Every program has those games that live on forever in its lore and are forever fondly remembered and relived by its fanbase. Penn State fans are fortunate to have a long list of these games- 1981 vs. Pitt, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, 2005 vs. Ohio State- the list can go on and on. Hidden Gems will focus on games that may not have the same prestige as those games, but certainly were memorable in some way or another and are an important part of the overall composition of Penn State sports.
A "hidden gem" isn't always a big victory that has been obscured by time. It isn't always a victory that ended up meaning comparatively little in the grand scheme of things. It isn't always a victory at all.
You had to know this was coming. They can't all be wins, you know.
I don't think much about the 2002 Iowa game. Time has obscured its place in history. In retrospect, the loss is far less frustrating than it was at the time. Iowa was an elite team that year, winning eleven games, dominating the Big Ten with a Heisman finalist at quarterback. A top ten squad that, because of scheduling quirks, unfortunately never got the chance to take on undefeated BCS National Champion Ohio State. Besides, of all of the frustrating, devastating, and inexplicable losses that the Nittany Lions have suffered against the Hawkeyes during its Big Ten years, the infamous 6-4 game and the 2008 upset that ended Penn State's national championship dreams are far, far higher on the list.
But 2002? It gave Penn State the chance to show its mettle in the face of adversity, and show off a surprisingly explosive offense. It gave us the best statistical performance of any Penn State quarterback in history. Frankly, it's probably the reason that instant replay exists in the Big Ten today. All told, that's not too shabby of a record.
The story of the 2002 Iowa game really begins several weeks earlier. Penn State struggled in its opener against the University of Central Florida, then dominated Nebraska in front of a record setting Beaver Stadium crowd. The next week, the Nittany Lions blew out Louisiana Tech at home, and the season appeared to have all the makings of something very special.
Iowa, on the other hand, wasn't looking very impressive. After laying the wood to Akron in its season opener, the Hawkeyes stole one from Miami of Ohio (29-24), then lost to in-state rival Iowa State after giving up 29 straight points. The Hawkeyes rebounded the following week against Utah State, and arrived at Beaver Stadium sporting a 4-1 record.
It was clear from the outset that Penn State was unprepared mentally for the oncoming Hawkeye onslaught. Within 25 game minutes, the 12th ranked Nittany Lions found themselves in a 23-0 hole. Even when Penn State scored, it found a way to fail. In the beginning of the second half, Larry Johnson scored, but Robbie Gould's point after try was blocked and run back for two Hawkeye points. With 8:22 left in the game, Penn State was down 35-13, and fans began to make their way back to their tailgates to sulk in their beers and burgers and reminisce about the olden days.
If you left this game, though, you're missing why it's a hidden gem in the first place. Led by Zack Mills, Penn State fought the entire way back. It scored twenty-two unanswered points in eight minutes, all on touchdown passes from Mills to players named Johnson - a 36-yard pass to Larry, a 44-yard pass to Tony, and an 8-yard pass to Bryant. A two-point conversion from Chris Ganter on the second score meant that Penn State had tied the game at 35, and the teams were headed to overtime.
The Hawkeyes scored first in overtime. Down by a score and looking to replicate its' aerial success from the 4th quarter, Mills went to the air and found Tony Johnson on the sideline...sort of. Johnson appeared to have both feet in bounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete. It wasn't the only blown call that day, but it was certainly the most frustrating. Penn State couldn't convert, and the valiant comeback effort was thwarted.
In the end, Mills finished with 399 yards, one of the only school records Matt McGloin didn't break last year. LJ had a tough day on the ground, gaining only 68 yards and a touchdown, but caught 6 passes for 93 yards and a score. Bryant Johnson had eight catches for 146 yards, and Tony Johnson had four catches for 111 yards. A loss to the Hawkeyes seemed devastating at the time, but understandable in retrospect. Plus, it led to Joe Paterno chasing down Dick Honig after the game. And really, what's better than that?
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