Here's the lame thing about the 2008 Penn State football team: I wasn't there for almost all the big games.
The much-ballyhooed Ohio State game? It was in Columbus where Terrelle Pryor was stuffed, and stripped, on a 3rd down and short. The devastating loss to Iowa? Under the lights at Kinnick Stadium, our dreams at an undefeated season died. Okay, sure, we had the Rose-Bowl-clinching beatdown of Michigan State, but that came over Thanksgiving break, when half the campus was empty, and most of the students--myself included--were out of town.
I wasn't at the Wisconsin game, either--the first time we knew just how good that team was going to be--but that didn't make it, or that magical, magnificent season, any less memorable.
I've written about the 48-7 drubbing before, and I'm sure I'll write about it again--clearly, it was a formative experience for me--but I'll try not to rehash old ground. So, naturally, I'll start with something I've said plenty of times: I didn't grow up a Penn State fan.
I'm from Long Island, where college football is little more than the opening act for Sunday's NFL games. My dad had an Irish friend named Jim O'Rourke; occasionally we'd go over to his house and watch Notre Dame play. My parents both went to grad school at Syracuse; if you put a gun to my head and asked me to pick a favorite team, it would have probably been the Orangemen by default. Like so many others in the New York-New Jersey region, I got caught up in the Rutgers surge to prominence in 2006, like so many other 15-year olds, I was endlessly captivated by the blue turf at Boise State (and by that unbelievable 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma), like almost every college football fan, I loved watching Troy Smith so much that Ohio State was my go-to team in NCAA Football 2006. The point is this: I was no stranger to Penn State, to Joe Paterno, to the tradition and history of Happy Valley...but until I sent in my acceptance letter, a few weeks before the 2007 Alamo Bowl, the Nittany Lions could have been interchangeable in my life with just about any other program at any other school. I loved college football, but I didn't know what it meant to be a fan.
It didn't take long for that to change. Labor Day came early in 2008, which led to the bizarre and uncomfortably portentious phenomenon of the freshman class taking in our first football Saturday before attending our first classes. It was only Coastal Carolina, and it was only a 66-10 beatdown of an outclassed, outmanned, 1-AA squad, but it was all I needed. I was hooked from the opening kickoff, as a hundred thousand voices started at a whisper, growing louder and louder until, as one, we cried out BOOM as the ball flew off Kevin Kelly's foot. It's nothing compared to the waves, fast and slow, or the choreography of hundreds of girls being thrown in the air after a score, but it was my first taste of the nation's largest crowd beating with one, interconnected heart.
We weren't supposed to be so great in 2008, you'll remember, not after Dan Connor got drafted and Sean Lee got hurt and Linebacker U was left in the hands of Tyrell Sales, Josh Hull, and Bani Gbadyu. Not after Tony Hunt graduated, and the running back position was left to some former high school lacrosse standout and a redshirt freshman from the Bronx who looked great in the spring game, but then again, so had Aric Heffelfinger. The nicest thing we could say about Daryll Clark was that he wasn't Anthony Morelli--a large segment of the fanbase continued, a month into the season, to clamor for Pat Devlin, convinced JoePa only chose to start Clark because of his seniority.
And yet. And yet we followed up that destruction of the FCS team with a similar demolition of one from the Pac-10, a team that would later come a game away from meeting us on January 1st in Pasadena. And yet we followed that up with even greater margins of victory in wins over, yes, a pair of abject hapless failures in Syracuse and Temple, but the combined score in those two games of 100-16 speaks for itself. By then, Daryll Clark had silenced all but the most stubborn of doubters, Evan Royster was well on his way to running into the Penn State history books, and a little-known backup linebacker from Maryland named Navorro Bowman had started to earn some playing time, and then a starting spot, and then comparisons to a guy named Lavar Arrington. You might have heard of him. That Temple game marked Bowman's first start for Penn State. It also marked his first Big Ten defensive player of the week honor.
So here was a team, looking unbeatable for all the world, untested, and slowly making its way up the polls. Then there was Illinois under the lights--Juice Williams' squad had assumed the same #22 ranking that Penn State had begun the year with--and while the game was a little too close for comfort, it finally gained the Lions some recognition. They jumped from 12th to 6th in the country with the win.
That's where they were ranked two weeks later, when they headed to Camp Randall to meet a Wisconsin team in freefall, coming off a pair of tough losses to terrible Michigan and very good Ohio State teams. The Badgers were unranked, they might have been without the aid of their marching band, after a bizarre hazing scandal, and yet...It was less than a foregone conclusion that we'd make it to 7-0.
We were still unproven. It was still Camp Randall, at night, against a Wisconsin team that had our number, that had, just three weeks earlier, been ranked in the top 10. It was our first test. It was the first chance we'd have to learn just how good this team was. And for me, it was an opportunity to see whether all the energies I could pour into what I finally understood was my team--and yes, everything there was to give, I gave, willingly and excitedly and unquestionably and exuberantly and even naively, because I didn't know any better--would come back to reward me in the slightest, not that they needed to any more than they already had, and necessarily would, in the way that college football inevitably does. I showed up hours early to every game. I camped out at Paternoville. I scoured newspapers and blogs and message boards for every piece of information I could glean about what was finally my team. I listened--and called in--to Cory Giger's radio show. In two months, I had become as committed as anyone could be.
But then, as now, I was neurotic. Vegas gave us 5 points. I was convinced we would lose. I'm a Jets fan. We handle success only slightly worse than we handle failure.
Of course, we did not lose. We covered, and we covered eight times over, and we announced to the world of college football that Penn State was for real, that you could doubt us at your own risk, that this was one damn good football team that could back up its national title aspirations. It was 48-7, and it wasn't even that close.
I doubt I really need to recount the events of the game, except to note the images that still burn bright in my mind, that called this game to mind almost instantly as my favorite. I remember Derrick Williams taking a punt return to the house to make it 17-0 early in the second quarter, and thinking, for the first time, that this was really happening. I remember Aaron Maybin, then still a freshman--who, we figured, would probably fill out that lanky frame in the next few years, and who had earlier in the season filled the shoes of 2007 All-Big Ten defensive end Maurice Evans, after the latter was suspended for having marijuana in his apartment--wreaking as much havoc as anyone ever has en route to winning Big Ten defensive player of the week. They credited him with a pair of sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles, and even that doesn't do justice to the game he had, showcasing the motor that would earn him millions of dollars and an abbreviated NFL career as he raced down Badger quarterbacks from behind, as he beat linemen into the backfield and tripped up ballcarriers, as he knocked down passes and frustrated rollouts. as he knocked the pants off some sorry Badger lineman who was looking the wrong way after an interception.
I remember Daryll Clark, throwing for one score and running in a pair more, and just as importantly running a pure speed option to the outside to perfection, absorbing a devastating blow but not before pitching the ball perfectly to Evan Royster, who could walk it in for the game's first touchdown. It was that Wisconsin game that brought us the lasting image of that season, of Clark's career, an image that continues to populate message boards and comment sections of this very blog to this very day. It was 48-7, the final, but it might as well have been 100-0. We had arrived, we were on cloud nine, and nothing could bring us down from that high. I watched the game at the Big Onion, in the East Halls commons. The fourth quarter was a cumulative celebration. As the clocked ticked to zero, we broke out with chants of "We Want Texas," chants that would ring out across Beaver Canyon two weeks later after we beat Ohio State and after the first "riot" of my Penn State career, but never were they truer, more urgent, more meaningful than when a group of freshmen finally realized that they might just have come in on the ground floor of something very, very special.
Here are the game highlights. By focusing on the emotions, I'm probably selling it short. But I've never had so much fun watching a game of football in my life. And I doubt I ever will.