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Penn State’s Greatest Games Of The Big Ten Era – 2002 Nebraska

BSD is chronicling 15 of Penn State's best games since joining the Big Ten in 1993. For more on the series, click here. Today, Tony Pittman helps us profile Penn State's 2002 game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a victory 8 years in the making. 

You never forget the first time that college truly takes your breath away.  Sure, the classes were tougher, the parties were ridiculous, and the girls were amazing.  But Saturday, September 14, 2002, at 8:00 PM was the moment that the Penn State Class of 2006 arrived.

I grew up in Central Jersey in the shadow of Rutgers University before the Internet and massive cable television deals changed the college football distribution model.  As anyone from that area at that time can attest, virtually no one cared about college football.  To the extent they did, there were exactly two teams that anyone cared about - Penn State and Notre Dame.  It's not that I didn't know football was a big part of the Penn State experience.  I did.  It's just that my perspective was a bit skewed.

After all, to say the 2000 and 2001 weren't banner seasons for the Nittany Lions would be an understatement.  Those two years were the two worst in program history up to that point.  Despite winning 5 out of the last 7 in 2001, the team missed a bowl game for the second straight year.  Add in a surprisingly close opening day win against the University of Central Florida, and confidence wasn't exactly at an all-time high.  And if you weren't born and raised on Penn State football, these first memories were not the ones that would normally make you emotionally invested.

Enter Nebraska.  The Cornhuskers were the big bully on the block - the 2001 version of the team[1] went 11-2, featured the Heisman Trophy winner (Eric Crouch) and lost the National Championship game to one of the best teams in college football history.  The 2002 team seemed to pick up where the 2001 team left off, starting the season by ripping off blowout wins against three overmatched opponents. 


The Mighty Huskers rolled into town 3-0, good enough for 7th in the nation, with Jammal Lord, a 6'2, 220 pound option quarterback, at the helm.  Out of the tunnel on the other side came the Nittany Lions, 1-0 with an underwhelming win against a MAC team, featuring a southpaw quarterback with Chad Pennington's arm strength, a feature tailback that had led the team in rushing in 2001 with 337 yards, and a #1 receiver with elite level physical gifts who every now and then caught a miserable case of the dropsies.  In short, this did not appear to be a very favorable match up.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Beaver Stadium.  The town started to believe.

The first sign might have been the "Nuck Febraska"[2] sign that popped up in one of the dorm windows in Sproul Hall on Sunday afternoon.  Then there was the constant refrain throughout the week about "settling the score for '94."  Later in the week, it was the "Operation Visine"[3] campaign designed to drown out the Nebraska faithful that travel so well.  Maybe it was the prospect of Beaver Stadium under the lights, with some (ahem) well-oiled fans[4] ready to rock.  Whatever the case may be, by the time opening kick rolled around, there was a record crowd in attendance and it was ready to go.

Nebraska vs. Penn State 2002 intro (via nate77)

Both teams felt each other out during the first quarter.  Penn State struck first in the second quarter on an 11-yard Larry Johnson touchdown run off of a Zack Mills option pitch.  Nebraska responded quickly with a drive and fullback rush for the score.

Mills responded by slinging the ball all over the yard, with over 200 yards passing in the first half.  Robbie Gould connected on two field goals, and Penn State walked into the locker room up 13-7.

The second half started off much like the first.  Penn State was rolling and the crowd was loud.  Bryant Johnson went over 100 yards receiving midway through the 3rd quarter, and Penn State fans got their first real glimpse of freshman phenom Michael Robinson, who took an end-around into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown run.  Penn State was up 20-7 and the crowd was raucous.  And that's when it happened . . . 

2002 Penn State vs. Nebraska ... Gardner Pick-6 (via AlphaNittwit)

Former walk-on cornerback Rich Gardner took an interception 42 yards to the house and the rout was on.  Beaver Stadium has never been that loud.  Not once, not ever.  Ohio State 2005 was continuously loud, but Gardner's pick-six made it sound like a fighter jet was flying over your head.  It was absolutely the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen.  That was the moment when everyone in my shoes became invested in Penn State football.

The good guys piled on until the clock expired -

Penn State - 40

Nebraska - 7

Larry Johnson put up two touchdowns and 123 yards on 19 carries.  Mills was 19-31 for 259 yards.  Robinson added two scores of his own.

In the years passing, it's been easy to dismiss the historical significance of this game.  Nebraska finished the season unranked with a .500 record.  Penn State '02 was one of the most underachieving teams in program history - a team with 6 players taken in the first 2 rounds of the 2003 NFL Draft managed to finish only 9-4 with a Capital One Bowl loss to Auburn.  None of those facts, however, really encapsulates what this game meant.  It put Penn State back on the national stage and introduced the world to Larry Johnson and Michael Robinson.  It was the beginning of the end of the Frank Solich Era and the Nebraska Option Dynasty.  Perhaps most importantly, it finally gave closure to a group of guys who had waited 8 long years to get their shot at Big Red . . .

Tony Pittman

I've been in Beaver Stadium for a lot of football games, but no experience quite matches that night in 2002 when Nebraska came to town.  That night, I couldn't help but feel as if both sides were carrying the batons from their undefeated 1994 teams that were prevented from meeting on the field.   

Nebraska came in with a lofty #7 ranking, while the Nittany Lions were ranked just 25th.  

But, in front of a record crowd of over 110,000, it wasn't even close.  Penn State romped 40-7, and as one of the many players from the 1994 team in attendance, it was a very emotional night.  It felt very much like as if we'd gotten to play that Rose Bowl game as a game for the National Championship against Nebraska. 


[1] It's true that there was some controversy surrounding whether Nebraska should have faced Miami for the title and whether Crouch deserved the Heisman more than Joey Harrington or Rex Grossman. Still, they finished 11-1 in the regular season in a strong league and had won 3 national titles during the 1990s.

[2] That sign managed to stay up at least until the end of the 2nd semester, and may have been there through 2003.

[3] "Get the red out!" is a battle cry that should become a staple now that Nebraska is a B1G member.

[4] As Brad Nessler said in the opening minutes of the telecast, "I have never seen a crowd this juiced here, and that may be in more ways than one."