There will never be another game like the 2005 battle between Ohio State and Penn State. Never. In my years of being a Penn State fan, there's never been a more perfect storm that came together quite like the lead-up to that game. And even with the chaos of the last several years, it will be hard-pressed to match.
For one, Penn State's program was finished. Many presumed, and even outright demanded, that 2004 be the final year for Joe Paterno as head coach. The prevailing notion was that he had lost touch with the current generation, and could no longer relate to players enough to lead them as he once did. After he was given the opportunity to coach beyond 2004, it seemed as though 2005 was certainly the last go-round- a farewell tour for a legend before they cleared the way for a new leader. But then, something funny happened. Penn State started collecting victories in the first few weeks of 2005, just like the good old days. The team gradually got better each week during the non-conference slate. The season nearly fell apart in the first week of conference play, but after a sloppy first half against Northwestern, the incredible leaders of the 2005 team showed that they would not go down without a fight. After escaping with a victory, the tone of the season was set when Penn State dropped the hammer against the highly-favored Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Things were certainly looking up, but there was just no way Penn State could beat the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes, right? Ohio State was an early favorite to win a national championship, and were still in the hunt despite a heartbreaking loss to the eventual national champion Texas Longhorns in week two. Penn State jumped into the rankings following the victory against Minnesota, but to the outside world it seemed like a nice storyline of redemption that was certainly ready to come to a halt. While Penn State had improved enough to perhaps have a winning record, and maybe even play in a second-tier New Year's Day bowl, but no one outside of State College seemed to think this team was ready to hang with the elite of college football.
Things seemed to finally be clicking for the Nittany Lions, and now they had a chance to knock off a hated border rival who was the unquestioned leader of the conference, and one of the top two or three premiere programs of that era. Things could not have lined up any more perfectly for a team desperately in need of a statement win that would return them to the glory that had eluded the program for far too long. It was up to a small group of believers to showcase Happy Valley as a still prominent mecca for college football.
Even though the game was set for 8 p.m., I arrived to campus early that morning to be part of the College Gameday crowd. I had always wanted to see the show live, but it wasn't like they were eager to get to Beaver Stadium during the "dark years." Thanks to a rainy morning, I eventually made it to the front row. Any time a Penn State player was shown or mentioned, the crowd went nuts. And when Lee Corso put on the Brutus the Buckeye headgear at the end of the show, the crowd booed relentlessly. They couldn't wait to tell him "you're wrong."
To this day, I've never been part of something where you can actually feel a sense of excitement in the air. Even several hours before kickoff, all of State College was loud. It was constant chatter and "WE ARE" chants, as people excitedly prepared themselves for what was to come. It was as though we knew something had changed, and we were just waiting for the outside world to catch up.
My dad and I arrived in the stadium almost as soon as the gates open. There wasn't really a particular reason we were in our seats so early- we had just waited years for this moment and wanted it desperately to begin. I remember looking up at the '60:00' on the scoreboard that refused to start ticking. When it finally did, I tried my best not to look at it. When I convinced myself a solid 15-20 minutes had passed, I'd peak up to see I had managed about 90 seconds without looking. The anticipation made time stand still, and by the time kickoff neared it had felt like we were in those seats for days.
Just as the game was about to kickoff, an Ohio State fan seated in front of me announced, to no one in particular, that "Penn State had no chance of winning since they hadn't played a physical team all season." I'm not quite certain why he would would spend three hours watching a game when he already knew the outcome, but that's just me.
I won't go into precise detail of the events of this game, because anyone reading this was likely on pins and needles as they intently digested every moment, and then relived it several times over the years thanks to Big Ten Replay. But four very memorable plays stuck out to me that still bring a smile to my face. The first was Penn State's initial score of the game, when speedy freshman Derrick Williams took a pitch and sprinted past A.J. Hawk. When I returned home the following night, I watched that play over and over. To watch a player just removed from high school make a play against a consensus All-American gave validity to the fact that at the very least, Penn State had turned a corner and were ready to sit at the adult table once again. On the following Ohio State possession, Calvin Lowrey intercepted a pass that caused me to briefly black out. Sitting in the upper deck of the north end zone, I was able to see him break for the ball and knew what was coming next. I'm not sure what happened after that, but apparently all the adrenaline pumping through my body was more than I could handle because the next thing I knew, the offense was coming onto the field. I had to ask who intercepted the ball, because I honestly had no idea.
The game became a defensive slugfest in the second half. Penn State went into ultra-conservative mode and let the defense take care of business. Led by Paul Posluzny in a performance for the ages, they did just that. Posluzny was simply everywhere that night. Whichever direction Ohio State tried to go, Posluzny was waiting. His defining moment was a third quarter sack that sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy. With Troy Smith scrambling in the backfield in an attempt to find an open receiver, Posluzny somehow managed to go from pass coverage to bringing Smith down for a sack in a split-second, like he was using some type of unseen teleportation device. In all my years of watching football, I've never seen a player close on a play like that.
The play no Nittany Lion fan will ever forget was Tamba Hali's ferocious game-sealing sack and forced fumble on Smith. With Penn State clinging to a 17-10 lead, Ohio State had one final chance to even the score. After struggling to move the ball all evening, the Buckeyes suddenly found a way to move the chains a couple times as they prepared to enter Nittany Lion territory. Then something incredible happened. Like Lowrey's interception, I saw Hali break free and knew what was about to come. He hit Smith with so much forced it flipped him over and jarred the ball loose. An alert Scott Paxson dove on the ball to seal the deal.
Pandemonium ensued. I just remember screaming "We're back!!" over and over while I attempted to hug and high-five anyone close to me. A crowd who altered the game by making so much noise throughout the entire contest somehow reached new decibels. It was a magical moment that comes only so often, even for even the most established of programs.
Even though the game was finished, no one wanted to leave (except for some people in scarlet and grey who rushed for the exits following Paxson's fumble recovery). No one wanted the moment to end, and remained standing and cheering for close to an hour following the game. I had seen this happen before during historic games featuring other teams, and was always jealous of those fans. It was the first time I was able to take part in something like that, and will likely forever be my favorite moment as a Penn State fan.
Once the crowd finally made it out of Beaver Stadium, many rushed back to the College Gameday set. People couldn't wait to remind Corso of his incorrect prediction. As soon as the set lights were turned on, nonstop chants of "Say you're sorry" and "Fuck you Corso" remained throughout the broadcast.
That game wasn't just a coming-out party for a resurrected Penn State program- thanks to the fans, it was a game that would change the landscape of college football. It was the first time a "Whiteout" style game was seen by the masses. Immediately following, any big game from all corners of the nation featured some type of color coordination for the student section, or even the entire stadium. It also made Zombie Nation a football anthem. Although it's been copied by probably every high school, college and NFL team, Beaver Stadium still seems to be the only place where it has the most impact- following a sack, turnover or special teams touchdown. Thanks to the timing of the that infectious chorus, you could feel Beaver Stadium sway that night, which was a complete adrenaline rush for more than one reason. It seemed as though every athletic director was watching that evening and discovering how a lively crowd could impact a game.
When I woke up the following morning I was so hoarse I was barely able to speak, and had a ringing in my ears that would last until the evening. I was told by several people the following week that it was the loudest game they had ever watched on television, and I had the battle wounds to prove it. That Sunday morning I thought I had just woken from a wonderful dream, until realizing that I had actually did witness a game for the ages. Penn State wasn't just back- they were able to announce that they had never really left.