These games can be wins or losses, focusing more on what we learned about the team or what the team learned about themselves as a result of the game. There will be one pick for each year, as well as other games considered for that season. Some obvious choices were left out in some years, in order to avoid picking the same team in multiple seasons.
Why: The Nittany Lions learned they could compete with "SEC speed", and established a hard-nosed running game to complement an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers, like this one.
Other games considered: Michigan (Chad Henne’s first win at Beaver Stadium), Minnesota (OT game on the road won on an XP)
Why: Playing a team on their down year, this proved that Penn State's defense wasn't physical enough (Mike Hart's 153 yards won the Wolverines the game). This also exposed the lack of consistency on offense —a common theme in the decade.
Other games considered: Iowa (first game with a balanced offense that season —489 yards, and snapped five game Hawkeye winning streak), Ohio State (showed that they weren’t at the Buckeyes’ level, and one of the few games in recent memory where the defense couldn’t stop anything)
2008: Ohio State
Why: This was one of the first tricky years to pick just one game, but I’m going with the game that got Penn State its first win in the Horseshoe since Art Schlichter was the freshman under center (1978). A shut-down defensive performance, highlighted by a fumble that traveled about 17 yards before getting picked up. Without that turnover, Ohio State probably goes up at least 9-3 in the game, and Penn State might not have won the conference. They also held a Buckeye team that scored at least 30 points in six of their games that season to just two field goals. Oh, and inspired a meme:
Make no mistake though, the other games considered were very close.
Other games considered: Oregon State (dominated a team that shocked USC), Iowa (fortunately I wasn’t able to watch that game and I still refuse to)
Why: This is the only team that will appear on this list twice, simply because Penn State got their first win at the Big House in 13 years in ‘09. It’s important to note that this was not a "typical" Michigan team. The Wolverines finished the year 5-7, and struggled to stop Penn State’s passing attack (Darryl Clark had four touchdown passes, three to Manheim’s own Graham Zug). Also, they couldn’t catch a shotgun snap.
Oh, Tate. Why did you have to go to SDSU?
Other games considered: LSU (Ball control and the usual defense on a rainy mudpuddle of a Capital One Bowl, and another victory over the SEC), Michigan State (Dominated on offense and won at a venue that they have mostly struggled to win at since the rivalry began) , Iowa (Goodbye to the efficiency of the Spread HD, hello to zero points in the final three quarters, turnovers and a special teams miscue, and another loss to the Hawkeyes.)
Why: A loss at Homecoming? Sacre bleu! This game was one of a few in the ten years that showed Penn State struggling to defend against a mobile quarterback. They also had red zone struggles on offense (Sound familiar, anyone who’s watched at least a few Penn State football games a season in the last 20 years?), and was just 2 of 14 on third down conversions.
Other games considered: Alabama (First start on the road by true freshman Rob Bolden)
Why: After the nightmare revelations of the previous week, it was essential for the team to get back to playing football. In the first game without the head coach with rolled-up khakis and black sneakers on the sidelines in 60 years, Penn State trailed 17-0 in the third quarter before mounting a rally.
Other games considered: Ohio State (First road game since the news, and another road win against an Ohio State freshman quarterback), Houston (Case Keenum shredded the secondary for over 500 yards and three touchdowns in a game where a few football players originally questioned whether they should even have accepted the TicketCity Bowl invitation. Also, Rob Bolden started due to Matt McGloin’s injury —obtained in a fight with Curtis Drake.)
Why: This one was as tough as 2008, but I’m going with the first game of the BOB era, rather than the "bunch of fu-fighters" game at the end of the season. I was in the booth broadcasting for ComRadio, and had a nice view of the first loss to the MAC since Chester Taylor and Toledo in 2000 (I was at that one too..ugh.). Penn State led at halftime 14-3, before giving up 21 points in the second half to lose their first season opener since 2001 (The debut of the club seats and luxury suites), but was the full-time starter debut of Moxie Scranton Slinger. This was also the first game without Silas Redd, Anthony Fera (whose absence became notable in the second game), and Justin Brown.
Other games considered: Virginia (We all love Ficken now, but a lot of people didn’t after this game. Death threats, though? C’mon.), Wisconsin (BUNCH OF FIGHTERS! YEAAHH BUDDY.)
Why: The Indiana game was tough to leave out, but four OT games at night against Michigan don’t come around often. It was the coming-out party of the freshman quarterback whose name rhymes with Bistrian Mackenberg. His throw to Allen Robinson (Check out the pocket presence and pass protection) often overshadows an equally great throw to and catch by Brandon Felder two plays before, and also scored the first rushing touchdown against Michigan all year. Despite all of the missed field goals by both kickers, Bill Belton capped the game off with a score that will be remembered right up with the 2005 Ohio State game as one of the most significant wins at Beaver Stadium.
Other games considered: Indiana (The Hoosiers’ first win over PSU in 17 games), Ohio State (Ohio State finally gets revenge for the 63-14 game in 1994)
Why: Although Ohio State’s win is extremely difficult to ignore (and trying to stay true to my guidelines that I’ve only broken once is more difficult), I’m picking the other HC debut in the decade. After the Knights shocked Penn State in 2013 en route to a BCS bowl, the Croke Park Classic was the stage for the re-match. Geno Lewis arrived on the scene, and Hackenberg threw for a career-high 454 yards and drove the offense down the field in 1:13 to set up Ficken’s game-winning field goal. For a while, the game looked like it would be another UCF win thanks to..you guessed it, a mobile quarterback, Justin Holman. I would go out on a limb and say that UCF leads by more than one at the 1:13 mark if Holman starts. Mobile quarterbacks have frustrated Penn State (as they do many other teams), and this game was no exception.
Other games considered: Ohio State (A terrific second-half effort by all, especially the defense, and questionable officiating prevented this from being a win), BC (Kickers, man.)
Why: It was tough to pick between a 42-point blowout, a strong first half effort before fading away, and another loss to open the season, but I had to go with Temple’s first win over Penn State since just before World War II. This game exposed the serious offensive line struggles that Penn State had with ten sacks, and the defense struggled to stop the run (something the Nittany Lions haven’t had trouble doing in recent years). It was bad-but fortunately it was the low point of the year (arguably until November).
Other games considered: MSU (Penn State was completely overmatched in this one, and solidified the view that the Spartans are firmly a class above the Nittany Lions--for now), Ohio State (Saquon Barkley tore up Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, who better improve at tackling and covering before the NFL season starts...and many other Buckeyes)