College Football Classic: Nebraska vs. Penn State (2002)
Catharsis—a term first used by Aristotle to describe a purging or cleansing of extreme emotion in Greek drama—is the best way to describe the 2002 Nebraska game.
The immediate catharsis for Penn State fans came from the pent-up frustrations and anger over two straight losing seasons. Hosting an elite team like Nebraska felt like an opportunity for Penn State to reassert itself as a relevant program.
A held over catharsis stemmed back nearly a decade. The most recent undefeated Penn State team—the 1994 powerhouse—never was able to prove itself against the anointed national championship Cornhuskers on the field. Revenge for that slight still goaded the Nittany Lions on, and the 2002 contest would be a way to exorcise those demons once and for all.
Granted, the current players were mere pre-adolescents when the debate of ’94 raged, but catharsis isn’t about logic. It’s about emotion. And there would be plenty of emotions to go around for Penn State fans in this historic blowout.
While Penn State spent the nineties adjusting to the nuances of conference play in the Big Ten, Nebraska spent the decade dominating college football. After losing seven straight New Year’s Day bowls (’87-’93 seasons), including a championship game in 1993 to Florida State, voters sympathetically gave the title to Nebraska in 1994. The Big Red machine really got rolling after that season.
Led by troubled running back Lawrence Phillips (a No. 6 overall pick in the next NFL draft), the 1995 Cornhuskers steamrolled the opposition (a 35-21 win in week 5 was their closest win margin, by far), even embarrassing No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl 62-24 for the national title. The 1995 season should have been Nebraska’s first outright national title, not 1994.
Following an 11-2 “rebuilding year” in 1996, the undefeated and No. 2 ranked ‘Huskers headed into the ‘98 Orange Bowl against No. 3 Tennessee and future No. 1 draft pick Peyton Manning. If a potential national championship wasn’t enough motivation, Nebraska’s legendary coach Tom Osborne announced his retirement just before the game. The Huskers won their coach the game (42-17) just how every resident of the state of Nebraska liked it—on the ground. NU ran for over 400 yards against Tennessee and won Osborne a share of his third national title in four years (shared with undefeated Rose Bowl winner Michigan).
Frank Solich, longtime assistant coach under Osborne, had a hiccup in his first season at the helm (9-4 record) but recovered splendidly in year two (12-1 and No. 3 ranking). Two top-10 finishes followed (2000 and 2001), and that’s just where Solich’s ‘Huskers started in 2002.
Penn State didn’t instill much confidence in their fan base heading into the big Nebraska game. If the two previous seasons didn’t discourage (5-7 in 2000 and 5-6 in 2001), then the narrow victory in the season opener over the University of Central Florida Knights, a mediocre member of the MAC conference, certainly did. Nevertheless, the visit from an illustrious football program with memorable ties to Penn State’s glory days energized the Nittany Nation. A record-setting crowd (110, 753 officially) promised to do everything they could to help their Lions; the rest would be up to the hungry Lion players on a warm September night.
Penn State’s defense likes to come out hitting, so when Nebraska got the ball first, the defense got its wish. The first play they forced a fumble by QB Jammal Lord. The second play, Ross Pilkington got around the corner but speedy space-eater DT Jimmy Kennedy flattened him in front of an amped up PSU sideline. Penn State’s first drive started at its 3, and Mills’ arm got them out to midfield to swap field position. Still, neither team could make significant progress into the opponent’s half of the field. Like two heavyweight boxers, Penn State and Nebraska tested each others’ offenses, defenses, and special teams in a scoreless 1st quarter.
The game’s first scoring drive began with 1:02 left in 1st quarter. Starting at the 20, Penn State’s aerial attack moved them quickly down field. WR Bryant Johnson, Mills’ favorite target, adjusted to an underthrown ball for a 23-yard haul right before RB Larry Johnson Jr. caught a screen pass and took it 21 yards inside the Nebraska 10. Even though 16 of Penn State’s first 20 plays were passes, Mills pitched it to Johnson on an option run and Johnson found the end zone to put the Nittany Lions ahead 7-0.
The deficit spurred Nebraska’s offense to open things up. Penn State dared Jammal Lord to pass; he did successfully, thrice, for first downs, but the biggest play of the drive was a 27-yard option keeper, which could’ve been longer if Lord hadn’t stumbled. The deafening crowd of 110,000-plus couldn’t shout the Cornhuskers out of the end zone though, as FB Judd Davies powered it in from 3 yards away. The ‘Huskers answered the Lions’ opening score to tie it up at 7.
Backup quarterback, redshirt freshman Michael Robinson got his first touch on Penn State’s first play, a blazing end-around for 29 yards. Larry Johnson Jr. picked up 36 on the next three plays. Bryant Johnson caught a crossing pattern for 27 yards, putting him over 100 yards receiving in just the first half. Penn State couldn’t punch it in though, settling for a Robbie Gould 20-yard field goal. It was the same story on Penn State’s next possession; the Lions were unstoppable until they got into the red zone, opting for another Gould three-pointer. With almost 300 yards of offense in the first half alone, Penn State seemed ripe for a second-half explosion. Years of frustration, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, were disappearing right before the Penn State faithful’s eyes.
An offensive hold started off the second half for Penn State, but it was no matter. Mills and Company scratched and clawed their way down field, chewing up 7:10 on their way to a Michael Robinson 8-yard end-around touchdown (the first of his career). The two-point conversion failed, but Beaver Stadium was thrilled with a 19-7 lead.
Nebraska’s Lord dropped the ball while being chased by DE Michael Haynes; Haynes picked it up and ran it in for 6. The ref incorrectly called the play an incompletion however, negating the game-changing play. Two plays later however, karma evened things out. Lord’s errant pass was corralled by CB Richard Gardner and returned 42 yards for a touchdown. With 5:51 left in the 3rd, Penn State held a shocking 26-7 lead.
PSU’s next drive started on their own 45, and the avalanche kept rolling over Nebraska. Larry Johnson’s draw play up the middle for 35 yards set up two Robinson runs, a 9-yard safety-leveling power run and an 11-yard burst through the Cornhusker back seven for another Lion touchdown.
The Cornhusker D finally stopped Penn State on its next drive, but Lord’s first road game as a starter officially became a nightmare when he threw another interception to the Lions. Penn State’s next drive started on the Nebraska 40. A steady diet of L.J. Jr. followed for Penn State—L.J. for 11, L.J. for 14, and—a few runs later—L.J. for a touchdown. Nobody could have predicted a 40-7 Penn State lead with 6:19 still to play.
To add insult to injury, Josh Davis’s kick return ended abruptly and painfully when sturdy PSU kicker David Kimball flipped him. Nebraska sustained a long drive against Penn State’s second-teamers, but DB Chris Harrell’s interception kept them from getting anything more on the scoreboard. The thousands of Beaver Stadium fans and hundreds of thousands worldwide celebrated a cathartic win for a program that hadn’t had much to cheer for in recent years.
The Rest of the Story
Penn State skyrocketed up the polls following the high-profile, ABC night game. Nittany Lions fans hoped that they were waking up from a bad dream of the previous seasons, that Penn State was back to a national championship-caliber team again. Underrated Iowa spoiled the euphoria two weeks later. The Lions sleepwalked through the first three quarters, trailing 35-13 when Zack Mills launched an aerial assault to even things up at 35 and send the game to overtime. Mills’ school-record 399 passing yards couldn’t match Iowa’s surprise superstar QB Brad Banks. The comeback faltered in a 42-35 heartbreaking loss. (Iowa went on to share the Big Ten title with national champion Ohio State but lost to USC in the Orange Bowl.)
The team recovered with an impressive road win against Wisconsin, but more bad luck—black-and-white stripe-colored bad luck—awaited them in Ann Arbor the next week. Numerous questionable calls helped Michigan in regulation, most emphatically an acrobatic Tony Johnson catch which was ruled out of bounds despite video replay showing that both feet were inbounds. (An identical call against Johnson and Penn State was botched in overtime against Iowa.) Michigan won on a field goal in double overtime, 27-24.
Penn State played eventual national champion Ohio State tough in Ohio Stadium (leading 7-3 at halftime), but Mills saw CB Chris Gamble easily intercept an overthrown ball and nimbly return it for a score. The Lions lost 13-7 and fell to a nightmarish 5-3 record. Popular opinion was that there was too much talent on this team to be outside the top 20.
As for Nebraska, the 40-7 bludgeoning in State College in 2002 was its worst loss in 140 games. The loss foretold more dark days for the Cornhuskers. They dropped from the top 25 polls for the first time since 1968 and finished the season just 7-7. Solich seemed to have shaken off the mediocre 2002 when he went 9-3 the next year (including an 18-10 win over PSU in Lincoln where they passed just 6 times and ran for 337 yards), but new athletic director Steve Pederson wanted a more splashy and dynamic head coach and fired Solich before the bowl.
His answer to solve Nebraska’s woes? NFL reject Bill Callahan. Callahan promptly led the ‘Huskers to their first losing season since 1961 but saw his West Coast offense gain traction in 2005 and 2006. However, an ugly five-game losing streak the next season would be both A.D. Pederson and Callahan’s undoing.
Ex-coach and congressman Dr. Tom Osborne assumed the role as A.D. and hired Bo Pelini, a former Nebraska defensive coordinator under Solich. Pelini has yet to restore the Cornhuskers into a perennial national title contender, like they were under Devaney and Osborne, but his strong defenses and run-first offenses have met with notable success and favorable approval in the state of Nebraska.
Two of Penn State’s greatest wins in Beaver Stadium came against the mighty Cornhuskers (1982 and 2002), and with the Big Ten’s addition of Nebraska in 2011 and the league’s decision to make the two great programs protected rivals each season, more epic clashes should be ahead.
The "Games of Our Lives" series is excerpted from Ring The Bell: The 22 Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Muphy (release date summer 2012 by Father's Press). The 2002 Nebraska/Penn State game is part 17 of the 22-part series; come back next week for the next historic victory.
Get more great Penn State football analysis over at Nittany Lions Den.