It had to happen. Everyone knew it. One day, someday, Joe Paterno would be finished at Penn State.
Problem was, even though everyone KNEW it would happen, it was hard to believe it. The man had simply lasted year after year (since 1950 as an assistant and since 1966 as a head coach) and outlasted head coach after head coach (almost 900 changes in major college football during his tenure). They wondered about his retirement in the eighties. They anticipated it in the nineties. They marveled about it in the new millennium.
But it never came. Even in what wound up being his final season (2011), no one knew if Joe would finagle one more contract extension for himself, despite his nature-defying age of 84.
As you now know, Joe couldn’t go out on his own terms. The Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal tainted everyone remotely involved with the long-retired defensive coordinator. And Joe—the most recognizable face in the Penn State universe—took the brunt of the public backlash.
While the Nittany Lions sat at 8-1 and No. 12 in the country, a tidal wave of outrage over Sandusky’s (at the time) alleged sins swept over Penn State football during a bye week. By the time the Lions took the field again, Paterno had retired—then been fired by the Board of Trustees—and in a most unbelievable turn of events, the legendary coach’s career was over.
Penn State lost an emotional game in Beaver Stadium to Nebraska under interim head coach Tom Bradley, and while a win-loss record seemed like the most irrelevant of factors at the time, Penn State’s final two games (at Ohio State and at Wisconsin) seemed like they might leave the Nittany Nation as defeated and demoralized on the field as they were off it.
But the Penn State players had a statement to make when they traveled to Columbus, Ohio.
Ironically, the first win of the post-Paterno era came against another team embroiled in a scandal as well (albeit one of a different sort). Ohio State under Jim Tressel was a force. Following a national title in his second season (2002), Tressel led the Buckeyes to seven BCS bowls in the next eight years. He dominated a waning Michigan dynasty (earning seven straight wins in “The Game”) and won more than he lost against an up-and-down Penn State franchise. The Buckeyes were the Big Ten’s consistently elite team.
However, the success wasn’t honorably attained. Allegations against five Buckeye players surfaced in December 2010, but the worst was yet to come. Tressel had known of the players’ transgressions earlier in the year and then lied to NCAA officials about what he knew. Ohio State stood by the coach though, penalizing him with a five-game suspension, even as more allegations built. Anticipating a damning report by Sports Illustrated (in which over 28 Buckeyes were accused of taking illegal money under Tressel’s watch), Tressel resigned before the 2011 season began and later changed his status to “retired” so he could remain a Buckeye forever.
Terrelle Pryor—the superstar quarterback at the center of the scandal—bolted for the NFL rather than serve his suspension, but the other four players returned mid-season for interim coach Luke Fickell and made significant contributions. Without a seasoned quarterback, Ohio State struggled to a 6-4 mark when the traumatized Nittany Lions rolled in to town. Two of the Big Ten’s marquee programs—both embroiled in scandal—would face off for a bit of redemption and maybe some momentum heading into a rocky off-season.
A special pre-game handshake between the scandal-ridden squads began the football contest. Ohio State’s administration stressed sportsmanship for the visiting Lions from fans and football personnel alike. The gracious welcome was even more appreciated considering that Penn State received more bad news during the week—former head coach Paterno was diagnosed with cancer.
Ohio State offered even more hospitality on PSU’s first drive when they pushed WR Devon Smith out of bounds on a long pass play, drawing some yellow laundry. Then, QB Matt McGloin hit WR Derek Moye on a 16-yard slant to set up a 39-yard wildcat-formation touchdown handoff to RB Stephfon Green. The aggressive opening scoring drive took the energy out of the Horseshoe and gave the troubled Penn State squad inspiration on the road.
Interim Coach Bradley ended the quarterback rotation that had plagued the Nittany Lions all season long by tapping McGloin as the starter over Rob Bolden. McGloin, for the second straight year, had a strong first half in Ohio Stadium, hitting TE Andrew Sczcerba and WR Justin Brown on two clutch 3rd-and-long completions on PSU’s next drive. Kicker Anthony Fera finished the series off with a 43-yard field goal to put PSU up 10-0 early.
Penn State DE Sean Stanley broke up a long pass to WR Jordan Hall on 2nd and 11, but Posey speared a one-handed grab and got a foot inbounds to sustain the drive. The fleet-footed freshman signal caller, Braxton Miller, then sprinted 24 yards for a touchdown to get the Buckeyes on the board.
The usually-sluggish Lion offense kept cruising on its very next drive, ignited by a 42-yard run by RB Silas Redd where he shook off safety Christian Bryant. Freshman scat back Bill Belton picked up another crucial first down (with the help of a crushing block by Green) on a 12-yard run. Green, grateful for a second chance after spending the pre-season in JoePa’s doghouse, made the most of his touches and scored a second time in the game, this time from just the 4-yard line. Penn State 17, Ohio State 7.
The defense pushed OSU back to start their next drive, but when the ball came back to the Nittany Lions, McGloin made a risky throw on first down. McGloin’s turnover turned into a quick score for the opposition.
The wildcat formation continued to be an enigma for the Ohio State defense on the next drive. Curtis Drake exploded on a 38-yard run through the OSU back 7 to enter Buckeye territory, and the Lions seemed poised for another score on a Bill Belton wildcat run, but the play was whistled dead for a delay of game. After the penalty, Penn State couldn’t get another first down, settling for an impressive 46-yard field goal by Fera. If you told Penn State fans beforehand that the Lions would top their season average for points (19.3) in the first half—against a top-25 defense and on the road, no less—no one would have believed you. Yet, both teams exploded offensively en route to a 20-14 Penn State lead.
After a scoreless 3rd quarter, the Bucks missed a golden opportunity on 3rd and 7 when Miller sailed a perfect pass into freshman Corey Brown’s hand only to have Brown drop it. Time was running out for OSU, and after Penn State sucked a few more minutes from the clock, Fera pushed OSU inside the 20 yet again.
Methodically, the Buckeye running game moved the ball to their own 38 when OSU seemed ready to take a big shot on first down. The shotgun snap, which had been a problem for Mike Brewster and Miller all day, ruined the scheduled play, but in the improvisation, Miller eluded rushers and slipped tackles for a 21-yard pickup. Desperate for more than a field goal, interim coach Fickell went for it on 4th and 10. Miller’s legs nearly got him to the sticks, but Penn State resumed possession.
Ohio State spent its final timeouts as Penn State safely ran the ball towards mid-field, eventually needing to punt with :43 left in the game. Miller had led the Buckeyes to final-minute scoring drives in each of the previous two weeks giving the Ohio Stadium crowd reason to hope. However, the Penn State defensive front forced the freshman playcaller into a crucial mistake on first down (an intentional grounding which resulted in a loss of downs and a ten-second runoff), and Miller’s ensuing Hail Mary tosses were unsuccessful. Miller’s miracles ran out.
Penn State left the Horseshoe as victors for the second time in three tries, but the biggest victory was a victory for school morale. With the whole nation rooting against Penn State because of the failures of a small minority in Penn State administration, the Nittany Lions rallied together to give Paterno’s staff its final victory and to plant a flag in the ground for the future—Penn State football still is and will be great again.
The Rest of the Story
Ohio State finally saw their seven-game streak over Michigan snapped the week after the Penn State loss. The 40-34 loss in Ann Arbor put OSU at .500 for the season, yet even a 6-6 record wouldn’t dissuade the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl from selecting the Buckeyes over better teams like the Nittany Lions. In addition to the favorable bowl selection, OSU got more good news—their next head coach would be Gator Bowl opponent Florida’s former head coach, Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes lost the bowl game but energized their fan base by hiring the two-time national champion and Ohio native.
All the news wasn’t good though. Ohio State hoped that vacating wins from 2010 and losing Tressel would appease the NCAA investigators completely, but their hopes were ill-founded. The NCAA did levy additional sanctions against OSU, their third in NCAA history, with scholarship reductions and a one-year bowl ban. However, without Tressel on staff and without cooperation from former Buckeye players, the NCAA had little investigative power of its own, and most considered their penalty light considering the on-field advantages that their improprieties wrought them.
Penn State’s unimaginable run at a Big Ten title (unimaginable both because of their sloppy, close wins early in the season and the colossal distractions through the November Sandusky firestorm) came to a screeching halt in Camp Randall the following week. Mistakes caught up with the Lions when an opponent could actually punish them for them. Four turnovers led to four easy touchdowns, and the game quickly got out of hand. Wisconsin—and not Penn State—would be the first Leaders Division representative in the Big Ten Championship Game.
In the court of public opinion, the attack on everything Penn State raged on. A bowl snub came next, as the Lions fell to the Ticket City Bowl as the eighth Big Ten team selected (despite being the fourth-highest ranked team from the league). Insulted and uninspired, Penn State succumbed to the NCAA’s all-time passing leader, Case Keenum, and the home state favorite, No. 17 Houston.
Ryan J. Murphy's "The Games of Our Lives" series is excerpted from Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, available now through Amazon and Father's Press.