The brain sure works in a funny way. If you asked me for some main takeaways from a 40-page report I read earlier in the week for work, I would assuredly have to go back to my notes. If you asked me what I had for dinner on Monday, well, good luck because that information is long gone. But if you want an account of how I spent the day when Penn State snuck past Northwestern on September 24, 2005, then you are in luck!
The day started with a serious case of deja vu. I couldn’t help but think of the start of the 2004 season. Penn State had started that year with a 48-10 drubbing of Akron, giving some hope that the offense may come alive after several sluggish seasons. The next week though, they would lose 21-7 to Boston College to pick up the first loss in week two. After defeating Central Florida the following week, there was still some promise entering Big Ten play with a 2-1 record. That hope would quickly be squashed as Penn State would lose 16-3 against Wisconsin, which started a six-game losing streak in Big Ten play.
Would the Northwestern game turn out the same way? Sure, there was some optimism thanks to a 3-0 start, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Penn State might again falter as they entered conference play, setting up another long and agonizing season.
The start of the game did nothing to assuage my fears. Penn State didn’t look much different than the previous “Dark Years.” The offense made several quick exits thanks to turnovers and inability to move the chains, while the usually stout defense kept finding itself out of position and giving up big plays to the Wildcats. Overall, it seemed that more sloppy play would doom the Nittany Lions to the bottom of the Big Ten standings once again.
After falling behind 13-0, Penn State offered its first glimmer of hope as Michael Robinson connected with Justin King on a 37-yard touchdown. It wasn’t just that the Nittany Lions closed the gap to make it a one-score game, but it was how they scored. King, a true freshman wide receiver at the time, simply raced past his defender for an easy score. It was a sight for sore eyes, as a lack of speed on the perimeter had turned Penn State’s predictable yet effective offense into one of the worst in the nation. For the Nittany Lions to start winning again, they would need to rely on its new foursome of speedy wide receivers - King, Derrick WIlliams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler.
Still, there were too many disturbing signs of the recent Dark Years - players not on the same page, balls bouncing off receivers hands right into the arms of Wildcat defenders, and just too many missed opportunities when the team ended up shooting itself in the foot. It felt like another season would soon slip away. Northwestern took advantage and built its lead to 23-7. Fortunately, Michael Robinson was able to connect with Butler for his second touchdown pass of the day with just 35 seconds before halftime. It gave the team some momentum and hope for the second half as they faced a more manageable 23-14 deficit.
Penn State managed a field goal while shutting out the Wildcats in the third quarter, putting them within striking distance entering the final stanza.
Then things became interesting. The teams exchanged field goals early in the fourth as Northwestern held on to a six-point lead. Penn State’s offense got going again, as Michael Robinson gave the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game with an eight-yard touchdown run. However, Northwestern would ultimately respond with a field goal to take a 29-27 lead with just over two minutes remaining.
It was not make-or-break time for the Nittany Lions. A time to see what this team was made of- whether they could right the ship or if this time would just prolong the Dark Years.
The start of the drive did not elicit any such optimism from the Nittany faithful. The offense found itself going backwards, and suddenly facing a dire fourth-and-15 that could have easily resulted in Northwestern running out the clock for the victory.
Michael Robinson wouldn’t let that happen. He cooly dropped back and threw a laser down the middle of the field to hit tight end Isaac Smolko right between the numbers. The reliable Smolko snatched the ball and fell past the chains, giving the drive new life.
While I mentioned earlier that I can vividly remember that day, there was a brief moment when things became hazy. Once the offense was given new life thanks to the fourth-and-fifteen conversion, Robinson knew it was time to strike. With the clock ticking down to just under a minute of regulation, Robinson dropped back, quickly scanned the field to find the match-up he wanted. I held my breath as the ball floated in the air, and as the camera panned down the length of the field I saw Williams streaking past his defender. Williams snagged the ball, made a quick move to make his defender completely whiff on a would-be tackle and raced to the end zone to give Penn State the clinching score.
As WIlliams was set to cross the goalline, I jumped into the air, screamed, and without even realizing what I was doing, I started to run. I ran straight out the door of my college apartment and at some point remembering looking up and seeing trees and realized I was outside, somewhere between the parking lot and the road. I quickly reversed course and ran back into my apartment to see the defense stop any last-ditch effort by the Wildcats before setting off a wild celebration in Evanston.
As we all now know, it was the start of something special. Penn State would go on to win the Big Ten championship in a season when many outlets had predicted them to finish dead last. It proved that the Nittany Lions had the playmakers on offense it so sorely was lacking during the past few seasons. Most importantly, it showed this team had the championship mettle that would lead them to an Orange Bowl victory and one of the most magical seasons in program history.