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Penn State’s Greatest Games Of The Big Ten Era: 2006 Orange Bowl

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 BCS win against the Florida State Seminoles in the 2006 Orange Bowl.

They had suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and overcame all the odds at Northwestern.  They had stuffed the exceptional Minnesota running attack.  They had beaten their nemesis, made their fans dance in the stands and streets, and put the college football world on notice.  They stumbled for literally 2 seconds in Ann Arbor with some questionable officiating, then came right back and rolled through Wisconsin and brought the Big Ten Championship home with them from East Lansing.  They featured the Big Ten MVP at quarterback and the national defensive player of the year at linebacker.

This was supposed to be a coronation.  Instead, they found themselves in a street fight.  And they would have to go the distance.

The 2005 Nittany Lions have been well represented during our review of the greatest Penn State games of the Big Ten era.  This probably shouldn't have been one of them.  Several weeks prior to the game, it looked like the Nittany Lions might find their way to Pasadena to compete for the BCS Championship if Texas stumbled against Oklahoma State or Colorado or Southern Cal stubbed their toe against Fresno State.  That just wasn't meant to be.  In the week leading up to the BCS Selection Show, speculation centered around Penn State heading to the desert to face Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, even though the two were scheduled for a home-and-home series in 2006 and 2007.

The Florida State Seminoles, meanwhile, looked like a ship that was taking on water.  After ripping off 5 straight wins to start the season and taking 7 of the first 8, FSU lost a tight game to North Carolina State before being embarrassed by both Clemson and Florida.  Still, unranked FSU had done enough early in the season to win the Atlantic Division, and headed to Jacksonville for the ACC Championship Game against the fifth-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies.



While the Nittany Lions waited for an official phone call and fans prepared to make their travel plans for the first bowl game since 2002, Virginia Tech and Florida State were locked in a death struggle for the first 30 minutes.  That's when Florida State returned, however briefly, to being the Seminoles of old.  FSU, sparked by an electric punt return touchdown by Willie Reid, scored 24 unanswered points to take a 27-3 lead.  They fended off a fourth quarter rally by the Hokies and managed to win the game 27-22.  Florida State, an 8-4 team, was headed to the BCS with an automatic bid.

While fans saw a BCS team that seemed inferior to the other automatic qualifiers, bowl sponsors saw dollar signs.  Joe Paterno had passed Bear Bryant in all-time wins in 2001, but the failures of 2003 and 2004 had allowed Bobby Bowden, the patriarch of Florida State football, to pass him.  What better game could there possibly be than one between two men who were arguably the greatest coaches of all time?

On January 3, 2006, in front of a capacity crowd in Miami, Florida that somehow managed to favor the Big Ten Champions, the two winningest coaches in major college football history squared off.  Joe Paterno (353 wins) vs. Bobby Bowden (359* wins).  And despite their record and their up-and-down season, the Seminoles came to play.

At first, it looked like it was going to be easy.  Even though Tony Hunt, Penn State's 1000-yard rusher, went down with an ankle injury in the first quarter, Austin Scott stepped up to the plate.  Galen Hall added a few wrinkles to the playbook and Scott, lining up at both fullback and tailback, ripped off big runs down the length of the field before scoring on a 2-yard run to draw first blood for the Lions.  The crowd erupted, and fans looked at each other wondering how easy this game would be if our backup running back could score so quickly.

Not so easy, it turned out.

The game soon settled into a defensive struggle.  At one point, Michael Robinson was hit so hard that his helmet popped off.  The ‘Noles couldn't get anything going against the vaunted Penn State defense either, and midway through the second quarter the game seemed destined to stalemate at 7-0.  Then Willie Reid, just like he had in the ACC Championship Game, turned the tide with an Orange Bowl record 87-yard punt return for a score.  A quick possession led to a Penn State punt.  One play later, Lorenzo Booker took a screen pass to the house.  Suddenly, Florida State was up 13-7 with an extra point pending.  Then, in a play that portended the future, Gary Cismesia missed the kick.

With all the momentum swinging Florida State's way as halftime closed in, Michael Robinson and his receivers knew that Penn State desperately needed some type of score.  Unlike most of the crowd, he wasn't thinking field goal.  He was thinking touchdown.

On the final Penn State possession of the second quarter, Robinson slung the ball to freshman sensation Jordan Norwood.  With 6 seconds left from the Florida State 24-yard line, Robinson dropped back and heaved the ball to the right side of the endzone.  Ethan Kilmer, special teams ace and unquestionably the team's best athlete, leapt into the air and made a diving circus catch to tie the game at 13.  Kevin Kelly buried the extra point and Penn State sprinted to the locker room with a 1-point lead.

The teams again settled into a defensive struggle throughout the third quarter.  That carried into the fourth when Scott Paxson, Jim Shaw and the rest of the defensive line crashed into the backfield and forced a safety.  Penn State was up 16-13 with less than 14 minutes to play.  When Penn State again got the ball back, time was running out and Robinson and the offense were looking to put the game away.  They drove down the field in the game's most impressive drive since the Scott touchdown and were inside the 5-yard line.  Then, on a snap from under center, the ball fell to the turf.  Florida State recovered it in the scrum and a game that looked like it was coming to an end a few seconds before suddenly looked very winnable if Florida State could mount one decent drive.

In response, FSU put together a 12-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a Cismesia field goal with 4:08 remaining.  The Penn State defense held enough for the offense to take a final shot at the endzone, but it wasn't without a cost.  In a devastating blow, Paul Posluszny, the team's defensive leader, leapt over a blocker and tore his ACL.

Robinson had led drives like this before against Northwestern and Michigan.  It was time for another clutch performance.  He completed two big passes to set up Kevin Kelly from 29-yards out for the game winner.  The ball was snapped, the hold was sloppy, and Kelly pushed the ball to the left.  A game that Penn State had sewn up multiple times just wouldn't end.

In the first overtime period, Cismesia missed a 44-yarder and gave Penn State yet another chance to put the game away.  Yet on the Nittany Lion's possession, Kelly missed yet another 38-yarder to the left.  The crowd gasped and the announcers stood in shock.  Not to be discouraged, Penn State drove the 25-yard overtime field and scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by Austin Scott.  The defense, featuring true freshman Sean Lee in place of the injured Posluszny, couldn't hold and the ‘Noles tied it up with a 1 yard touchdown run.

The third overtime period started the same as the first.  The Penn State defense held Florida State's offense to 4 total yards.  Cismesia came on to kick yet again.  He lined up, took two steps, and fired.  This time, the ball struck the upright.  Yet again, the Seminoles were denied on a field goal try.

Kelly had one last chance.  The young kicker had missed two in a row and the entire world believed his confidence was shaken.  Penn State moved the ball to the 12-yard line and Paterno didn't hesitate in putting the freshman back out on the field with the game on the line.  The ball once again sailed into the night sky.  This time, however, it split the uprights.  Half of the team collapsed on the field.  Four hours after kickoff, a relieved crowd could breathe again.  Penn State had secured its comeback season and added to the Paterno legacy.  They were the redeemers.  They were Orange Bowl Champions.

Lou Prato

Whenever I think about this game the first thing I remember how long it was-a school record of three overtimes. Then I quickly remember watching Michael Robinson, Tamba Hali and all the rest of the happy players celebrating with the equally joyous Penn State fans long after the game was over. Those Nittany Lions were making a statement that  after four of five losing seasons since 2000. Penn State was back among the college football elite. And my lasting image is Robinson and former great Franco Harris crowding around Joe Paterno in the bustling Penn State suite back at the hotel at 3 a.m. with Paterno telling everyone there he was standing with two of the greatest players he ever coached.

Of course, we would have rather played in the Rose Bowl for a national championship that season. It is ironic, now, that the last second loss at Michigan in midseason really did cost us a chance to meet Texas in the BCS title game because the team that did play Texas, USC, just had that appearance vacated by the NCAA because of the Reggie Bush- Pete Carroll infractions. As for the Orange Bowl itself, the play of the game-and one of the greatest in school history--was that leaping touchdown catch by Ethan Kilmer in the corner of the end zone with six seconds left in the half. Remember, Florida State had taken a 13-7 lead with two minutes left, and after the teams traded punts, the Lions got the ball back the FSU 40 yard line with just 17 seconds remaining. Then Robinson showed why he was a great quarterback, first throwing a 16-yard pass to Jordan Norwood as Robinson was getting hit, and then picking out Kilmer, a secondary receiver, for the 24-yard touchdown. Yes, the Lions usually reliable freshman kicker, Kevin Kelly, could have won it in regulation, but he finally did at 12:52 a.m. to ignite the celebration that lasted far, far into mid morning.

Tony Pittman

Another Paterno-Bowden matchup.  I was a redshirt freshman in 1990 when we faced Bowden and Florida State in what was then knows as The Blockbuster Bowl.  We lost, and I didn't take it well.  The Blockbuster Bowl watch that we got as team gifts for that game is still the watch I wear today.  I occasionally wear it opposite my 1994 Rose Bowl / National Championship ring to commemorate my personal journey from redshirt freshman to 5th year senior.

Now, in 2006, following a magical 2005 season and a Big Ten Championship, Penn State was again in Miami facing Bowden and the Seminoles.  It was another tough battle.   I remember the sinking feeling I got when Paul Posluszny had to leave the game with a knee injury.  But, true to form, the Lions would not quit.  It was gut wrenching to watch the game go to triple-overtime, but in the end the W was worth it.


2006 Penn State Orange Bowl Highlights (via vanzan5)