WHS grads help Nittany Lions triumph in Pinstripe Bowl

By on December 30, 2014

Roughly three months ago, Derek Jeter’s locker was at the center of the baseball universe as the future Hall of Famer played his final game at Yankee Stadium.

Last week, it was a popular topic of discussion among Penn State’s football players who were preparing to compete in the fifth annual Pinstripe Bowl in the Bronx, N.Y.

“I’m pretty sure everybody was saying they got Derek Jeter’s locker,” laughed 2011 Warwick grad Deron Thompson, a running back/special teams player for the Nittany Lions. “I know four guys who were saying they were in Derek Jeter’s locker.”

The prevailing notion was that senior kicker Sam Ficken was the one who had it.

Warwick grad Deron Thompson tries to shed a block from Boston College’s Leonard Skubal (right) while playing on Penn State’s kickoff team in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium last Saturday. (Photos by Matt Libhart)

Warwick grad Deron Thompson tries to shed a block from Boston College’s Leonard Skubal (right)
while playing on Penn State’s kickoff team in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium last Saturday. (Photos by Matt Libhart)

Incidentally, not far from where Jeter practiced his craft at shortstop for the Yankees, it was Ficken who booted the game-winning PAT in overtime which lifted Penn State to a thrilling 31-30 victory over Boston College in front of a sellout crowd of 49,012. It was the second-largest crowd for a football game in the new Yankee Stadium behind only the Notre Dame-Army game in 2010.

As the ball sailed through the uprights, capping a Penn State comeback in which they rallied from a late 21-7 deficit, Thompson, redshirt freshman lineman Tom Devenney (a 2013 Warwick grad), freshman student manager/2014 Manheim Central product Mike Brown and their Nittany Lion teammates swarmed onto the field to celebrate with Ficken and Co. and then accept the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the Pinstripe Bowl.

For Thompson, a former walk-on who turned himself into a scholarship player under coaches Bill O’Brien and James Franklin, Saturday’s victory marked the end of a career in which he played in more than 25 straight games before an ankle injury cost him a couple games in November.

“Definitely a thrilling game, to say the least. It was in Yankee Stadium, a sellout and we got the victory, so it couldn’t have worked out any better,” said Thompson, who played on Penn State’s kickoff and punt return teams. “The journey I’ve had at Penn State has been something else, to say the least. I mean, a lot of stuff happened, I couldn’t really have predicted any of it, but through and through, it was a great time. I met a lot of great friends that I’ll have forever and the football, the academics, it’s been a great ride. So yeah, it was bittersweet of course.”

Tom Devenney, a 2013 Warwick grad, keeps warm with his Pinstripe Bowl champions hat after helping Penn State defeat Boston College at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.

Tom Devenney, a 2013 Warwick grad, keeps warm with his Pinstripe Bowl champions hat after helping Penn State defeat Boston College at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.

This past August, the former Warwick All-State player earned two undergraduate degrees — a BS in energy and a BS in energy, business and finance. Thompson actually has one year of eligibility left with the Lions, but he plans to forego that due to his involvement in Penn State’s MBA program and a scheduled trip to South Africa in March.

“It’s been intense,” said Thompson, who will still get a pulse of the team while sharing a house in State College with Ficken, Jordan Dudas, Jesse James, Ben Kline, Bryce Wilson and Anthony Zettel. “With the MBA program, it’s a lot of school work and it was pretty tough this season.”

Learning his way on Penn State’s offensive line has been intense for Devenney. He was third on the depth chart at center and guard for the Pinstripe Bowl game against Boston College. Earlier, he saw time in the Lions’ wins over UMass and Temple, the latter of which got PSU “bowl eligible” with six wins.

“I think it’s something you really have to do as a lineman — get bigger, stronger, faster and to really understand college football because there’s a lot more thinking involved, a lot more putting things together on the fly that you really have to get used to,” said Devenney (6-foot-1, 303), who has added 35 pounds to his frame since leaving Warwick. “In college, people are moving 100 miles per hour and you’ve got to pick up and know what they’re doing while they’re doing it. My understanding of football has gotten a lot better and obviously my size and speed have improved a lot.”

The atmosphere outside of Yankee Stadium in the hours before kickoff was moving at 100 miles per hour in perfect sunny, mid-40’s conditions. Less than a block from The Dugout, a bar where Penn State fans were gathering, members of the Blue Band had unloaded from their buses and were warming up on the corner of River Avenue and E. 164th St. Nearby, with the sound of bass drums and horns in the winter air, Nittany Lion cheerleaders and majorettes were stretching and smiling in anticipation of the big game.

Among the crowd, which was dominated by Penn State blue and white, fans young and old were checking out the sights, relaxing on benches, eating at the Hard Rock Cafe and biding their time until the gates opened. Across the street, near the site of old Yankee Stadium, a soccer game broke out.

Penn State three-year letter winner Deron Thompson ended his collegiate career in style last Saturday, helping the Nittany Lions rally for a 31-30 OT win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Penn State three-year letter winner Deron Thompson ended his collegiate career in style last Saturday, helping the Nittany Lions rally for a 31-30 OT win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Finally, just after 2 p.m., three Penn State buses loaded with players and coaches pulled up outside of Gate 4 below the iconic Yankee Stadium front entrance. Nittany Lions’ faithful lined up three and four deep to greet their heroes, uniform in their blue sweatsuits and PSU knit hats, who filed into The House That Jeter Built and then to their clubhouse.

Devenney’s parents, Jim and Ruth, were there. So were Thompson’s — Craig and Lynne — and his brother David, a recent PSU grad.

“Beautiful stadium,” said Jim Devenney, who stayed in New Jersey on Friday night at the house of a friend he wrestled with at F&M College. “It’s a great venue and the fact there were more people there for that bowl than for Jeter’s last game says something. It was cool, it was loud.”

In the four years that Thompson was a member of the Lions’ football team, his parents attended every home game and even quite a few on the road — Dublin, Ireland, Virginia, Rutgers, MetLife Stadium and even Michigan’s Big House this fall.

“It has been incredible,” Craig, a 1982 Penn State grad, said. “You look back to when he was a senior at Warwick, we really thought he was going to William & Mary to play football, to be quite honest. Then all of a sudden, in a turn of events, things happened and to be part of Joe Paterno’s last recruting class, that’s a neat thing to have him have some neat memories of Paterno.”

Now Deron and his family all have neat memories of being in Yankee Stadium.

“I’m a Phillies’ fan,” Craig smiled, “so I’ve never really had any aspirations to go to Yankee Stadium. But it’s kinda neat — the history and all of that. To be able to come here to watch Penn State football in Yankee Stadium is terrific. It’s a beautiful day and it’s good football weather up here in New York. We were a little concerned about that. But we’re glad Deron had a chance to go to another bowl game.”

In Thompson’s redshirt year, the Lions played in the TicketCity Bowl at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, where they suffered a 30-14 loss to Houston in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Thompson didn’t play in that game. Naturally, with the NCAA sanctions lifted this fall and the opportunity to play on Saturday against Boston College, the Pinstripe Bowl will hold more of a special place in his heart.

“That TicketCity Bowl was an awesome, fun experience obviously,” said Thompson, a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, “but actually playing in (the Pinstripe Bowl) meant a lot more and just the way we went out this time with a win. It was definitely exciting.”

Certainly, it would have been exciting to get a few carries from the running back position in his Penn State career. He ran for an incredible 2,135 yards as a Warwick senior and then had a game-high 97 rushing yards in the 2013 Blue-White scrimmage.

But Thompson has no complaints and was just glad to contribute any way he could.

“Obviously, I would love it (to have run the ball),” Thompson said. “But this is Penn State football, this is no joke, you could say. We’re going out there to win the football game and whatever we’ve got to do to get the job done, I’m on board. And if that’s just me playing special teams to help the team, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s my outlook on everything and at the end of the day, I just want us to get the ‘W’ no matter what (my role) is.”

As a member of the Lions’ kickoff unit against Boston College, his job was to help contain and hold the outside, while trying to bust up the Eagles’ wedge. Thompson didn’t get credit for any tackles, but he was part of the play to bring down BC returner Myles Willis early in the fourth quarter after Penn State had scored to cut its deficit to 21-14.

“We got them inside the 20-yard line … that’s our goal,” Thompson said. “I think kickoff is one of the most exciting plays in football. It’s just 11 guys trying to knock down one guy out there. That’s what it’s all about.”

Thompson was also on the field when the Lions nearly recovered a pooch kick in the moments after Chris Godwin hauled in a 72-yard first-quarter strike from sophomore QB Christian Hackenberg to put PSU up early 7-0. Freshman Troy Apke got the ball, but just a shade out of bounds.

“We’ve been preparing for that and practicing that all year long and we knew that we had it against the kickoff returns that we were getting with Boston College,” Thompson said. “It worked out well. Just missed it by a little.”

As for Boston College’s special teams, Mike Noll’s PAT missed by a lot in the overtime after the Eagles had taken a 30-24 lead. That opened the door for the Lions, and after Hackenberg threw a game-tying TD to tight end Kyle Carter, Ficken delivered the deciding blow. For the game, Hackenberg finished with four TDs and a Penn State bowl-record 371 passing yards.

“It was awesome,” Devenney said. “We all just felt really good for the seniors to send them out that way and it was a really good team effort. That’s the Christian Hackenberg that I think we’re all used to, the guys that are around him every day. He does that sort of stuff all the time, and being around him, he’s real confident. He’s a great leader of the team.”

Although Devenney wasn’t able to play in the game, his preparations were no different than those of his teammates who did.

“You have to prepare like you’re going to play every Saturday — not only for your sake, but for your teammates’ sake because they’re trusting that you’re going to be ready when it’s your time to play,” Devenney said.

Heading into the off-season, Devenney’s plans are to keep his nose to the grindstone and hope for the best. Although the Nittany Lions will lose senior Miles Dieffenbach to graduation, the former Warwick star is part of a young offensive line in Happy Valley.

“I’m not going to speculate where I think I’m going to be (in 2015) because ultimately, that decision doesn’t come down to me,” Devenney said. “I’m just going to keep working hard every day and if the coaches like what they see, maybe I’ll play. And if I don’t, I’m just going to keep coming back with the same attitude that I’m going to try to get better and help my teammates get better every day.”

While Thompson finds himself at the end of his Penn State career, Devenney is still in the early stages. Looking ahead, he believes the Nittany Lions’ future is a bright one.

“As a program as a whole, we did an unbelievable job of weathering the storm with coach O’Brien and now with coach Franklin,” Devenney said. “Getting all the scholarships back and the sanctions reduced, it’s really going to be a positive for our team. Coach Franklin came in and we love the guy. He’s bringing in a lot of great talent that’s really helping this team and I’m really excited to see where he takes us.”

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