The term “college athletics” always faces skepticism. Are they truly students first and athletes second? Or do the athletic pursuits outweigh the importance of classroom success? Penn State and its conference, the Big Ten, answer those questions in lockstep with each other—academics matter.
Penn State, while always ranking as both a top-50 school among all national universities and a top-20 university among public institutions in the academic realm, believes the same standards should apply for student athletes as for the rest of the student body. Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment for the football program hypothesized that high levels of success could be attained on and off the field, that time away from the field wouldn’t destroy any chance of national excellence on the gridiron.
As Paterno approached a landmark victory in his career—No. 400—it was appropriate that Northwestern was Penn State’s opponent. Northwestern’s academics are as strong as any school nationally, but they’ve struggled to maintain a winning tradition in football. Citing more stringent admissions policies than other Big Ten schools, the Wildcats—like Penn State—also pride themselves on fielding student athletes who excel in both areas.
Unfortunately, record books don’t care much for academic statistics, so the main story on November 6, 2010 focused on the legendary coach’s quest for another milestone. No imagination however, no matter how brilliant, could have predicted that it would take another broken record—Penn State’s largest Beaver Stadium comeback in history—to make JoePa’s 400th victory happen.
Northwestern, named when a Chicago Sun-Times reporter wrote in 1924 that Chicago University’s offense was stopped by “a wall of Purple Wildcats,” started with modest success, but nothing of national significance. Their first bowl game was a victory over California in the Rose Bowl in 1948. Shockingly, their first was also their last, as nine bowl losses have followed right up until present day.
Randy Walker maintained the moderate success Gary Barnett established for Northwestern (three bowl games in seven years in the late-nineties) until his fatal heart attack before the 2006 season. His assistant, whom many assumed would eventually replace Walker, stepped into the head coaching position at just 31 years of age. Fitzgerald, long-adored by Wildcat fans for his two Nagurski Trophies and Bednarik Trophies in the historic ’95 and ’96 seasons, has inspired Northwestern’s dreams for a future of academic excellence with football prowess, and the school has rewarded him with an extended contract.
Fitzgerald’s 2010 team feasted on an easy early schedule but won two of its first four Big Ten games, a record no different than its November 6th opponent.
Penn State anointed a true freshman as quarterback in August, and—as is usually the case with a young thrower—the ride was bumpy under Rob Bolden. Impossible road games to Alabama and Iowa didn’t dismay the fan base, but a homecoming thrashing at the hands of an average Illinois team (33-13) caused some concern. Bolden stepped up early in a road game against Minnesota but left the game with a concussion. McGloin replaced him well and led the team to a home win over No. 25 Michigan the following week, a 41-31 game that saw #22 Evan Royster become Penn State’s all-time leading rusher (breaking Curt Warner’s record).
Paterno vowed to give Bolden back his starting spot for the Northwestern game, saying that a player shouldn’t lose his position due to injury, but the confident and courageous backup McGloin had sparked Penn State in two straight victories. He would be just a tip of the hat away for Paterno if anything stood in the way of his momentous win.
A beautifully sunny late fall day created an idyllic setting for Paterno’s quest for history. The defense, however, took the field like they were in a deep mid-winter hibernation. Northwestern drove down the field with their dual-threat leader Dan Persa, who eventually ran for a 6-yard touchdown. The 7-play, 74-yard drive took less than three minutes.
Penn State followed suit, storming through the Wildcat defense on the legs of Evan Royster. In no man’s land (the Northwestern 34), Paterno elected to go for it on 4th and 1, but PSU couldn’t convert. PSU moved the ball again on its next drive (a 28-yard career-long run by true freshman Silas Redd being the highlight) but on 3rd and 11, a blitzing safety, Hunter Bates (son of Dallas Cowboys legend Bill Bates), knocked the ball from Rob Bolden’s hands. Northwestern recovered at midfield and used the hurry-up offense to advance far enough for a 28-yard field goal attempt by Stefan Demos, which was missed wide left.
Penn State inserted McGloin into the line-up on the next drive (a move that was planned ahead of time) to similarly unsuccessful results. Penn State’s punt put the Wildcats on their own 36; the NU offense didn’t leave the field until Dan Persa found the end zone on his second touchdown run of the day, a 5-yard scramble for a 14-0 lead.
Northwestern’s next drive started all the way back at their 11, but Persa continued his mastery of Tom Bradley’s defense. After consuming 5:43 off the clock, Drake Dunsmore caught a one-handed, tight-rope-walking catch in the back of the end zone to put the Wildcats up by a commanding 21-0 lead with :56 remaining in the first half. The Paterno parade was being rained on by their guests from the Windy City.
As if the lack of time (:50) weren’t obstacle enough, the anemic Nittany Lion offense started on its 9 after a kickoff return penalty. A 21-yard draw play to RB Stephfon Green, a 21-yard sideline route to WR Graham Zug, and a 19-yard wheel route to FB Joe Suhey in quick succession gave Penn State a chance to score with :07 left. Senior WR Brett Brackett did a Drake Dunsmore impersonation with a diving catch with one foot in bounds. The play stood after review, and despite a 21-7 deficit, Penn State took the most important thing into the locker room—momentum.
Penn State received the ball first in the second half and started running downhill. Redd had two long first-down runs, followed by one by Royster. After 66 yards rushing on the long drive, McGloin found converted TE Nate Cadogan on a 3-yard end zone strike. The back-to-back scoring drives brought PSU within 7.
The defense began to fluster Persa and the Wildcat attack, forcing a punt after three offensive plays. McGloin used two long passes to Derek Moye (the latter a 37-yard touchdown bomb) to overwhelm Northwestern on a quick scoring drive. The game was tied with 5:43 remaining in the 3rd, and suddenly Paterno’s milestone didn’t feel very far away anymore.
A crucial pass interference penalty on 3rd and 12 kept Penn State’s next drive going until Royster ripped off a 17-yarder inside the 5. Redd put PSU ahead with a sidestepping 4-yard touchdown, the first of his career. Penn State’s fourth touchdown in less than a quarter of play sent a clear message—history was going to be written in this game.
Linebacker Mike Mauti figured out Persa in the 3rd quarter, hounding him in the backfield and chasing him down short of the sticks. Penn State held Northwestern to just 32 yards in the third quarter and got advantageous field position for the offense.
Redd’s breakout game continued on Penn State’s next drive when he used his jukes to get to the second level on a 30-yard run to the Northwestern 13. Royster—who later said that Redd would someday break his newly-acquired PSU rushing record—caught a little screen pass and followed his blockers (like All-Big Ten guard Stefen Wisniewski) into the end zone for PSU’s fifth straight touchdown drive. 35-21 would be enough.
(Wisniewski became a second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders, and Royster was selected in the sixth round by the Washington Redskins. They were the only Lions drafted in the 2011 draft; Northwestern had no players selected.)
Northwestern drove the length of the field but were faced with a decision on 4th and goal. Instead of an easy field goal, Fitzgerald elected to fight back. Persa eluded defenders long enough to find an open receiver in the end zone, but CB Chaz Powell’s finger tip impacted the throw enough to cause a drop. Northwestern would drive again on their next possession, but a Mauti sack set up 4th and long, which was then followed by a DE Pete Massaro sack to seal the victory. Paterno’s offensive linemen, who paved the way for a dominant 3rd quarter rushing attack, carried their victorious coach off the field as the only man to have 400 career win in major college football.
The Rest of the Story
The milestone victory would be the last happy finish for Penn State in 2010. The Nittany Lions roared out from the gates the following week in Columbus with a 14-3 halftime lead, but the No. 7 Buckeyes woke up in the locker room and got some lucky breaks in the Horseshoe to take control. Indiana gave up a home game to play Penn State at FedEx Field (home of the Washington Redskins), but they eventually succumbed to the Lions, 41-24. Penn State had a chance to cap off the regular season in style and play spoiler to the No. 10 Michigan State Spartans. But the eventual Big Ten co-champs dominated Penn State throughout and held off a furious comeback (spearheaded by heroics by Derek Moye) to beat Joe Paterno in Beaver Stadium for the first time in their program’s history.
Matt McGloin cemented himself as the starter late in the 2010 season, but his implosion in the Outback Bowl (a school-record five interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown when PSU was driving with just a 30-24 deficit) caused a stir. Rob Bolden, upset that he never returned to the field after the Northwestern game, requested a transfer after McGloin played every down against the Gators. Paterno denied the request, and Bolden returned to Penn State for the 2011 season. The quarterback controversy however caused more harm for Penn State’s offense the following year.
Northwestern feels like they have their own Joe Paterno in young Pat Fitzgerald, and the Wildcats certainly have the academic prowess to emulate that side of Paterno’s success for his football program. What remains to be determined is whether Fitzgerald and his ‘Cats can win as prolifically as Paterno. While no one is likely to reach 400 wins in today’s college football climate, Fitzgerald can only dream of two national titles, three Big Ten championships, and five undefeated seasons.
His handshake with Paterno as Penn State’s legend left the field with victory No. 400 might be the closest he’ll ever get to such a brilliant synergy of academic success with football greatness.
"The Games of Our Lives" runs every week at the Nittany Lions Den. The series is excerpted from Ryan J. Murphy's new book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, available NOW from Amazon.com and Father's Press. Come back next week for the final installment--game #22!!!