Some teams are defined by their high-profile players, some by their national championships, and some by their rivalries. Admittedly, Penn State football has drawn its identity from Joe Paterno more than anything else. But if you’re looking for a close number two, Penn State’s phenomenal bowl performances stand out among all college football programs.
Stacked beside teams with twenty or more bowl appearances, Penn State’s win percentage is the highest in history. While Penn State’s schedule usually has had a strong regional flavor, the Lions proved their mettle against national opponents in bowl games time and time again. The 2010 Capital One Bowl—Penn State’s 42nd bowl game (ranking them eighth all-time in bowl appearances)—was just another prime example.
LSU—BCS national champions in 2003 and 2007—was the perfect matchup for a strong Penn State team that still needed a signature win. Both teams had dominated everyone on their schedule except those of equal ability. Both teams needed a major victory to turn a good season into a great one.
Penn State has always known how to cap off a year. And a New Year’s Day bowl win over a respected SEC foe would do just that for the 2009 campaign.
The Louisiana State University’s history stretches back to the game’s foundations. Coach Charles McClendon led the team to great success in the late sixties and early seventies during his program-long eighteen seasons at the helm, but LSU’s success in the latter half of the 20th century dipped, pushing the school out of the top 10 for all-time football victories. Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia all jockeyed for supremacy in the football-crazed SEC, while LSU’s greatest feats were defeating their bitterest rival, Ole Miss.
All that changed when the Tigers lured Nick Saban away from Michigan State at the end of the 1999 season. Saban had LSU back in the top 10 in his second season and led them to a victory in the BCS title game in 2003 (although AP voters anointed USC the national champ). The ladder of success continued past Baton Rouge for Saban, as he climbed up to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins after 2004.
He left the cupboard stocked with talent for quirky successor Les Miles however, and Miles—a former Oklahoma State head coach and Michigan assistant—made LSU the first team in the BCS era to win two titles, despite being a two-loss team in 2007. His awesome defenses brought Miles acclaim nationally, but his playcalling and clock management on offense brought him some criticism. Dubbed the “Mad Hatter” because of his signature LSU baseball cap, Miles was dubbed more lucky than good until his 2011 squad annihilated a difficult SEC schedule (13-0 on the year).
For Penn State, a Big Ten championship season in 2008 meant high hopes for 2009. Although the defensive and offensive lines needed some retooling, Daryll Clark returned to command the offense and Sean Lee recovered from ACL surgery to direct the defense. Penn State ascended to fourth in the nation after the first three weeks but familiar nemesis Iowa upset the Lions in front of a White Out crowd, 21-10. PSU pushed through three Big Ten road games with wins, setting up a November 7th showdown with No. 12 Ohio State. The home crowd would be disappointed again though, as the Penn State offense mustered just 7 points in the loss. A superb finale in East Lansing (42-14 over bowl-bound Michigan State) gave Penn State a resume strong enough to make a BCS bowl, but the Orange Bowl chose Iowa instead and the Nittany Lions landed in the Capital One bowl against a difficult SEC foe.
The game wasn’t the first meeting between the Bayou Bengals and the Nittany Lions. The conclusion of the 1973 season brought the two teams together in the Orange Bowl. Although LSU limited Penn State’s first Heisman winner John Capalletti to a season-low 50 yards rushing, Penn State found a way to win, icing Paterno’s first 12-0 season with a 16-9 victory.
Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium hardly looked like the venue for an elite college football competition; it looked more like a swampy cow pasture. The new sod, which had been laid down just three weeks before the game, had been submitted to heavy rains and unseasonably cool temperatures so that the sod never took root. The result on this rainy New Year’s Day was a sloppy mess that made both sides play less precisely than anyone would have liked.
Scoring was limited until late in the 1st quarter. PSU wide receiver Graham Zug went high for a 21-yard reception, showing extreme guts with the bruising DBs Jones and Peterson lurking; the catch brought the Lions into LSU territory. Then, the Lions got their only touchdown of the day by taking a gamble. Fullback Joe Suhey stuck with his block long enough to let Clark scramble to his left and for wide receiver Derek Moye to get behind the secondary on a double move. Clark placed the ball perfectly, and the wide-open sophomore put PSU up 7-0.
Penn State tried to keep the ball out of tiny speedster Trindon Holliday’s hands, so they kicked off short. It backfired, and the Tigers still returned the ball into PSU terriroty. LaFell—the fourth leading receiver in LSU history—then scooped a low Jefferson pass and slipped out of CB D’anton Lynn’s grasp, running to the 11. The Penn State defense held and limited LSU to a 25-yard Josh Jasper field goal early in the 2nd quarter.
Midway through the 2nd, tight end Andrew Quarless had another huge gain, this time a 24-yard crossing pattern inside the red zone. The catch set up a Colin Wagner 26-yard field goal to put PSU up 10-3. Penn State’s offense might not have scored a lot in the first half, but they sustained drives and kept their defense well rested. Quarless’s 8 catches for 88 yards on the day made him the all-time receptions leader for Penn State tight ends (passing Tony Stewart’s record from 2000).
The rest paid off. On LSU’s next drive, corner back A.J. Wallace caught a tipped pass deep in LSU territory with 3:48 remaining in the half. Running back Evan Royster then ripped off a 17-yard run to the outside to penetrate the red zone, followed by a diving Curtis Drake catch to give PSU 1st and goal from the 3. Then things got weird. Jones popped Royster on first down, resulting in a wild scrum for the ball. After a long unpiling, Penn State recovered. Then on second down, LSU defensive tackle Charles Alexander tried to jump the snap count but hit center Stefen Wisniewski in the process, causing another fumble , which LSU recovered this time. No flag was thrown initially, but Wisniewski pled his case to the conferring referees, and a penalty was assessed. The next two plays were fumble-free, but Penn State still got points on an 18-yard field goal. A soggy Penn State jogged to the locker room with a 13-3 lead.
LSU’s second turnover (Sean Lee scooping up the fumble that linebacker Navarro Bowman knocked from running back Stevan Ridley’s hands) gave Penn State a short field early in the second half, which they used to pick up a 20-yard field goal. For all of the offensive success Penn State earned, red zone stalls meant that LSU was still very alive with just a 16-3 deficit.
LSU’s offense finally decided to thank its defense on the next drive. Starting with great field position off the kickoff again, the Bayou Bengals used the short passing game to move the ball quickly, culminating in a 24-yard short post pass to LaFell for 6. The game—which seemed so firmly in the Lions’ favor—was now just a 16-10 lead.
A 39-yard punt return by Holliday early in the 4th quarter (against the nation’s 106th ranked special teams defense) further energized the Tigers’ cause. Jefferson, whose ankle had bothered him since an injury in the Alabama game, scrambled away from pressure on 3rd and 10 until he could find Terrence Toliver (who had dropped numerous passes earlier in the day) for a 39-yard gain. From the 1, Ridley plowed forward to give the Tigers a 17-16 lead with most of the 4th quarter still to play.
Penn State’s defense cooled the Tigers’ momentum on the next drive, getting the ball back for the offense on the PSU 31 with 6:54 left in the game. Clark—although 22-4 as a starter in his career at Penn State, he had yet to lead his team to a signature victory—was about to make the most of the opportunity. Passing for three first downs (1 to Drake and 2 to Zug), he brought the Lions to the LSU 20. From there, Clark, Royster, and Greene powered for 13 rushing yards, earning a 1st and goal with 2:26 left. Although Penn State struggled to find the end zone all day, a field goal this late in the game wasn’t a wholly unsatisfactory outcome. With LSU out of timeouts, Penn State kept the ball in Clark’s hands (despite another offsides by LSU’s Alexander, this one ignored by referees) and ran down the clock. Clark’s career couldn’t have ended on a better note, as Wagner hit his fourth field goal of the day, a 21-yarder to give PSU the definitive 19-17 lead.
The mud-covered pride of Lions celebrated their season-defining win, a win that gave them their second straight 11-2 season and second straight top-10 finish. Paterno’s final bowl victory (giving him 37 all-time, a feat that is unlikely to be topped) was also Les Miles first bowl loss at LSU.
The Rest of the Story
LSU’s bowl loss didn’t give pre-season voters much reason for confidence in 2010 (starting the Tigers outside the top 20), but they scratched and clawed their way through the nation’s toughest division—the SEC West. Eventual national champion Auburn—and their breakthrough quarterback, the freakishly athletic but scandal-hounded Cam Newton—was one of five SEC West teams in the top 15 at the end of the season. (Only Ole Miss missed a bowl game.)
LSU beat Texas A&M in the 2011 Cotton Bowl to finish No. 8 and excite the fan base over the potential of the 2011 team. A tough non-conference schedule (neutral-site game against Oregon and at West Virginia) drew national attention to the pre-season No. 4; unequivocal domination over all foes elevated LSU quickly to the top spot. The Tigers’ suffocating defense and consistent offense blew through their schedule, setting up a “Game of the Century” against No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa on November 9. While the two teams’ defenses didn’t disappoint, the offenses were subpar. LSU outfieldgoaled Alabama by 1, eking out a 9-6 overtime victory to claim the nation’s top spot.
Despite the BCS’s mantra of “Every Game Counts,” voters decided that November 9th didn’t count, as they elevated Alabama ahead of a worthy Oklahoma State team for the title game rematch. In New Orleans for the championship, LSU’s special teams heroics faltered and its defense softened enough to allow Alabama five field goals (but just one touchdown) en route to a 21-0 championship game loss. LSU couldn’t improve to 3-0 in BCS championship games (having won in 2003 and 2007), even though their dominant 13-0 regular season would be remembered as one where they beat the Big East and Orange Bowl champ (West Virginia), the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champ (Oregon), the Cotton Bowl champ (Arkansas), and even the BCS champ (Alabama). Considering how far Les Miles took his team in two short years following the Capital One Bowl, Penn State fans lamented their fortunes taking a turn for the worse in 2010 and 2011.
Paterno’s Outback Bowl loss in 2010 was an uncharacteristic finish for the iconic coach who had ended so many seasons as he did the 2009 season against the LSU Tigers: with a sweet bowl triumph.
Keep coming back for "The Games of Our Lives" series, featured every week on the Nittany Lions Den. Just two more stories remain of the top 22 Penn State football victories of the past forty years. Also stay tuned for the release of Ryan J. Murphy's new book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, coming this month from Father's Press (available on Amazon)!!!