We Are Penn State Football – Part II

26 Jan

This is a mini-series that covers my personal experience with Penn State football. It is dedicated to the memory of the late Joseph Vincent Paterno (1926-2012).

Penn State and Michigan. 2005. The most memorable game of my life.

There was a time where I thought these teams could have had one of the most heated rivalries in the game. Unfortunately, the college football landscape doesn’t allow for that, at least for the time being. Because of the size of the Big Ten, even before adding Nebraska in 2011, every season a few teams didn’t end up playing each other. So even before the two divisions were created the Nittany Lions and Wolverines was not a guaranteed game on the schedule every season. Michigan was Ohio State’s lock-in game at the end of the year. We got “rivaled” with Michigan State.

If there was ever one coach, besides “Bear” Bryant that Joe Paterno couldn’t figure out, it very well may have been Lloyd Carr. Coming into the 2005 season, Carr already possessed a 7-2 lifetime record vs. the Nittany Lions. Carr had Joe’s number and both coaches and teams knew it.

At the time of this game, however, Michigan was at its lowest point of the season. Having started the season #3 in the country, the Wolverines had just fallen out of the AP and coaches Top 25 after losing three of their first six games.

Penn State came into the “Big House” that day a favorite to win. Michigan had just lost to Minnesota at home. They hoped to prevent the first ever two-game home losing streak in Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines were down, yes, but not even they could have predicted what was about to unfold in front of their very own eyes.

Now remember: I am in Buffalo, New York for this game and I had just eaten my lunch at Applebee’s with my dad and brother, Danny. We all returned to the hotel in time for the game.

In the first half of the game Penn State squandered two key drives. The first was the opening one, where Michael Robinson led a fierce offense all the way down the field before being shut down inside the Wolverine 30-yard line. I was honestly really surprised it came down to a field goal attempt because Penn State moved the ball so well that first drive it looked like from the start they were ready to shove the game right down the throats of the Wolverines.

Freshman Kevin Kelly came into the game to kick. To that point he had been such a pleasant replacement for graduate Robbie Gould, who really had his kicking problems while at Penn State. Ironically or not, Gould is a pro-bowl kicker in the NFL.

Anyway, as Kelly came set to kick the ball it didn’t even come to mind that he may miss the field goal. But he was only just a true freshman in his first real pressured-packed situation away from Beaver Stadium. As his kick went up it turned out to be just plain ugly. It had no shot of going in at all – way far left of the goal post. I’m sure when Kelly kicked it he instantly put his head down in shame because it was THAT BAD. I remember falling back onto the hotel bed in disgust, but it was only one three-point field goal miss, right?

Kelly came on again to attempt another field goal early in the second quarter. As the kick went into the air I thought it had a chance. The ball hooked wide right this time and again the Nittany Lions had wasted a golden opportunity to put valuable points on the board.

Luckily for us, Michigan also had kicking problems of their own. Junior kicker Garret Rivas did have the advantage of being at home but surprised everyone by missing on his first attempt. He quickly redeemed himself by nailing a field goal to give the Wolverines a 3-0 lead. After all of the missed kicks/opportunities by both teams I was satisfied with only being down by three points at halftime.

Of course it was Penn State’s defense leading the way, but then again neither team had very much success on offense during the first half. Team leaders for both squads on offense got things done on the ground with Robinson taking the honors for the Nittany Lions and running back (and Syracuse area native) Mike Hart for the Wolverines. Hart was really having a great game especially after being injured on-and-off the first couple of weeks of the season. An extra missed tackle here-or-there and Hart may have run for three or four touchdowns by himself. But just as Penn State’s offense would stall at a sudden moment, so would the Wolverines and they’d be forced to punt or attempt a field goal.

As bad as I felt for Kelly and the fact that we had wasted at least six points, I still had all the confidence in the world in him and my Nittany Lions. We had just beaten Ohio State and shown the world Penn State was back. How could we lose to unranked Michigan?

I really thought Penn State would come out storming in the second half, but it was Michigan who opened with a 70-yard, ten play drive that culminated in a two-yard touchdown run by Hart.

Just like that Michigan now had a 10-0 lead.

But before I knew it Penn State was about to go onto a most auspicious roll.

It all started with a 25-yard field goal by Kevin Kelly at the end of the third quarter. Penn state tied the game on a delay run by Robinson early in the fourth. Tony Hunt set up the touchdown run by going 61 yards on a Reggie Bush type run before Robinson capped off the drive.

Then more craziness.

On Michigan’s next drive, cornerback Alan Zemaitis stripped the ball right out of quarterback Chad Henne’s hand and took the return 35 yards for the score. Things were going so well for the Nittany Lions that even after a botched extra point attempt, Kelly was able to run the ball into the endzone for a two point conversion and give the Nittany Lions a 18-10 lead.

By this point in the game I was really into it. My mom, back home in Syracuse, wasn’t able to watch the game because it wasn’t the regional broadcast in that area. So every time something good would happen for Penn State, my brother or I would call her and give her the news. I had the liberty of calling her after Zemaitis’ fumble recovery and I was screaming so loud I had to tell her four times before she could understand that Penn State now had a 18-10 lead.

Something started to happen from then on that was probably a worry of Joe Paterno’s all season long. Through the first six wins that season star freshmen Derrick Williams and Justin King were used as if they were like big locomotives and would never run out of steam. Things finally started to catch up with each true freshman.

King was the first to have a breakdown.

After taking the 18-10 lead Penn State had Michigan set up on a long third down. King was covering a true freshman on the other side by the name of Mario Manningham – I cringe as I write this because “Super Mario” is such a huge part of my Football Giants team now. Manningham cut right by King on his left, near the five-yard line before making a basket catch for a touchdown. Hart then dove into the end-zone for the two point conversion and the game was again tied at 18.

A quick Michigan field goal ensued and it was now 21-18. Penn State would get the ball once more with plenty of time on the clock – about two minutes left till the end of regulation. Robinson was so eager to get down field that he almost threw away the opportunity and Penn State’s dream season all in one. But after a big first down completion he settled down and seemed to realize that he had plenty of time to lead his team to victory.

Robinson did just that. He accounted for all 81 yards – including 61 through the air – on the series, and capped the drive with a three-yard run on a draw for the go ahead score.

I remember jumping so high in the air that when I came down I felt as if my ankles were about to give out. Like I jumped from the top of the hotel.

Finally Penn State had done it.

The game was over. Michigan coaches, players and fans were shocked.

Penn State rejoiced.

The crowd at the Big House was completely silent and I never had a doubt in my mind that Penn State would be headed to Illinois anything less then 8-0.

What did Yogi Berra once say? Something like, “It ain’t over, till it’s over.”

When a kick returner has proven himself time-after-time to be dangerous, doesn’t it make sense NOT to kick the ball to him?

Sure seems logically to me.

So what does Penn State do? Kelly kicks the ball to Steve Breaston and he takes the kickoff 41 yards and gives the Wolverines great field position.

41 yards. I could not believe it. Breaston even made special team great Ethan Kilmer miss a tackle.

There was still :53 seconds on the clock, plenty of time for a Michigan score of their own. But Penn State had the Big Ten’s #1 ranked defense. They wouldn’t give in now would they?

With about :30 seconds left in the game Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr came storming out at a referee demanding for two seconds to be put back on the clock. The refs, almost too willingly, gave him his two seconds back.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!

I remember my reaction like it was yesterday. It was so painful.

It’s a four point game with :30 seconds remaining and these refs are giving away two of the most valuable seconds time has to offer. Michigan was now driving and facing a third-and-four at the Penn State ten-yard line with seven seconds remaining.

As Henne took the snap it looked as though for a moment a Michigan wide receiver was wide open near the five-yard line. Out of no where came a Penn State defender and he swatted the ball away, leaving one second on the ABC scoreboard on the tube.

In retrospect, the Penn State defender might have been better off letting him catch the ball and then tackling him to end the game.

Michigan had no time-outs left.

Robinson held his left hand with a teammate’s and raised one finger up high in the air on his right hand. All the Penn State players joined together on the sideline.

This was the last play of the game.

Calvin Lowry, my favorite player at the time, had played exceptional during his senior campaign at Penn State. He was instrumental in Penn State’s win over Ohio State where he snagged a Troy Smith pass and brought it back to the Penn State two-yard line before the Nittany Lions scored.

Why did it have to be Lowry who blew his coverage?

Here is how it went in my head: One second remaining on the clock. The Penn State defense gets set at the line, as does the Wolverine offense. Fourth-and-four from the Penn State ten-yard line, but that doesn’t matter. Michigan needs to score a touchdown here or the game is over. Henne drops back; stays in the pocket, looks, now finds a receiver down the middle into the end-zone…

Manningham was wide open.

Touchdown Michigan.

Lloyd Carr got those two seconds he cried for and his team won him the game.

I was so confident in Penn State that I never would have thought they could lose a game like this.

More than half of the 2005 season was over and Penn State had as many wins as they had its previous two seasons combined. None of that mattered to me anymore. They weren’t undefeated. The dream was over.

I wanted that undefeated season. I wanted the Rose Bowl. I wanted another National Championship. Not just for myself, but for Joe Paterno.

I didn’t talk after the game for at least an hour. Not once. Neither did my brother. Just ask our dad. I had to be the one tell my mom that Penn State had lost and I didn’t want to hear anymore of it.

Lost in the game was Derrick Williams. Williams again proved he was a big-time player, but on a kick return that set up the Penn State touchdown late in the game, Williams broke his arm. He was now out for the season.

At the time this was a day and game I had hoped to never have to revisit, in any way, shape or form, ever again. Penn State was now on their way to Illinois with questions hanging over them about how they would respond. I was looking for justification after the most heartbreaking loss I had ever watched.

Stay tuned for Part III of “We Are Penn State Football” as Athletic Jocks remember the late Joseph Vincent Paterno.

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