Losses are hard for bloggers, too.
Spending the past 15 months working at BSD has been a ton of fun for me and this weekly column in particular is one that I look forward to planning and writing the most.
Well, full-time life sometimes gets in the way of a good evening spent watching an old Penn State football game on YouTube. There’s also something of an “oh wow, you’re old” element that comes with spending so much time thinking about these past Nittany Lion classics - especially when you attended them. That’s the case with this week’s version, a win in Bloomington from 2004 that you can check out in the video below.
This week, what’s sure to be a subdued and non-sellout crowd will gather in Beaver Stadium for a noon kick between the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions.
Back in November 2004, it was friends and family only prior to kickoff in Bloomington’s Memorial Stadium. I attended this game and stood near the sidelines honestly wondering if Penn State would ever be a national player again and certainly questioning whether or not it would happen under Joe Paterno.
For those who don’t remember - and bless all you who weren’t following Penn State football at the time - the Lions were suffering through their fourth losing season in five years. Penn State was 2-7 overall, winless in the Big Ten, and hadn’t won away from Beaver Stadium since their last trip to Bloomington in 2002.
While Penn State’s defense was showing its mettle - being one of only three teams nationally at that point in the season who hadn’t allowed more than 21 points in a game.
But the Lions offense was at its all-time nadir (even compared to last week’s trip to Columbus). Penn State was relying on a battered quarterback playing out the last days of his career while looking to his top receivers who would wind up being an all-conference quarterback (Michael Robinson) and a future safety (Mark Rubin). Fans were clamoring for the debut of highly touted freshman quarterback Anthony Morelli, while the offensive line was still not a strength.
So, on a gorgeous day in Southern Indiana, that team took the field and the fortunes of Penn State football would change on a singular series of fourth quarter plays.
Before getting to that, the IU game was a perfect encapsulation of early 2000s Penn State football. Mills threw an unconscionable interception. The defense let an opposing offense work easily down the field with scripted plays. Most notably, the Lions were hurt twice by on-field calls by Big Ten officials, though that newly instituted instant replay system saved them. On the first, it overturned what had been called an incompletion into a Lion touchdown on a Robinson catch. Later, it turned an IU completion deep into PSU territory into a fourth down.
Oh yeah, Morelli got his first look at quarterback, too. Things went predictably bad as one of his first college throws was intercepted and returned for a score.
Still, somehow Penn State was in the game late into the fourth quarter. Out of nowhere, a Lion offense that had been hindered by fits and starts put together a drive all the way down the field, mixing run and pass. It was capped by a Tony Hunt touchdown run and Zack Mills conversion. With less than four minutes to go, Penn State’s defense was going to take the field with a chance to close out a win.
Of course, things wouldn’t go so easily. Indiana hit a big throw to get into Lion territory. But, on a second down play, Penn State cornerback Anwar Phillips perfectly read a screen pass. The game was in his hands, but Phillips dropped a surefire Pick Six.
One play later, it was Phillips who was beaten to the inside when IU quarterback (and Notre Dame transfer) Matt LoVecchio completed his final pass attempt of the game to the one-yard line with about two minutes to go.
What transpired from there is well known. Current Big Ten Network studio analyst Gerry DiNardo, in what would prove to be the last home game he’d ever coach, called for four consecutive running plays. The Lions were up to the task, not allowing an inch.
Ultimately, Penn State would take a safety to run out the clock on a 22-18 win that seemed inconsequential at the time.
But instead, it sparked Paterno’s program to a late career renaissance. A week later, the Lions buried Michigan State with prized recruiting targets Justin King and Derrick Williams in attendance. A program that barely escaped the Big Ten basement would go on a run that saw them win 14 of its next 15 games, claim a conference title, a No. 3 national ranking, and a win in the Orange Bowl.