2008 - Champions
After talk of national title aspirations led to disappointment in 2007, the team took a much different approach heading into 2008. They entered the season without their best player after Sean Lee tore his ACL in spring camp. But a new look offense led by Daryl Clark and the emergence of Aaron Maybin as a Bendarik Award finalist propelled Penn State to a surprising Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl appearance.
From the start of the season, it was obvious the offense was something special. The Nittany Lions crushed Coastal Carolina 66-10, and a game that was expected to be close against Oregon State (who would eventually upset #1 USC) turned into a 45-14 blowout. They proved themselves once again by manhandling Syracuse in Carrier Dome 55-13. They continued on that path with notable wins against No. 22 Illinois, where Derrick Williams put on a show for the prime time audience, and smoked Wisconsin 48-7 in an evening clash to silence the Camp Randall crowd. After sneaking past Ohio State in the Horseshoe, the team seemed destined for the BCS Championship Game.
Then disaster struck in Kinnick, as the team allowed the Hawkeyes to come back in the fourth quarter to lose on a field goal on the final play of the game. The team showed resolve by blowing out Indiana and No. 17 Michigan State to clinch the Big Ten Championship. In a frigid afternoon in Beaver Stadium, Clark was red hot as the team would hoist roses on the sidelines as the clock wound down to 0:00. Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions could not get the job done against No. 5 USC in the Rose Bowl after a slew of mistakes in the second quarter dashed their hopes.
2009 - Close to, but so far, from Greatness
Penn State entered the 2009 ranked in the top five with national title aspirations. But the offensive line proved the be the team’s Achilles heel in defeats to Ohio State and Iowa as the team had a fantastic, yet also somewhat forgettable 11-2 season.
You could tell something was amiss from the beginning. The offense was solid, but lacked the explosiveness of the previous season. Things would come crashing down in week four as the team suffered a 21-10 defeat against Iowa in a torrential downpour. Penn State would win its next five games against unranked foes before dropping another home game against Ohio State, 24-7. The Nittany Lions managed to keep it close for most of the game, but were doomed by an overmatched offensive line. Once again, the Nittany Lions closed out the season with victories against Indiana and Michigan State, and earned a spot in the Citrus Bowl to face LSU.
The final game of the season would also be the most memorable. Played in the sloppiest of conditions, a late drive helped Penn State rally past the Tigers for a 19-17 victory on a Collin Wagner field goal. It would be Joe Paterno’s 24th and final bowl victory.
2010 - Not Ready for Prime Time
Penn State took a step back as expected in 2010, as Paterno dealt with his youngest team since becoming head coach in 1966. On top of that, injuries ripped through the depth chart throughout the season. Penn State still managed a 7-6 season, but suffered through lopsided losses to Alabama, Iowa, Ohio State, and most memorably, a 33-13 Homecoming loss to lowly Illinois.
The season may be most remembered for a bizarre quarterback situation. It began with true freshman Rob Bolden as the starter, but a concussion in week seven opened the door for walk-on Matt McGloin. Bolden struggled mightily following his return to action, but McGloin seemed to be the better man for the job. For the remainder of the season, the two would trade reps with Bolden typically getting the start and then a short hook.
The season did have a couple memorable games, including a prime time victory in Beaver Stadium against Denard Robinson and Michigan. The most notable game was at home against Northwestern. The Wildcats jumped out to a 21-0 lead, but Penn State scored 35 consecutive points to hand Paterno his 400th career victory. The season ended with a 37-24 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl that was doomed by McGloin’s five interceptions.
2011 - A Dream Season Becomes a Nightmare
The 2011 season was supposed to be the year where a more experienced and hungry group returned to challenge for Big Ten supremacy. The team had emerging talent throughout the depth chart and Paterno was ready to return to the sidelines. That would change after a collision with Devon Smith during a summer practice, meaning Paterno was indefinitely set to coach from the booth once again.
The season began with what could have been interpreted as a terrific omen for the 2011 season, as Chaz Powell took the first kickoff of the season and returned it for a touchdown to begin a 41-7 route of Indiana State. The following week saw an early-season whiteout as Penn State hosted #1 Alabama. The Nittany Lions hung in for a little over a quarter, but the Crimson Tide were just too much to handle, ultimately winning 27-11.
Then things started to get interesting. Despite the anemic play of the offense, now in year two of the McGloin-Bolden circus act where neither could claim the role as QB1. Penn State found ways to win each week during a seven-game victory streak. While they did not pass the eye test as the top team in the Big Ten, the team’s winning ways put them in excellent shape to claim the East Division crown for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. On October 29, Penn State would beat Illinois 10-7 in a cold and snowy defensive slugfest. The game was capped off by a dramatic Illini missed field goal on the final play of regulation. As the ball bounced off the upright, the crowd erupted in celebration of Paterno’s 409th career victory, breaking the record previously held by Grambling’s Eddie Robinson for most major college victories. However, it would be Paterno’s final victory at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions were off the following weekend, expecting to use the time to rest before the final stretch of the season that would hopefully end with a trip to the Rose Bowl. Instead, all hell broke loose. News broke on he following Friday that retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had been indicted. A media firestorm would ensue following the release of the horrific crimes by Sandusky, which was made worse by several PR blunders made by the university. Paterno would be fired the following Wednesday, hours after his announcement that he would retire following the season, with Tom Bradley named interim head coach.
The team would go on to lose three of its final four games, including a blowout loss to Houston in the Ticket City Bowl. The turmoil would continue off-the-field, as questions persisted about Sandusky’s involvement with the program and if Penn State would ultimately face severe punishments from the NCAA.
2012 - A Bunch of Fighters
The 2012 season marked the beginning of the short-lived, yet vastly important, Bill O’Brien era. For the first time since 1966, the season would begin without Joe Paterno as head coach. O’Brien entered State College as the former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, a no-nonsense guy with a successful background who would look to revolutionize Penn State's dated offensive attack. Not long after accepting the job, O’Brien was gut-punched by the NCAA’s announcement of sanctions in July, which would mean no bowl games for four years and the eventual restriction of 40 scholarships. It also allowed for any Penn State player to transfer without missing any eligibility. Somehow, the team mostly stayed intact with the help of senior captains (and now Penn State legends) Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti.
With expectations already low, the season started even worse than anyone imagined with losses to Ohio and Virginia, a one-point loss that was marred by four missed field goals and an extra point attempt by Sam Ficken, as well as a dropped touchdown pass by Allen Robinson, arguably the greatest wide receiver ever to don a Penn State uniform. The offense would find its footing in O’Brien’s new system the following week in a 34-7 victory against Navy, that began a five game winning streak. McGloin continued to find his stride, completely transforming under O’Brien’s guidance into one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. The win streak would include a memorable come-from-behind win against a ranked Northwestern squad, as well as a demolition of Iowa under the lights at Kinnick Stadium.
The season was marred by questionable calls against Penn State, enough to make it seem obvious that the Big Ten wanted to hand out additional punishment to the team that many felt should have received the death penalty. The most blatant of these calls was denying Penn State the go-ahead touchdown late in the Nebraska game after Matt Lehman clearly broke the plane of the goal line. However, instead of feeling defeated the team continued to come out fighting. They ended the season with a blowout victory against Indiana, followed by an instant classic upset win against Wisconsin in overtime.
The Wisconsin game started off with plenty of emotion. It was the last game for the group of seniors that helped keep the program together, who would now be denied a bowl appearance in their final season. Each player on the team donned the number 42 on their helmets to honor Mauti, who suffered another knee injury in the previous game at Indiana, while fellow linebacker Gerald Hogdes took it a step further by wearing his jersey. To honor this gritty team who remained loyal to their university, a ‘2012’ was revealed on the side of the stadium so that this squad could live on forever with all of the undefeated and/or championship teams who once shared the Beaver Stadium turf.
Wisconsin would jump out to an early lead, but this group had one final fight left in them. The defense locked down, and the offense found enough of a rhythm to come back and force overtime, where Ficken nailed the walk-off field goal to give Penn State an unlikely 8-4 season after everyone counted them out.