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Penn State’s Greatest Games Of The Big Ten Era – 2005 Northwestern

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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 and Lou Prato give us their memories about Penn State's comeback win against the Northwestern Wildcats in 2005.

On Monday, two days after the Northwestern defeat, seeking a literary metaphor for the situation he and his team faced at the end of this miserable season, he thought of Hamlet.  When Paterno addressed his players that day, he quoted a part of the Danish prince's soliloquy, letting them know that their "outrageous fortune" required an existential decision: Would they surrender to the unpleasant reality of 2-7?  Or fight to salvage their dignity?

The Lion in Autumn 

Frank Fitzpatrick, p. 262

In 2003, the Nittany Lions fell to Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston.  In 2004, in front of what was then the smallest home crowd since the stadium expansion, Penn State again suffered defeat at the hands of the Wildcats.  In each game, the offense put up one score.

Penn State was 2-7 and virtually devoid of any playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.  While the defense was holding up their end of the bargain as one of the best crews in the country, the offense literally couldn't get out of its own way.  Fumbles, interceptions, blocked punts, botched special teams - all had doomed the 2004 Nittany Lion squad.  The coaching hadn't been any better - the staff had struggled to relay plays into the huddle and had several times been seen screaming at each other on the sideline.

Only Joe Paterno, an Ivy League-educated English major in a profession that featured cliché-ridden loudmouths, could quote Shakespeare without the least bit of irony.  Only Joe Paterno could seriously expect it to work.

Then the offense scored when it needed to and the defense once again held up its end of the bargain, stopping Indiana on a now-historic goal line stand just a few days later.  The team followed that win with another against Michigan State that sent embattled senior quarterback Zack Mills out as a winner.  Even better, the coaches followed those wins by signing a class of difference makers, headlined by All-American wide receiver Derrick Williams and All-American two-way threat Justin King.

The 2005 season started exactly how the 2004 season had ended.  All-world senior athlete Michael Robinson won the quarterback job in the summer over former high school All-American and rising sophomore Anthony Morelli.  He found the young, highly recruited weapons to stretch the field.  Penn State's first play from scrimmage saw Williams fly down the field on a go route, a touchdown prevented only by the beaten cornerback grabbing #2's jersey for a pass interference call.  The defense held up their end of the bargain and the Nittany Lions suddenly found themselves riding a five game win streak.

Still, Robinson was turning the ball over at an alarming rate and didn't show pinpoint accuracy.  And the three opponents from out of conference play?  A murderer's row of South Florida, Cincinnati, and Central Michigan.  For any reasonable fan, there were more questions than answers - was Robinson the right choice at QB?  Would he be better at receiver?  How would Williams, King, and their less touted freshmen brethren Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood hold up in conference play?  Could the defense continue its outstanding performance?

So on an overcast day in Evanston, Illinois, the Nittany Lions took the field in a game meant for them to answer these questions.  The first game in a league where Penn State had lost 13 of its last 16 games.

After one half, it looked like everyone had an answer.  It wasn't the one they were looking for.  Robinson looked less like the freshman phenom he was at the outset of his career and more like the "jack of all trades, master of none" that he had been during his uneven junior year.  He nearly had 6 turnovers by himself in the first half, throwing terrible interceptions and fumbling snaps that miraculously managed to make their way back into the hands of the offense.  At the half, the team was lucky to only be down 23-14.

Northwestern, meanwhile, looked like a team on the rise.  Future pro tailback Tyrell Sutton[1] ran for two touchdowns in the first half and the Wildcat offense was in rhythm led by super-competent QB Brett Basanez[2].  The defense, which had given up over 700 yards the previous week to Arizona State, suddenly looked like a takeaway machine.

Every single person who knew about the Penn State depth chart was calling for Robinson to be pulled and for Morelli to assume his rightful place under center.[3]  Yet Paterno stuck by Robinson.  Who knows if it was Paterno's legendary stubbornness, his allegiance to a hard working senior, or just a gut feeling?  It was probably a bit of each.  Whatever it was, Robinson trotted out of the locker room with his helmet strapped on. 

Penn State put 3 on the board early in the third quarter but neither team could do much of anything else.  The fourth quarter opened with the teams trading field goals, before Robinson led a 5-play, 77-yard drive that culminated in an 8-yard Robinson touchdown run.  Penn State had its first lead of the game and held it for exactly one possession before Northwestern put another field goal through the uprights to go ahead 29-27.

2:10 remaining.  Down by 2.  A touchback put the ball on the Penn State 20-yard line.  Robinson dropped back and missed Derrick Williams on first down, then lost the handle on the football for a 3-yard loss on second.  A swing pass to tailback Tony Hunt ended in a 2-yard loss, and suddenly it was 4th and 15, deep in their PSU territory, with 1:39 remaining.

Then came the play that would define a season, and the drive that would cement a legacy.

Football: Penn State Vs Northwestern 2005 Winning Drive (via jwjr33)

Robinson's final stats were mediocre at best (17-36, 271 yards, 3 TD/3 Int), but his stats on the final drive were impeccable - (5/7 for 79 yards, 1 TD).  With his offensive output, he became the first Penn State player to reach 1,000 yards rushing and passing in a career.  Williams and King both made big plays (which is exactly what they were recruited to do), but Norwood (5 catches, 83 yards) and Butler (4 catches, 61 yards) did the dirty work.  Hunt averaged 7.6 yards per carry and wore out the Wildcat defense.  And in his first truly epic performance, Paul Posluszny totaled 22 tackles.

For Penn State, this was perhaps its biggest win since Nebraska 2002.  A comeback road win against a league opponent that tested the emotional fortitude of this team.  A team that would go on to have its most complete performance of the season against Minnesota the following week, setting the stage for an early October showdown with national championship implications against the Ohio State Buckeyes . . .

What are our resident experts' thoughts on Northwestern 2005?

Lou Prato:

This is the game that epitomized the leadership of Michael Robinson and truly saved the football program. If Penn State had lost that Saturday in Evanston, I believe the team would have been so demoralized that the rest of the season would have sputtered, and quite possibly another losing year might have occurred. The Lions were simply horrible in the first half and Robinson couldn't have played worse. He threw three interceptions and fumbled three times, losing one inside the Northwestern 5-yard line, as Northwestern took a shocking 24-7 lead just before the half, and even embarrassed the special teams with an onside kickoff and fake punt. There were two bright spots that half that would enable Penn State to come from behind and win later. First, the listless defense did hold Northwestern to three field goals instead of touchdowns, and then with 35 seconds left in that half Robinson threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to walk-on freshman Deon Butler to keep the game within nine points.

Penn State looked like a different team in the second half. After the Lions went ahead 27-26 with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter  and then pinned Northwestern at is 11-yard line on the kickoff, it looked like the game was all but won. Of course, that's when Northwestern came out of its slumber and drove downfield for a 25-yard field goal that gave them the lead with 2:10 left---and I'm not going to write about that questionable 15-yard penalty at the Northwestern 10-yard line on a third-and-13 that kept their drive alive. When Penn State took the ball on its own 20-yard line and quickly lost five yards on three plays, including another fumble, I had a sickly feeling. The next play was directly in front of where my wife and I were sitting, and I remember looking at the clock-1:39 was left and no time outs remaining-and saying to my wife, "If we don't make this, this will be another losing season." I watched Robinson getting hit just as he threw the ball, and was surprised when Isaac Smolko was wide open over the middle and caught it for a first down. The rest of the game was almost a blur to me as Robinson threw two passes for first downs, then scrambled out of bounds at the Northwestern 36 with 51 seconds left. I remember seeing Northwestern's all-out blitz, and Robinson again throwing the ball just as he was buried by the tacklers. From my vantage point, I didn't see super freshman Derrick Williams catch it at the 10-yard line, avoid a tackler and go in for the winning touchdown. But the crowd noise on our side told me Penn State had scored, and we were still yelling when we watched the reply on the jumbotron, or whatever it was.  Moments later Anwar Phillips' interception at the Penn State 40 clinched the victory, and I remember taking a deep breath and thinking, "Yes. This is a football team!"

Tony Pittman:

Joe Paterno always told us that whenever you look at a team that had a good year, there was one key game they won that they probably should not have won.  For the 2005 Big 10 Champions from Penn State, the 2005 road game against Northwestern was that game.

The beginning of the game was, frankly, hard to watch.  The offense was not clicking.  I remember talking to former teammate Phil Collins during the game, and we were both thinking that maybe Michael Robinson needed to be taken out of the game at QB.

We were wrong.

The team rallied, and when Robinson connected with freshman Derrick Williams for the winning TD late in the game, I was shocked.  I couldn't figure out how we managed to hang in there and come back, but the guys managed to do it. I view that TD completion as the single biggest play during the 2005 season.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it was the play of the decade for Penn State.  It was huge.

[1] Sutton would end his career as second on both the all-time rushing yards and all-purpose yard lists for Northwestern.  And he was the state of Ohio's all-time leading rusher when he graduated high school.  And he wanted a Penn State offer.  Would've been nice, Jay . . . would've been nice.

[2] Think a less athletic Dan Persa, who himself is a smaller version of Pennsylvania high school QB Brendan Nosovitch...who we're not recruiting.  I know it's hard to complain about recruiting this year, but come on guys, throw out an offer.

[3] There really was a time when we pined away for QB14.