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From Nebraska to the Orange Bowl - The Football Odyssey of the Class of 2006

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Adam Collyer recounts the football odyssey of the Penn State Class of 2006, and how one night in early-September 2002 set the stage for the story of redemption that was the 2005 Nittany Lions.

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I remembered what that felt like.  That energy.

There is plenty to unpack from the 2005 Nittany Lions.  We can talk for days about the drive against Northwestern, the fumble against Ohio State, the Big Ten Championship win against Michigan State, or Kevin Kelly's redemption in the overtime three against the Florida State Seminoles.  This list, of course, is incomplete without mentioning a 2-second touchdown against Michigan and the senior day victory against Wisconsin.

If you have been reading this blog for the last five years, you might be surprised that I consider the Minnesota game in 2005 to be one of the most important contests of the past 20 years in Penn State football.  After all, those iconic moments from 2005 are the ones that we remember, the ones that we revere.  No student forgets where they were when Derrick Williams made that grab, ducked that tackle and sprinted to the end zone in the waning moments of a game that looked like it would end it yet another disappointment.  No student forgets who they were leaping alongside when the ball burst loose from Troy Smith's hands, hit so hard by future All-American Tamba Hali that he managed to stand on his head.  No student forgets what it felt like to be in Rec Hall at 10:00 p.m. with thousands of classmates, waiting for the Big Ten Trophy to arrive so that we could celebrate with the team.  No student forgets what it was like to see Joe Paterno, who had been battered by the media and, for just a moment, beaten in the record books, to shake hands with his historical rival and walk off of the field victorious.

In 2002, Nebraska came to Penn State, and five years ago, I called it the first moment that college football truly took my breath away.  You would be surprised to believe that Minnesota 2005 is, quite possibly, the second.

In 2002, I arrived in State College from Central New Jersey, where I had spent the first eighteen years of my life.  As I've written before, the first eighteen years of my life were, to put it mildly, not college football rich.  Big Ten Powerhouse Rutgers was still just Rutgers, a team who had not been to a bowl game in decades and was the perpetual laughing stock of the national college football scene.  Penn State was one of two teams that anyone from my part of the world cared about, but that support was a mile wide and an inch deep.  Unless you were an alumnus, you knew two basic facts about the Nittany Lions (and not necessarily in the following order) - Joe Paterno won lots of games and the uniforms were blue and white.

Although it may sound absurd, in terms of college football, most of us from Central Jersey came to Penn State as a blank slate.  When Nebraska waltzed into State College fresh off of a national title game appearance with a gaudy top 10 ranking and an impressive crew of traveling fans, we were in awe.  When the game kicked off at 8:00 p.m. and 110,753 screaming fans watched Penn State put on a clinic on both sides of the ball, it was electric.  Truly, the Penn State Class of 2006 had arrived.

But the story of the Penn State Class of 2006, in terms of football, was told in those intervening years between Nebraska 2002 and Minnesota 2005.  Nebraska represented the pinnacle of what being a Penn State student could mean in terms of school spirit - a record-breaking crowd and a dominant performance against a historic rival under the lights for prime time television.  Expectations were set.  And shortly thereafter, those expectations proceeded to be repeatedly violated.

A few weeks later, we were still riding high off of our early September triumph when Iowa took us down.  We watched Larry Johnson set seemingly untouchable records in performances that were wholly incomprehensible, but we also watched as a team with more professional level talent than any Penn State team in years stumbled to a Capital One Bowl loss to Auburn and a 9-4 record.  Slowly, over the next two years, Nebraska 2002 and that feeling became a distant memory.  The fire was in danger of being put out.  3-9 in 2003?  4-7 in 2004?  On that early September night against the Cornhuskers, this kind of disappointment was unforeseen.  By the beginning of 2005, it had become commonplace.

Embers remained, though, that stoked the fire.  Embers that begged for the Class of 2006 to continue to tune-in.  Absent a bounce pass to Ben Hartsock and a few yards on a 60-yard field goal, Penn State beats top-10 Ohio State in its own house in 2003.  In 2004, Kyle Orton walked into Beaver Stadium with Purdue as a Heisman Trophy candidate and walked out as just another quarterback, even in victory.  Those near misses kept the student body invested.

The 2004 Indiana goal line stand and the second half of 2004 Michigan State brought the students back, but still, there was always significant doubt.  After all, that 6-4 game against Iowa on Homecoming in 2004 left long lasting scars for sports fans, and the gut wrenching loss to Northwestern that same year was brutal.  And even though the Nittany Lions started the year 4-0 in 2005, they looked frustratingly mediocre against South Florida and Northwestern, needing that final drive to overcome an afternoon of turnover-filled football.

Nebraska 2002 provided the energy and excitement that allowed students to stay loyal and invested in a football program that would spend the next two and one half seasons failing to meet the expectations it set for itself.  Minnesota 2005, though, is where that energy returned.

Minnesota was ranked 18th when it came to State College in 2005, and featured a combination rushing attack of Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell that looked, frankly, unstoppable.  After that sloppy performance against Northwestern, no one saw Penn State's 4-0 record and believed the team was a legitimate contender.  But there was a palpable energy walking into Beaver Stadium that morning.  Something indescribable.  Something that hadn't been felt in years.

That game was over essentially as soon as it began.  The Nittany Lions sprinted out to a 17-0 lead and never looked back.  Future All-American Paul Posluszny recorded his version of the "Lavar Leap," and a raucous, sold out crowd of 106,000 knew that this program, after years of struggle and doubt, had finally turned the corner.  The momentum from this performance cannot be overstated.  I still believe that it carried the team through the rest of the year.  The first quarter may have been the most dominant quarter I have ever seen, and the second quarter was nearly identical.  It was Penn State's coming out party.  It was the moment that Class of 2006 returned.

There is a reason that Penn State earned the moniker as the "best student section in the country."  The Class of 2006 witnessed everything that college football could be for a school in its most formative moments, then spent the next two years wondering if it would ever feel that way again.  The 2005 team is so fondly remembered largely because the senior class that year had spent two years envisioning it, even in the depths of the worst struggles that this program had faced since Joe Paterno had taken over in the mid-1960s.  Ask any of us, and we'll tell you.  The 2005 Nittany Lions were never just the 2005 Nittany Lions.  They were the culmination of four years of pent up exuberance.

Maybe it's not entirely accurate, but I like to believe that the senior class of 2006 filled this program with so much momentum and good will that it carried the university and the program through the most publicized scandal in the history of college sports.  We didn't learn how to do that in 2005.  We learned that on a September night in 2002.