Without going into too much detail, the 2011 season will not be remembered fondly for the Penn State community. However, there were a few joyful moments that will serve as long-lasting memories and live on in Penn State lore. Today and tomorrow, our BSD staff debates the most satisfying wins, and most crushing losses, of the 2011 season.
After years of frustrating losses at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes, Penn State finally exacted some revenge in a 13-3 victory at Beaver Stadium. Penn State was 1-7 against the Hawkeyes since 2000, including two OT loses, two upset loses while Penn State was in the top 5, and the 6-4 debacle that will likely forever be the most angst-inducing loss in the minds of Penn State fan. By this point, it seemed that Kirk Ferentz had Joe Paterno and company under his thumb, and any contest against the Hawkeyes was going to find a way to end up in the 'L' column.
Despite a 4-1 start, most Penn State fans were not satisfied with how the season was shaping up. A crushing defeat at the hands of Alabama displayed that this team was far from national title material, and a narrow victory over Indiana the previous week had many fans wondering if 2011 was going to be on par with "the dark years." With the meat of the Big Ten schedule on the way, a lackluster offense, and a never-ending quarterback controversy in full-swing, a bowl-less season was not out of the realm of possibility.
Penn State helped alleviate some of these concerns with a good-ol' fashioned slobberknocker victory. In a nice change of pace, the offensive line spent most of the second half pushing Iowa's front seven all over the field. More importantly, Tom Bradley's defense put together a masterpiece performance by nearly shutting out a team that had averaged almost 38 points per game in its first four contests.
The game started out in typical fashion, with the offense sputtering in the red zone. Anthony Fera kicked two 20-yard field goals to give Penn State a 6-3 lead going into halftime. Penn State put together another long drive in the third quarter, but it ended with no points when Matt McGloin was picked off by Micah Hyde in the end zone. Penn State would miss out on another golden opportunity moments later when an automatic pick-six slipped through the hands of Drew Astorino. With Penn State clinging to a narrow lead, the game felt eerily reminiscent of the 2009 Penn State-Iowa contest. It seemed at any moment Iowa would find a way to create a big play that would turn the tide in its favor.
Then something unexpected happened. The 2011 unit showed that they didn't care about the history with Iowa, and put together one of the gutsiest fourth-quarter performances in recent memory. Silas Redd (142 yards on 28 carries) and Curtis Dukes (60 yards on 9 carries) continued to add to their big days, and Matt McGloin redeemed himself by connecting with Kevin Haplea for a two-yard touchdown pass. The defense then went from bend-but-don't-break mode to attack mode, and the results couldn't have been more pleasant. James Vandenberg was harassed by a slew of Nittany Lions every time he dropped back to pass. Vandenberg would go onto throw two interceptions and lose a fumble following a brutal hit by Gerald Hodges. The defense sealed the win with three consecutive sacks, which resulted in a turnover on downs by Iowa after a failed 4th-and-39 from its own one-yard-line.
It was a beautiful moment for Penn State fans. The players showed their perseverance. The fans cheered wildly. Grown men hugged. The football gods decided to lift the curse, at least for one sun-drenched October afternoon.
Something likely lost in all the drama of the past several months is that the 2011 Penn State-Iowa game marked the final time Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines of Beaver Stadium during game-action. Paterno re-aggravated his hip and pelvis injuries during the first half, prompting a move to the booth for the remainder of the game. It was a fitting end, as Paterno was finally able to turn the tables on a man that was responsible for a few of his patches of gray hair.