I still remember the phone call. It was mid-summer 2005, and I was catching up with a friend who had relocated from Northeast Ohio to Pittsburgh. Thanks to his new surroundings, he began to develop a fondness for Penn State football despite the teams' lack of recent success. Inevitably, our discussion turned to our thoughts on the upcoming season.
"How do you think Penn State will do this season?"
I responded that Penn State could go 11-1 or even 12-0 if the offensive line gelled, the incoming freshman could contribute immediately and Michael Robinson benefitted by being a full-time quarterback for the first time in his collegiate career.
"Wow, you really are a true fan," he responded. It was his polite way of saying that I was a bit delusional.
But my prediction didn't just come from being an overly optimistic homer. I honestly believed it could happen, even if many "ifs" were involved. In 2004, Penn State had the best defense I had ever seen in college football. That unit should be celebrated alongside 2011 Alabama or 1997 Michigan, but instead have been lost over time thanks to 4-7 record and a putrid offense. They made it impossible for opposing offenses to move the ball on them, despite constantly being on the field thanks to an offense who couldn't sustain a drive if the fate of the world depended on it. It seemed as the the only points they allowed were off of turnovers and overall ineptitude of the offense.
Now that stingy defense was back, led by potential All-Americans Paul Posluzney, Tamba Hali and Alan Zemitas. But it wasn't just the stars that made the unit special. They say that a team is only as strong as its weakest link- this defense didn't have one.
Despite the offenses inability to put points on the board, there was some hope heading into 2005. The insanely athletic Michael Robinson finally had a shot to lead the offense, without trying to play every other position on the field. The offensive line was back and could only get better. But the biggest boost was the two speedy five-star recruits who would add some much needed speed on the perimeters. Without them, defenses were able to stack the box and not allow the offense to gain any traction. But with Derrick WIlliams and Justin King split wide, Penn State finally had the opportunity to open things up.
Somehow all of the "ifs" became reality. The offensive line came together and played well enough to make the offense go. Michael Robinson more than exceeded expectations as quarterback in a season that would see him as a Heisman finalist. And not only did WIlliams and King make a difference from week one, they were joined by redshirt freshmen Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood to create arguably the greatest wide receiver unit in school history. The stars aligned just right, and the Nittany Lions enjoyed a magical season that proved you should never count out Penn State.
It wasn't obvious that Penn State was destined for great things in 2005 after the first game. The Nittany Lions did enough to beat South Florida in a ho-hum 10 point victory. But as then-head coach Joe Paterno liked to say, the biggest improvement a team can make is between weeks one and two. The players took this message to heart and showed signs of what was to come by crushing Cincinnati 42-24, a game that only appeared somewhat close because of two very late garbage time touchdowns by the Bearcats. Penn State would go one to thump Central Michigan at home one week later to reach 3-0, just one victory short of the entire 2004 win total. But with conference play suddenly approaching, no one was sure how much optimism should surround the team after three impressive wins against unimpressive opponents. It would only be a matter of time until we learned what the 2005 squad was made of.
The first half of the Big Ten opener at Northwestern was a complete disaster. Penn State's offense could not hold on to the ball, and it seemed as though an unseen force was making sure the team would come crashing back to reality of the Dark Years. But after starting off with a thud, the offense started to click. The offensive line started opening up holes for running back Tony Hunt. Robinson began finding open receivers down field. They began digging themselves out of a hole, but it seemed as though it may have been too little, too late.
Then something happened. In what would be a common theme for the rest of 2005, a group of determined and poised leaders that had been absent from Happy Valley for too long refused to let the game slip away, unlike all the times the ream came up just short in recent seasons. The end of the game was the first sign of Robinson's true nature- an unflappable quarterback who played his absolute best when the team's backs were against a wall. Robinson, who oftentimes let his athleticism make up for a lack of touch on the ball, transformed into a magnificent passer who just couldn't miss when the game was on the line. When the team needed him to make a play with his arm, he would always locate an open receiver and drill him right in between the numbers. He demonstrated this ability with a laser pass to tight end Isaac Smolko on a fourth-and-fifteen, then a few plays later by locating Williams down the field for the game-winning score. The Penn State faithful scattered throughout Ryan Field giddily celebrated the improbable victory, not realizing there would be many more heroics to come from Robinson and company throughout the remainder of the season.
While Penn State was certainly headed in the right direction, the national media wasn't quite buying into the team yet. Beating three small conference teams and a below-average Northwestern just isn't quite enough to demand respect. Plus, a physical Minnesota team was on the way to State College, a team that would likely extinguish any embers of hope and send Happy Valley back to reality. A 4-0 start wasn't enough to enter the top 25, especially since they were likely to be quickly removed following probable losses to Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan in the coming weeks.
The Golden Gophers had developed a reputation for churning out stud running backs, and the 2005 squad featured its best one yet- Heisman front-runner Laurence Maroney, a monster of a back who only got stronger as the game went on. But as much hype surrounded Maroney to start the season, his Heisman campaign would slowly wither that sun-splashed afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State would set the tone early, and never relent on the way to a 44-14 victory that wasn't even that close. Maroney would finish with just 46 yards on 16 carries. An unranked team that no one outside of State College was buying had dismantled the number-18 team in the land. It was enough to make people around the country say "Oh," and realize they may not want to write off this once-proud program just yet.
All remaining doubts about the ability of the 2005 squad were quashed the following week in an epic whiteout victory against Ohio State that would change the culture of the college game. Penn State was back, and the only questioned that remained was just how far this team could go.
Unfortunately, the answer came just a week later in a soul-crushing loss at Michigan. The Wolverines managed to score a touchdown on the final play of the game when Chad Henne threw a perfect pass down the middle to hit Mario Manningham in stride. One play, one lapsed coverage and one second were all that prevented the team from the most likely undefeated season in modern college football season.
But there was still much to play for, and the nucleus of leaders were not going to let the team quit. As was often the case during the Paterno era, the team was at its absolute best following a loss. For decades, they had a knack for turning heartbreak into opportunity by identifying weaknesses and tuning them into strengths. This would never be more obvious than the following week at Illinois. While the Illini were a struggling program, Penn State came together and played out of their minds, scoring 56 consecutive points to take a 56-3 lead into halftime. The team would go on to win 63-10 in a game where starters were mere spectators in the second half.
Blowout victories against Purdue and Wisconsin only solidified what we had come to learn about the team. They weren't just merely back in the sense they were winning again, but they were doing so in dominating fashion. Across the board, they had what was most likely the best defense in all of college football. No matter the opponent, no matter the lucrative numbers they had gathered throughout the season, they all would struggle for every inch against Penn State. They would hit you in the mouth, and it seemed as though most teams simply packed it in in by the second quarter, anxiously awaiting the moment they could escape the field and end the punishment being distributed by whoever they were lining up against in blue and white.
Despite being picked to finish dead last in the conference by most media outlets, a season ending 31-22 victory at Michigan State would clinch a Big Ten championship. It was the end of a magical regular season that not many thought was possible- not just to collect enough wins to win the conference, but to do it by being far and away the best team on the field week in and week out. Just one offseason was all that was needed to change a hapless, losing culture into a locker room of champions. Champagne bottles popped throughout Nittany Nation. Our beloved Nittany Lions were finally back atop the Big Ten.
Penn State sat at number three at the end of the regular season. But as undefeated USC and Texas prepared to play for a national championship, Penn State had its first BCS game in program history to prove for once and for all they had risen from the ashes to rightfully claim their seats among the elite of college football. Thanks to a screwy BCS rotation that would see USC and Texas meet in the Rose Bowl for all the marbles, Penn State drew ACC champions Florida State for a showdown in the Orange Bowl.
The Seminoles were coming off a disappointing season by their standards. The team stumbled down the stretch to finish 7-4, mostly due to injuries to several key players on defense. But the Seminoles did enough to outplay number-five ranked Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship, clinching a BCS apperance of their own. By the time the calendar reached January, Florida State's defense, which was loaded with top-tier NFL talent, was finally healthy. They were hungry for the opportunity to show just what they were made out of with a healthy squad.
However, this all went unnoticed outside of the diehard fans. The true frenzy leading up to the game was the showdown between two legendary and aging coaches. Reporters were tripping over themselves to ask Paterno and Bobby Bowden the same quetions- when they would retire, why they remain in coaching, why they aren't laying on a beach or playing golf somewhere. During a joint interview, John Saunders inquired about retirement for the umpteenth time. In classic fashion, Paterno retorted "I'm not going anywhere yet, but maybe you should retire." The three men shared a laugh, although something told me Paterno wasn't completely joking. That competitive fire that carried him for decades was as strong as ever.
The night of the Orange Bowl I headed to my parents house to share the moment with my dad, the man who made me a Penn State fan in the first place. We had loyally remained passionate about the team during the Dark Years, and it was once again time to enjoy Penn State's night in the national spotlight. Anticipating my visit, my mom prepared a bevy of snacks, which would not be touched for the entire evening. It would be the last time she bothered fixing us anything to eat while a Penn State was playing.
We certainly weren't the only ones with knots in our stomachs late into the evening. The entire game was a slugfest between two teams that probably couldn't have been more equally matched. Penn State would make a play, the Seminoles would respond. Florida State would gain an upper hand, and the Nittany Lions quickly answered. It was a battle of titans, from top to bottom.
No Penn State fan wanted the 2005 season to end, and appropriately enough, they were rewarded with an epic three overtime BCS victory. Even after losing star players Posluzney and Hunt, Penn State remained determined, willing themselves to another 'W.' Appropriately enough, Robinson would be the one to exemplify the squad's toughness and never-give-up attitude. The Heisman finalist would take one of the worst beatings imaginable for a quarterback that evening, yet somehow defied logic by continually getting up after each brutal hit. Although it seemed like he could barely walk, he would stand tall in the pocket, make play after play just in time to take a hit that would send any other quarterback to the bench for the rest of the game. But Robinson kept getting up. After years of frustrating losses where his role on the team was continuously muddled, his time had come to give the Nittany Lions one last statement victory. Only an Act of God would have removed him from the field that evening. If any doubt had remained, he officially sealed his fate as an all-time Penn State legend. The sight of Robinson and Paterno holding a giant bowl of oranges, both men in a state of equal exuberance and exhaustion, will live forever on as a cherished memory for all Penn State fans.
The 2005 team will forever remain in the hearts and minds of Nittany Lion fans. Led by many beloved players and coaches, it will be a team with a legacy that will live on forever. It was a team that taught us always to believe, no matter how bad things may appear at the time. It's what makes all the disappointing seasons, games and moments all worthwhile. They taught us the value of loyalty, and dreaming impossible dreams. Even though a very select few will have the chance to carry Penn State to a championship, we all learned quit a bit from this team. Always believe. Never give up. Be tough. Never let anyone stand in the way of your goals.
As a wise man once said, "If you keep hustling, something good will happen." Thankfully for us, they never quit hustling.