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Games That Sparked a Special Season: 2012 Penn State vs. Northwestern

A potentially miserable season turned on a dime during 2012’s homecoming clash with Northwestern

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2012 Penn State football season was one of the strangest in program history, for reasons that are understandable to anyone that paid the slightest bit of attention to college football at the time.

It was the year after “it” happened and Bill O’Brien was in his first year with the program, having lost some key cogs to transfer in the wake the scandal and NCAA sanctions.

Early in the season, it appeared the experts and critics would be right that Penn State was doomed to become an FCS program for the foreseeable future. The Nittany Lions looked horrendous in an opening-game home loss to Ohio (!!) and then missed approximately 52 field goals and an extra point in week two against Virginia to drop to 0-2.

Penn State rebounded a bit afterward, reeling off three-consecutive comfortable victories over Navy, Temple and Illinois.

The following week was homecoming an saw the arrival of Northwerstern. The Wildcats were 5-0 and looking for their first 6-0 start since 1962 behind an offense led by Trevor Semien and Venric Mark.

The Nittany Lions got off to a solid start in front of a packed crowd, as much-maligned kicker Sam Ficken knocked one home before a Zach Zwinak touchdown plunge and a Ficken point after made it 10-0 early in the second quarter.

Northwestern didn’t lay down, however, and scored the next two touchdowns of the game on a Mark run and a Semien pass to Tony Jones to take a 14-10 lead at the break.

After forcing a stop to open the third quarter, Penn State marched 80 yards on 12 plays in 5:23 to take a 17-14 thanks to a Matt McGloin slant to Allen Robison.

But that’s when shit when sideways for a bit.

Kain Colter came in a at quarterback and dashed in from 10 yards out to retake the lead for the Wildcats, and when Mark returned Alex Butterworth’s (mammoth of a) punt 75 yards to the house with 50 seconds left in the third it was suddenly a 28-17 Northwestern lead.

This is where I have to be honest with you, friends. I left. I know, I know, it was a two-possession game on homecoming and in hindsight I look like an idiot, but I was tired and hungover and pretty sure this game wouldn’t end happily. So my friend Steff (sup Steff) and I up and left and went back downtown.

Well, then the fourth quarter happened.

About five minutes into that fourth quarter Penn State showed its first signs that this comeback was going to happen. The Nittany Lions responded to the Mark touchdown with a methodical 18-play, 82-yard drive that ended with McGloin finding Robinson (who it turns out is pretty damn good, who knew?) again, this time for a 6-yard score on fourth down. Pat Koerbler’s all-time favorite Penn Stater Mike Zordich then found paydirt for a two-point conversion and suddenly it was 28-25.

On the ensuing possession, Ted Roof’s defense forced a rare 3-and-out and the ball went right back to the Nittany Lions at their own 15 following a 63-yard punt. Penn State’s offense proceeded to go right back to work. McGloin led the Nittany Lions 85 yards in 5:38 for a touchdown, punctuated by his now famous bunny hop into the corner of the end zone to put Penn State back on top 32-28.

The defense then stepped up again, forcing an immediate turnover on downs and Zordich, who had solidified his role as a leader on the team over the summer, closed out the game a touchdown to make it 39-28 with just over a minute remaining.

The 2012 team, which many though may be in like for a two or three win season, finished that year 8-4 and but for a baffling fumble call against Nebraska, may have been even better. The team and the season helped keep the program afloat and lay the groundwork for what James Franklin would go on to build today;