It seems unfathomable to me that we are only a year away from the tenth anniversary of the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. I can still remember like it was yesterday when I was hitting up a couple of tailgates before the clash with Nebraska, and the atmosphere was so subdued that it felt like a funeral. It made sense, considering the fact that the Penn State football program everyone knew had suddenly died, especially considering Joe Paterno, the longtime face of the program, had been permanently sidelined after over 60 years of involvement. Inside Beaver Stadium, PSU fans wore blue in support of the victims as they grieved along with the red-clad Nebraska fans who made the trip, unsure of the type of reception they would get (they were warmly welcomed).
Given how much “IT” (as the PSU corner of the Internet refers to the scandal) overshadowed the 2011 season, I don’t blame anyone for forgetting the fact that prior to all that stuff hitting the fan, the football team was actually sculpting a promising campaign headed towards an appearance in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.
The 2011 season started off with Chaz Powell returning the opening kickoff of the season opener against Indiana State for a touchdown, setting the tone in a comfortable blowout win over a hopelessly overmatched FCS opponent. Alabama would proceed to come into Beaver Stadium the following week and absolutely drill PSU in a game best remembered for PSU having to burn all three of their timeouts on their opening drive, thanks to the convoluted clusterf**k of a play calling system nearly causing a few delay of game penalties.
After the shellacking at the hands of the eventual national champions and being written off as any sort of contender, PSU went on a run, winning some rather ugly contests that saw the offense ride the struggle bus and relying on a stellar defense to bail them out over and over again. This led to mostly painful-to-watch clunkers such as a 14-10 win at Temple where PSU continually squandered great field position with awful offensive play, yet somehow converted on a pair of fourth downs for the go-ahead touchdown late in the game. Then there was a six-point victory at Indiana in which the Hoosiers came up just a few yards shy of a game-winning Hail Mary, and a 13-3 slugfest against Iowa, where the game’s only TD came midway through the fourth quarter with PSU clinging to a 6-3 lead (feel the excitement!).
Then of course, there was the simultaneously ugly and beautiful 10-7 victory over Illinois on a snowy Beaver Stadium field in late October, better known as the “409 game” (I went over this game in detail in my greatest games of the 2010’s post, so click the link if you want a recap of it). Penn State would enter the bye week sporting an 8-1 record and a No. 12 ranking while sitting in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten Legends Division, needing to win two of their final three games against Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin in order to punch their ticket to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Given that Nebraska was considered to be evenly matched with PSU and Ohio State was floundering under interim head coach Luke Fickell after dealing with the fallout from Jim Tressel’s resignation over lying about players receiving free tattoos (back during a silly time period when people actually got riled up over such things), the odds of earning those two victories were looking decent. Of course, we all know what happened during the week in between the Illinois and the Nebraska game...
I’ll never forget the emotional pregame festivities highlighted by the players and coaches from both teams, along with hundreds of former PSU letter winners who came back to support the team in a time of crisis, kneeling together at midfield as Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown delivered a pre-game prayer. You could certainly hear a pin drop with the level of silence that overcame Beaver Stadium at that moment.
As for the game itself: It took until midway through the second quarter for someone to finally get on the board, as Nebraska’s kicker nailed a field goal to put them up 3-0. The Huskers’ star running back/human wrecking ball Rex Burkhead would plow into the end zone in the final minute of the half to give Nebraska a 10-0 lead going into the locker room. This was followed by another TD drive midway through the third quarter to give the Huskers a seemingly insurmountable 17-0 advantage.
PSU however, would not go quietly into the late afternoon, as they finally woke up and responded with a TD drive of their own to cut it to a 10-point deficit. Early in the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions would cut the deficit down to three with another TD drive, capped off by a beautiful trick play that saw wide receiver Curtis Drake throw a pass off a reverse to Matt McGloin, who caught it inside the five-yard line. Unfortunately for PSU, they were unable to get any closer than 17-14, as Silas Redd was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 run on the second-to-last possession, and the final drive saw PSU get no closer than its own 40-yard line as time ran out.
The team would bounce back the following week with a thrilling 20-14 at Ohio State (in which interim coach Tom Bradley earned his first and only career win), but then get walloped at Wisconsin 45-7, the week after that. As a result, Wisconsin went on to face Michigan State in the conference championship game, instead of PSU.
Had it not been for IT and the disruption it clearly caused, perhaps the team could have knocked off both Nebraska and Ohio State to clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game. Sure, you could certainly argue that a Kirk Cousins-led Michigan State squad would’ve lit up PSU anyway, but just making it to Indy despite having been written off so early in the season would have been an impressive feat and something for the team to hang their hats on. Unfortunately, this will remain the ultimate “what if” for the members of the 2011 team.