Halfway through the 2008 season, we knew Penn State was good. We just didn't know that they were this good.
Sure, there had been the signs. Sprinkled among the expected blowouts--a 66-10 shellacking of Coastal Carolina here, a 45-3 smackdown over Temple there--were hints of greatness. Oregon State might've been 0-1, and unranked at the time, but even a middling Pac-10 team isn't supposed to get blown out 45-14. Syracuse was at the height of GERG, but a lesser team might've showed some nerves at going onto the road, even into a listless Carrier Dome. The 2008 Nittany Lions, of course, were no lesser team. The only controversy was whether it was sporting for Penn State to take its timeouts and go for a late score with the game already out of hand. (We are, of course, talking about the Lions adding a field goal just before halftime.)
But the early returns in Big Ten play for Penn State were uninspiring. Sure, Illinois was ranked 22nd due to some Juice Williams-inspired hysteria, but the Illini wouldn't reach a bowl game that year, and yet they stuck with the Lions on a rainy Whiteout night at Beaver Stadium. Purdue was putrid, but a listless Penn State team merely sleepwalked to a 20-6 win, a margin aided by the shockingly erratic right leg of Chris Summers. It couldn't have helped that Joe Paterno was finally showing his age--a hip injury relegated him to the press box in Ross-Ade, a perch he wouldn't relinquish for the rest of the season. The communication issues that would emerge a few years later hadn't yet started to plague Penn State, but, easy as it is to forget all these years later, there was still some substantial uncertainty heading into the next week's matchup with Wisconsin.
True, Penn State was 6-0, had steamrolled their way into the top 10, and the whisper campaign for Daryll Clark as a darkhorse Heisman candidate was in full bloom. True, Wisconsin was 3-2, coming off a pair off losses to Michigan and Ohio State, and dealing with a bizarre off-field scandal--the hazing-related suspension of the football marching band. But Camp Randall at night was--and is--still Camp Randall at night, a stadium where Penn State hadn't scored more than 3 points in three of their past four visits. We might have expected a Nittany Lion win, but nobody saw the coronation coming. The Vegas line only gave Penn State five points.
Multiply that line by 8, and you'd still be a point short of the actual margin. We all remember how this one went; it's still fresh in our minds. After a slow feeling out process--the Lions led just 3-0 after a quarter--Penn State found its legs to start the second. A 9-play, 51-yard drive was capped with a short Evan Royster touchdown; three incomplete passes later, it was Derrick Williams' second return touchdown in three weeks to put the Lions up 17-0. Wisconsin fought back, just enough, but just before halftime, an Aaron Maybin strip bounced right into the hands of Josh Hull, and an impeccably memorialized Daryll Clark touchdown gave Penn State a 24-7 lead with a minute and change to go in the second, a lead they'd only build on in the increasingly academic second half.
Yes, the Lions rolled Wisconsin up 48-7, announcing themselves to the world of college football as real title contenders--a role they might have filled had it not been for a stunningly incomprehensible pass interference call on Anthony Scirrotto a few weeks later (and also the decision to start a still-reeling Daryll Clark, but whatever). As the clock ticked down to zero, the freshmen huddled at the Big O burst out in celebration, and chants of "We Want Texas" rang through Findlay Commons.
The Lions only outgained the Badgers by 64 yards, but the defense forced four turnovers, and Wisconsin committed costly penalty after costly penalty while Penn State was flagged only once. It was the quintessential performance for that team--a deadly efficient, yet simultaneously dynamic offense, a defense with some holes, that couldn't be exploited without keeping the front seven in check--and, spoiler alert, few teams could.
And among a host of dominant performances--Daryll Clark would be named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 244 yards and a touchdown and adding two more on the ground, and Lydell Sargeant picked off a pair of passes--this game truly belonged to Aaron Maybin. There was Aaron Maybin chasing down Allan Everidge, first for a sack, then for another one, then, for a change of pace, stripping the ball loose, too. There was Maybin knocking down a pass at the line of scrimmage. There was Maybin tripping up a rusher in the backfield. It had been just a few weeks earlier that the redshirt sophomore found himself thrust into the starting lineup--thanks, Maurice Evans, for being caught with some weed--and on that night in Madison, a night he left the nation's leader in sacks, the first inkling must have entered his mind: with his stunningly fast burst off the edge, and his indefatigably high motor, he could be a first-round draft pick.
That turned out well for the Bills, right?
Anyway, here are the highlights. Relieve every detail that I totally forgot. You'll probably want to.