The first ten years of Penn State football in the Big Ten had produced consistent success, and a Big Ten championship in 1994. The next five years were...erratic, to say the least. Nittany Lion fans endured the worst on-field performance in the current coach’s era, but also saw another conference title. By the end of the period, Happy Valley had suffered through several disappointing seasons, but would soon experience the success that eluded them from 2003-2007.
2003 - “Hello Darkness My Old Friend”
Coming off of a 9-4 season that featured Heisman finalist Larry Johnson, and returning dynamic signal-caller Zack Mills, the Nittany Lion faithful had reason to be somewhat excited for the 2003 season. The schedule featured non-conference opponents Nebraska (in the Sea of Red, this time) Boston College, Kent State, and Temple, and conference games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and kryptonite Iowa (while avoiding Michigan).
After going 2-2 in the non-conference, Penn State lost six straight to open the Big Ten slate, before thrashing Indiana 52-7 (including 38-0 in the last three quarters). Michigan State hammered Penn State 41-10 to end the season at 3-9.
2004 - “25 Or 6 to 4”
Many fans, including a certain 15-year old who was perched in section NA, hoped that the 2003 season was an anomaly and 2004 would bring a return to the post-season. The 2004 recruiting class featured future contributors like Mark Rubin, Josh Gaines, Tony Davis, Anthony Morelli, A.Q. Shipley, and Dan Connor, but most of these players would redshirt and not see action until 2005-very unfortunate news for the Nittany Lion faithful.
After a 2-1 start to the out of league games, Penn State lost their first three Big Ten games, before their match-up with Iowa. That game also happened...Anyway, moving on. The Nittany Lions lost two more in a row, before finishing the season against Indiana and Michigan State. A certain fourth-down stand against the Hoosiers is credited for setting the tone for the 2005 season. Penn State routed Michigan State 37-13, thanks to a 28-point third quarter, and finished the season at 4-7.
2005 - “We Are The Champions”
After the dismal years of 2003 and 2004, not much was expected from Penn State coming into the 2005 season. Durable quarterback Mills had graduated. Clock management was a concern. The Nittany Lions had to travel to Ann Arbor (more on that in a bit), as well as play usual foes Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. However, there were at least two reasons for optimism heading into the season, even if those reasons might not hit the field until 2006 (because of coach Joe Paterno’s penchant for not playing freshmen). Two of the nation’s top-ranked recruits, wide receiver Derrick Williams, and wide receiver/cornerback Justin King, signed with Penn State in February 2005, along with State College Area High School wideout Jordan Norwood, kicker Kevin Kelly, quarterback Daryll Clark, and linebacker Sean Lee, leaving hope for the future.
After going 3-0 during an admittedly lackluster non-conference season, Penn State traveled to Evanston, Illinois, to take on Northwestern. In a stress-inducing, back-and-forth game, Penn State had the ball at its own 16 with a 4th and 15 to preserve their undefeated start. New quarterback Michael Robinson found tight end Isaac Smolko for the first down, and the Nittany Lions charged down the field. Freshman wideout Williams then got open and eluded a defender for the game-winning touchdown to give Penn State a 34-29 victory.
The Nittany Lions went on to smack around Minnesota 44-14, with Michael Robinson doing most of the hitting, setting up a primetime matchup with a one-loss Ohio State team in front of then the second-biggest crowd in Beaver Stadium history (and “the best student section in the country”, according to Kirk Herbstreit).
After allowing Ohio State to take a 3-0 lead, Penn State scored the next 14 points to lead 14-10 at half. The Nittany Lion defense shut Ohio State down in the second half, with Tamba Hali providing the exclamation point. The defensive end sped past the Buckeye right tackle and flattened future Heisman winner Troy Smith, causing a fumble that was recovered by Scott Paxson and securing the 17-10 victory.
Emboldened by their victory over Ohio State, the Nittany Lions strolled into the Big House, a place where they had not won since 1994, expecting to walk out with a 7-0 record.
It was not to be, as Steve Breaston, an official’s adding of time on the clock, and poor pass coverage allowed Michigan to upset the Nittany Lions 27-25 as time expired. Lost in the disappointment was Michael Robinson’s impressive individual effort, as he accounted for over 300 total yards and two rushing touchdowns. Derrick Williams was also lost for the season with a broken arm.
Poor, poor Illinois. Champaign was the site of a bloodbath the following week, as Penn State piled up 63 points, 56 in the first half, en route to a lopsided victory. The Nittany Lions ran the table for the rest of the regular season, and earned an Orange Bowl invite against Bobby Bowden and the surprise ACC champion Florida State Seminoles. Penn State suffered two major losses in the game after 1,000 yard rusher Tony Hunt left the game on the first series, and Butkus and Bednarik winner Paul Posluszny suffered a major knee injury in the fourth quarter. Running back Austin Scott (remember him?) and linebacker Sean Lee stepped up in their stead, and after three overtimes (and four missed field goals), Penn State emerged the victor 26-23, thanks to a Kevin Kelly field goal. It was an 11-1 and Big Ten championship season. Were the Nittany Lions back? Only time would tell.
2006- “Falling Back”
Although fans did not expect Penn State to replicate their exact success from a year ago, there was a reason to be optimistic. The Nittany Lions returned nearly all of their offensive skill players, as well as their linebacking corps and their kicker. The new quarterback was highly touted Pittsburgh-area flamethrower Anthony Morelli, and their recruiting class was ranked seventh in the nation, led by defensive lineman Maurice Evans, cornerback AJ Wallace, and wide receiver Chris Bell. (It should be noted that NaVorro Bowman was a three-star recruit, and running back Evan Royster was unranked-probably because he was coveted for his lacrosse prowess more so than his gridiron greatness.)
Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions did not measure up to fan expectations, as their offense frequently failed to convert on third downs and in the red zone, especially in a blowout loss against Notre Dame, and a 28-6 defeat in Columbus where Morelli tossed three interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns). A 17-10 loss to Michigan in Beaver Stadium was notable for seeing Morelli and backup Daryll Clark leaving with injuries, leaving the comeback attempt in the hands of third-stringer Paul Cianciolo.
The Nittany Lions did manage to end the season with three straight wins, including a 20-10 victory over Tennessee in the Capital One Bowl, where Tony Hunt proved that SEC speed was no match for the Big Ten’s power, toughness, agility, and elusiveness. Hunt rushed for 165 yards and finished the season with over 1,000 yards for the second straight season. Another Tony (Davis) clinched the game with a 88-yard fumble return for a touchdown, and Penn State ended the year at 9-4.
Penn State again returned a lot of offensive firepower in 2007 (although they replaced Tony Hunt with senior Rodney Kinlaw), and hoped to eliminate the mistakes and inconsistency of a year ago. Their linebacking corps boasted two future All-Americans in Dan Connor and Sean Lee, while the secondary had reliable safety Anthony Scirrotto (who led the conference in interceptions in 2006). However, the team experienced some adversity even before Florida International took the field, as Scirrotto, Justin King, and four other players were charged with burglary, criminal trespass, assault, and harrassment stemming from an April apartment altercation. All players were eventually allowed to return to campus, and the season began relatively free of more trouble.
After a season-opening shutout of FIU, Notre Dame and quarterback Jimmy Clausen came to the first-ever “White House”, hoping to sweep the Nittany Lions in their short series. Derrick Williams had other ideas. Penn State rode the return to a 31-10 victory, and moved to 3-0 at the end of the non-conference slate. Despite the Wolverines being 1-2, Michigan’s Big House still proved to be a house of horrors for Penn State, and the home team eked out a 14-9 win thanks to three Nittany Lion turnovers. After a rare loss to Illinois to fall to 3-2, Iowa came to Happy Valley hoping to extend their success against Penn State. Quarterback Jake Christensen was nearly blanked, as the Hawkeyes managed to score just one touchdown, while the Nittany Lions had three, winning 27-7.
Penn State won their next two games, before falling to the eventual BCS Title Game-participant Ohio State 37-17. The Nittany Lions went 2-1 in their final three regular season games, and defeated Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl to finish the season at 9-4. Rodney Kinlaw stood out as another 1,000 yard rusher, while Dan Connor become the all-time leading tackler in Penn State history (a position previously held for just one year by Paul Posluszny). Connor was also named a first-team All-American for the second consecutive season, and won the Bednarik Award (the third straight Nittany Lion to win, after Posluszny took it in 2005 and 2006) as the nation’s best defender. Many fans were also glad to see the end of the Anthony Morelli era, as a junior by the name of Daryll Clark would take the helm at quarterback in 2008.
2003 to 2007 offered many lows, but the high of the 2005 championship, and the recruiting class carried hope into the future. The freshmen from that Big Ten title team were not quite done winning championships, however...