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From “Stone Hands” to Smolko: Penn State’s 2005 Journey

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Today we welcome guest columnists Kevin Horne and Chris Buchignani, who are collaborators on "Back to Camelot: The Improbable Story of the 2005 Nittany Lions," coming this October from Nittany Valley Press. Enjoy this sneak peek and be sure to get a copy of their book and fully re-live the magical 2005 season. If you'd like updates on the project, including when you can get a copy of the book, you can visit their website.

They say everything changed for Joe Paterno and Penn State – not just the football program, but the whole University – after the National Championship of 1982.

Up to that point, Paterno, who had already been on the sidelines for nearly two decades, had accomplished basically everything there was to do in his profession. He’d had undefeated seasons, coached future NFL Hall of Famers and a Heisman Trophy winner (who gave what remains today the award’s most memorable acceptance speech); he was hailed by the national press, not just the sports media, but outlets like the network news and the New York Times, as an example of everything right with college sports and, indeed, the American ethos in the midst of a cynical age. He’d proven the fundamental thesis of his Grand Experiment, that a college football program could cultivate young men who excelled on and off the field of play. So he’d done it all, basically, except for one thing: Win the whole thing, finish the season number one.

When the clock went to all zeros in the ’83 Sugar Bowl, and the team carried Joe off the field, he rode that momentum all the way back to State College and into a formal address to the Board of Trustees. Though perhaps unusual for a head football coach, at Penn State or anywhere else, what he told the assembled board that day was perhaps the most unconventional part. Paterno didn’t revel in the glory of his greatest professional accomplishment or demand bigger and better facilities for his champion football team. Instead, he called those trustees to account, challenged them to commit to making Penn State one of the premiere public universities in America.

That speech ignited the kindling of love and loyalty for Old State, swelling as never before in the afterglow of finishing number one at last, and sparked Penn State’s first major capital fundraising campaign. It marked the beginnings of a new identity, precursor to the lofty status the University enjoys today. Certainly, it also further legitimized Joe’s reputation and that of his program. America loves a winner, after all. So everything that happened afterward for Penn State – athletically and academically – flows outward from that championship moment.

And none of it would have happened were it not for one miraculous catch by an unheralded senior tight end nicknamed "Stone Hands."

It was Kirk Bowman’s touchdown earlier that season, in the south end zone of Beaver Stadium with four seconds left against #2 Nebraska, that saved Penn State’s chance to play for the ‘82 championship. Kirk somehow held on to that ball from Todd Blackledge, and that one play forever changed the way we think about Penn State, Joe Paterno, and the Grand Experiment.

So now let’s fast forward 22 years, leaving behind one of the programs greatest moments to arrive at one of its lowest, to revisit another time when Joe Paterno said the right thing at a critical moment and a different senior tight end altered the course of Penn State history.

On November 6, 2004, Penn State lost at home to Northwestern, 14-7, dropping its record to 2-7 on the year. At that point, the Nittany Lions had won only five of their previous 21 games, with wins over Temple, Kent State, Akron, UCF, and Indiana. Not exactly a college football murderer’s row. Earlier in the season, they had lost to Iowa on Homecoming by the ludicrous score of 6-4. The Northwestern loss dropped Penn State to 1-13 in its last 14 Big Ten games.

Let those numbers sink in. That’s a lot of losing.

To provide some perspective, at the turn of the 21st Century, JoePa had been Penn State’s head coach for 35 years. In that time, he’d had one losing season, 1988. Before that, one had to go back 50 years – to 1938 – for the last time the Nittany Lions finished with a losing record. So it didn’t happen very often in Happy Valley, and it rarely happened for Joe’s peers. Bear Bryant had one losing season in his entire career. Bobby Bowden had two. Tom Osborne never had one. Beginning in 2000, Joe Paterno had four in five years.

With two games left on the schedule following the home loss to Northwestern, the Lions looked hard pressed to equal the previous season’s total of three wins. Although no other head coach in college football – at the time, or maybe ever – could have survived the stretch of losing Paterno had just experienced, the well of patience and goodwill had nearly run dry. Calls for his retirement, voluntary or otherwise, were growing louder from without and within. Things looked bleak, to say the least.

That’s when Joe Paterno did something probably only Joe Paterno would think to do. At a total loss for what to do next –he’d remark during a press conference, in a rare unguarded moment, "The problem with my soul-searching is I couldn't find my soul," – the old Ivy League student of Western literature turned to Shakespeare.

On the Monday following the Northwestern loss, Joe canceled practice and sent everyone home. When coaches and players returned to the facility the next day, they didn’t scrimmage or work out or run drills. Coach Paterno gathered the team and read them Hamlet’s soliloquy: To be, or not to be?

It was a challenge – delivered in his own unique way – to his team, and maybe also to himself. Would the Nittany Lions lay down and give up in the face of overwhelming adversity, or take arms against a sea of troubles?

If you submitted what happened next as a movie script, it would be tossed out for being too unrealistic.

That week, Penn State won its third game of the season at Indiana with a goal-line stand for the ages. Needing to stop the Hoosiers four straight times from the one yard line with little time left in the game, a defense featuring names like Hali, Posluszny, Connor, Rice, Zemaitis, and Lowry did the impossible. It was a too-close win over a lousy team that would finish the year with three wins and fire its coach. In a way, it meant nothing; it also meant everything. The next week, Penn State ended the year with a dominating win over a solid Michigan State team. 

"At that point, we were having fun," reflected Tamba Hali. "Before, we were not having fun. It was fun to go back on the field and play and not worry about winning or anything… We didn’t care about the record. We were just out there enjoying the time." 

Immediately after the season, Jay Paterno mused, "20 years from now we might look at it, and that goal-line stand might be the most important four plays in the history of Penn State football."

The offseason that year was highlighted by commitments from two of the country’s top recruits – Justin King and Derrick Williams. As his program fell to unprecedented depths and all the world concluded that the game had finally passed him by, two of the most talented, sought-after high school football players in America chose to come play for Joe Paterno.

So heading into 2005, there were plenty of reasons to doubt, but also cause for hope. The amazing 2004 defense, which held every opponent to 21 or fewer points and is perhaps the most underappreciated in school history, came back almost fully intact, and the team had added some exciting freshman playmakers on offense. Of course, there was the still the question of who would play quarterback. Michael Robinson, the fifth-year senior who’d played all over the field on offense, was tabbed to start. But many fans, the majority maybe, hoped to see a former blue chip recruit, sophomore Anthony Morelli, win the job.

When the season arrived, results of the non-conference schedule seemed to suggest there might be something there, as the offense got into gear in wins over South Florida, Cincinnati, and Central Michigan. But was it real or a mirage? Despite the lopsided final scores, the offensive line seemed to struggle against bad teams, and Robinson had serious ball control issues. The inferior quality of competition begged the obvious question: "Are these guys actually any good?"

Opening conference play on the road against Northwestern offered the ideal test. In their last game, the Wildcats had traveled to Arizona State, losing 52-21 and surrendering a stunning 773 yards of offense to the Sun Devils.

There was no other way to put it. Away games had been hell for Penn State. The stat dominating media coverage in the lead-up to the game was Penn State’s 2-12 record in its previous 14 road contests, with both wins coming over lowly Indiana. But a deeper dive into the numbers paints an even bleaker picture:

  • Since the 1999 Minnesota game, PSU had gone 6-19 in regular season road games (1-1 in bowls); and only two of those six wins came against teams that actually finished with a winning record.
  • Starting in 2000, PSU had not finished a season with more road victories than defeats.
  • PSU hadn’t won consecutive away games since starting 9-0 in ‘99.

There was potential for a poetic symmetry between the 2004 visit from Northwestern and this game, a chance to reverse dismal trends in road and conference games while coming full circle against the same opponent, making a statement that The Dark Years might finally be over.

It didn’t take long before things began looking grim, however. Robinson struggled with turnovers, and Penn State fell behind early. The Lions clawed back over the course of the game, but surrendered the lead late, setting up a two-minute drive with everything – really and truly everything – at stake. What happens if Penn State fails on that drive and loses that game?

The Lions lined up deep in their own territory with two minutes left, having played exactly to form,with suspect blocking and led by a quarterback who’d had a miserable day and who many thought should have been split wide, catching passes from Anthony Morelli. Not a sane Penn State fan in America wasn’t thinking, "here we go again." Nothing they had seen that day suggested that these Lions weren’t working from the same old script.

The team actually lost yardage over its first three plays, setting up one final chance to change fate – 4th and 15 for eternity. And who makes the play, but Isaac Smolko? The newlywed senior tight end, renowned for his butterfingers, whose head coach had said, not five days prior, needed to "do some things in the clutch." Stone Hands Bowman would have been proud.

We all know what happened next. A few plays later, the senior captain who threw him the ball, one of the greatest leaders to ever don the Blue and White, stood in against the pass rush and lofted a beautiful rainbow seconds before being crushed to turf, never seeing his pass drop right into the hands of the former number one recruit in America.

Generations of Penn Staters remember exactly where they were and what was happening when Derrick Williams cruised into the end zone, arms raised to the sky. The anointed savior actually saved the day (the season, the program, the world), and one of the most special and important teams in Penn State football history was off and running. The 2005 Nittany Lions would finish third in the nation, defeating Florida State, Paterno’s old nemesis Bobby Bowden, in a classic three-overtime Orange Bowl. Beaver Stadium was feted as home to "the best student section in the country." Applications increased. Donations went up. Over the next five seasons, Penn State would win another Big Ten title and three bowls, ranking among the nation’s top 10 programs in winning percentage.

But none of it would have happened without one play that forever changed the way we think about Penn State, Joe Paterno, and the Grand Experiment.

back to camelot

You can pick up a digital copy of "Back to Camelot: The Improbable Story of the 2005 Nittany Lions" on Oct. 8, with a paperback version available on Oct. 27