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College Football Classic: Penn State vs. Florida State (2006)

Penn State cut its teeth as a budding college football super power in the Orange Bowl in the late sixties and early seventies. The Orange Bowl was also the stage where they would fight to regain respect on the national stage.

Paterno saw his first three undefeated teams wind up in the Orange Bowl (1968, 1969, and 1973), victorious in low-scoring slugfests all three times. Penn State’s fourth visit was less memorable (a national championship game loss to Oklahoma in the 1985 season), but the fifth would be one for the ages.

An undefeated season wasn’t on the line. Nor was a national title this time. But the matchup between coaching titans Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden and the unexpected resurrection of Penn State football in 2005 were storylines enough for anyone.

The hard-hitting clash between Penn State and Florida State claimed all the limelight on January 3 (the only football game scheduled and last one before the Texas/USC Rose Bowl BCS championship), and viewers were not sent to bed unsatisfied. In fact, after three overtimes, viewers wondered if they’d ever see their beds.

After enduring four losing seasons out of five, Penn State hoped its nightmare was over. Sweet dreams and a storybook ending to 2005 were just an Orange Bowl win away.

The Opponent

Most legendary programs took up football when the game was invented; Florida State (founded as Florida State College for Women) can only trace its roots back to 1947. Bill Peterson was the first to establish a winning tradition at the longtime independent school (his young assistant Bobby Bowden cemented the tradition many years later), winning a “State Championship” in 1964 with wins over the University of Miami and the University of Florida. Immortal receiver Fred Biletnikoff –a six-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion with the Raiders—starred on those mid-sixties teams, eventually becoming the namesake of the award for college’s top wide receiver. Peterson’s immediate coaching successors floundered, but Bowden took the helm in 1976; the Seminoles would never be the same.

Bowden won at a steady but not awe-inspiring clip for his first decade at Florida State (11-1 in 1979 was the apex of that span), but in 1987, his dynasty flourished. After six straight top 5 AP finishes and six straight major bowl wins (including a Blockbuster Bowl over Penn State in 1990), the 1993 season brought Bowden his first national title. Florida State had joined the ACC in 1992 and promptly won the first nine ACC crowns.

An ugly loss in the national championship game in 2000 (the Orange Bowl versus Oklahoma) signaled a turn of fortunes for Bowden’s empire. Featuring the program’s second Heisman winner, QB Chris Weinke, the 2000 Seminoles still finished No. 5, but the streak would end the next year (finally rooted at fourteen straight in the record books). Bowden would never coach another team with less than three losses; the swagger of the Seminoles of the nineties became a limp in the 2000s.

The 2005 season was another disappointing one for Florida State. Accustomed to top-5 teams, the Seminoles weren’t even ranked when they played No. 5 Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game. A punt return touchdown gave FSU a boost they wouldn’t surrender, and the 27-22 upset put the Seminoles in the Orange Bowl as the ACC representative, despite their 8-4 record.

The FSU team definitely didn’t lack elite talent. A remarkable number of players were taken from the FSU defensive roster in the first nineteen picks of the 2006 NFL draft: four (LB Ernie Sims, CB Antonio Cromartie, DT Brodrick Bunkley, and LB Kamerion Wimbley). Another went fifteenth overall in the 2007 draft (LB Lawrence Timmons). The Seminoles may not have had the success of the nineties, but the NFL said they still had the skill.

The Rose Bowl is the normal destination for the Big Ten champion, but in a rare year where the BCS title game took place in Pasadena, Penn State was relegated elsewhere. The Orange Bowl selected No. 3 Penn State first to play the automatically-placed ACC champion, No. 22 Florida State. The Nittany Lions may have liked to have squared off against a more highly ranked foe (No. 4 Ohio State faced No. 6 Notre Dame in the Fiesta, and No. 7 Georgia got No. 11 West Virginia in the Sugar), but the chance to see legendary coaches Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno—76- and 79-years-old respectively—stand toe-to-toe one last time made TV execs and sponsors salivate.

The Game

Florida State took the opening drive to midfield until DT Jay Alford snuffed out a screen pass on 3rd and long. Penn State started deep in its own territory, but that wasn’t the worst news. The worst came when Tony Hunt took a 3rd-and-8 screen pass and waited for his blockers to clear the way; meanwhile, the pursuit caught him from behind and smashed his ankle. The tenth running back in Penn State history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season was gone before the game even started.

Short term, the injury didn’t hurt Penn State. In fact, it may have helped. Hunt’s backup had a style so different from his that Florida State wasn’t prepared for Austin Scott’s quickness or the Nittany Lion playcalling. Penn State escaped their own red zone with Robinson’s arm, hitting an 11-yard pitch to Justin King and a 25-yard crossing pattern to wide-open WR Ethan Kilmer, a former walk-on who didn’t even play high school football. From midfield, Scott’s legs did the rest. He found a hole for a 12-yard burst and then exploded 27 yards on a quick hitter from the fullback position. Fittingly, Scott put PSU on the board first with a 3-yard stroll for 6 points, on an 85-yard drive that took less than 3 minutes.

Most bowl games are known for their offensive explosiveness and playcalling trickery; the 2006 Orange Bowl was a defensive rumble. The Penn State defense was better though, rushing QB Drew Weatherford constantly and keeping field position in PSU’s favor. CB Alan Zemaitis picked off Weatherford deep in Penn State territory, moving him to fifth all-time on Penn State’s interception list. The offense couldn’t move the ball though, so punter Jeremy Kapinos boomed a deep ball to Seminole return man Willie Reid. Reid sidestepped a few defenders until a gap opened up and he was gone—87 yards to tie the game at 7 with 4:09 left in the half.

Penn State’s offense sputtered badly and returned the ball to Florida State at their own 43. On the very first play, Weatherford dumped a screen to RB Lorenzo Booker who shot past his engaged blockers for a 57-yard touchdown strike. The Seminoles had two scores within 80 seconds, and the half which seemed so solidly in Penn State’s favor now was ruled on the scoreboard by Florida State. In a touch of foreshadowing for the game’s end, Gary Cismesia shanked the extra point to make the game 13-7 FSU.

The offense moved the ball to midfield for the Lions but again resorted to a Kapinos punt. There would be no heroic return this time, as the Seminoles started the drive at the 2 with just :42 left. DT Scott Paxson nearly had a safety as he blew up the fullback on first down, but Penn State settled with a three-and-out, regaining the ball at the FSU 40 with :17 left.

If Florida State could score quickly, so could Penn State. Robinson hit WR Jordan Norwood for 16 yards. Norwood stopped the clock by reaching the ball to the sideline with his right arm, a savvy play for a freshman in a huge game. From the 24, Penn State wanted one crack at the end zone. Feeling the heat from a Florida State blitz, Robinson lobbed a missile towards Kilmer. The Seminole defender never saw the ball, but Kilmer did. He timed his jump perfectly and caught the ball around the defender’s arm, falling to the end zone with the ball in his stomach, a clutch acrobatic catch to give Penn State a halftime lead, 14-13.

The two defenses continued exchanging blows throughout a scoreless 3rd quarter. The Penn State defense—dominated by multiple-year starters—kept field position in the Lions’ favor until it finally showed up on the scoreboard. While a first-half safety was narrowly averted, Florida State couldn’t escape Penn State’s claws early in the 4th quarter. On 3rd and 9 from the FSU 7, DE Jim Shaw chased the backpedaling quarterback, who threw the ball many yards over his nearest receiver’s head while still in the tackle box. The intentional grounding call from the end zone resulted in a safety and a 16-13 Penn State lead.

Penn State started with great field position after the safety punt, and Robinson hit Norwood across the middle with a clutch 3rd and 11, 26-yard laser. Both Norwood and Robinson paid with hard hits by the defense, but their sacrifices kept the drive alive. PSU seemed poised to take control of the game when Robinson botched the center exchange with E.Z. Smith at the Seminole 5-yard line. The Seminoles recovered.

Bad things come in threes, they say. Two more would follow the Robinson fumble, both at the expense of superstar junior linebacker Paul Posluszny. On Penn State’s side of midfield, Posluszny saw an easy interception bounce off his mitts, one that might have been returned 50+ yards for a Penn State touchdown. Instead of a heroic score, Posluszny was sent on a blitz shortly after, only to be cut off at the knees by Booker. His right knee inverted, the result of which was an ACL tear and more Florida State good fortune.

With the help of a replacement linebacker, true freshman Sean Lee, Penn State stymied the Seminole surge and held them to a wobbly, low-liner by kicker Cismesia. The kick was good, and the game was tied with 4:08 remaining in regulation.

In shades reminiscent of the Northwestern victory earlier in the season, Robinson led his team from deep in its own territory by finding Smolko on a 22-yarder across the middle. The very next play, Robinson rushed to the line and surprised a confused Seminole secondary with a 38-yard catch-and-run to Norwood (6 receptions for 110 yards on the day). On the FSU 11, Penn State had all the yardage they needed to win the game with a short field goal. They sent in freshman kicker Kevin Kelly with :35 on the clock. The hold was a bit shaky by Jason Ganter, and Kelly pushed it wide left. The BCS-era had its third overtime game ever.

Penn State bullied Florida State’s offense on overtime’s first possession, forcing a Cismesia 44-yard field goal. Again, Cismesia missed, giving Penn State another opportunity to win the game. Conservative playcalling conveyed an unwavering confidence in Kelly, and when Penn State was unable to convert a first down, they sent out Kelly for a 38-yarder for the Orange Bowl win. Kelly missed again; overtime number two.

With the opening salvo, Penn State took a more aggressive approach. After a 6-yard catch by Norwood, Robinson hit unsung hero Kilmer across the middle. Kilmer raced inside the ten, finally leaping to the 1-yard line. On the option left play, Robinson pitched it to Scott for an easy touchdown trot.

Now needing a touchdown to save their season, Florida State’s urgency paid dividends. On 2nd and goal from the 2, a fullback dive by B.J. Dean resulted in a touchdown, and Cismesia’s extra point sent the game to its third overtime.

The PSU defense, which started the program’s resurgence against Indiana nearly 14 months earlier, finished off the comeback story for Penn State in the third overtime. Forcing a three-and-out and another field goal attempt (this time a 38-yarder) by Cismesia, the defense danced and celebrated their way off the field after watching the kick bounce off the right goal post.

Penn State never stopped believing in its young kicker, but one little first down certainly would have bolstered everyone’s faith even more. After Justin King picked up 8 on a wheel route, senior leader Michael Robinson rushed around the right side and through the defense for four more. Penn State had its first down. On just second down, Paterno was ready to end it. Kelly’s final 28-yard kick wasn’t picturesque, but it was straight enough to redeem him and to erase the heartache of two earlier game-winning attempts. Kelly, finally, would be hailed as a hero as Penn State left the field—at nearly 1 a.m., four hours after the Orange Bowl had started—26-23 victors.

The Rest of the Story

The next two Bowden-led teams were his worst two since his very first season at Florida State thirty years earlier—both went 7-6. The writing was on the wall for the future when the school anointed assistant coach Jimbo Fisher the “coach in waiting.”

Bowden wasn’t ready to hang it up though. The 2008 team was better, but Bowden lost his all-time victories lead to Paterno, never to regain it. By 2009, the school had tired of waiting for the Bowden era to end on its own and pushed the legend out the door. He walked off the Gator Bowl field a winner against West Virginia (where he had coached for five seasons before coming to FSU), presumably finishing his career with 389 wins. However, the NCAA punished Florida State’s athletic department for academic fraud a month later, costing Bowden 12 of his wins as punishment.

Penn State’s recruiting re-emerged as the dark years ended, but they still lost oodles of talent and experience from the 2005 team. No players were drafted off of the 2004 team (both a sign of the youthful talent on that team and a symptom of the program’s struggles), an absence that hadn’t occurred for Penn State since 1960. The 2005 team saw six players taken, DE Tamba Hali being first at No. 20 by the Kansas City Chiefs. Hali and Michael Robinson—drafted as a running back in the fourth round—both are still difference-makers in the NFL, while S Calvin Lowry, CB Alan Zemaitis, S/WR Ethan Kilmer, and OG Tyler Reed, all were drafted but had short NFL careers.

Penn State’s 2005 season pointed the program true north again. The dark years were officially behind the team, thanks to the heroes of the Big Ten championship and Orange Bowl winning squad. Robinson, Hali, Posluszny, the freshmen receivers—they all came together to forge a comeback season like no other.

The 22-part "Game of Our Lives" series features weekly on the Nittany Lions Den. Ryan J. Murphy's forthcoming book, Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, is due for release in July 2012 through Father's Press and on Amazon Kindle.

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