn't. This interception just tops all the hard work and everything that I put in.
Earning his way onto the team was half the battle for Fagnano. He battled injuries early and often in his collegiate career, but worked in the off-seasons to solidify his spot on the roster.
You have to work a little bit harder, he said. But I tell you, I wouldn't have had it any other way. I feel a lot of what happened this year is because of where I've come from and the things I had to endure—to earn a scholarship rather than have it handed to me. Looking back on it, I'm glad it happened that way.
The interception means a lot to a player who grew up a die-hard Penn State fan.
O'Brien took advantage of the opportunity to embarrass Fagnano for his Nittany Lion fanaticism. He shared that, as a child, Fagnano would be in tears after Penn State losses and his parents would struggle to get him out of bed.
Fagnano responded, It's a little different now – maybe sometimes.
He shared a strong relationship with high school teammate Jamie Van Fleet, a senior linebacker and three-year letterwinner who missed his final season due to a blown ACL. The interception was bittersweet for Van Fleet, whom Fagnano added deserves more credit and was in tears on the sidelines after the play.
After graduation, Fagnano will continue to be on the sidelines in support of his brother Jared. While many players were on their way out of Penn State, Jared transferred to Penn State from Akron immediately following the NCAA sanctions in August.