It's Wild Card Thursday here at Penn State Week. Things are going great so far, but there's not much more we can say about the prospects of the 2015 team. We're still over 90 days away from actually finding out if Penn State's offensive line is better or if Christian Hackenberg can turn his game around and become the all-world quarterback we all want him to be (yes, even you Maryland fans are secretly hoping for it, if only so you can gloat when he's defeated).
Predicting the future is fun, but today we're taking a trip down memory lane to visit another Penn State team that was coming off a disappointing season. In 2004, Penn State had one of the top defenses in the country, but still finished 4-7 thanks to an anemic offense (sounds familiar, right?). Heading into 2005, There were questions abound about whether Joe Paterno had it in him to lead the Lions to the top of the Big Ten and into national prominence.
There was help on the way, though. A top wide receiver recruit out of Maryland, Derrick Williams had just pledged his commitment to the Penn State alongside cornerback Justin King from the Pittsburgh area. With those two thrown into the mix, there was hope that the Lions could score some more points in 2005 to support the stellar defense, but how would the versatile Michael Robinson fare as the team's full-time quarterback?
During his first three years at PSU, Robinson had done some rushing and receiving, but very little throwing. Many fans including myself saw his ascension to the starting gig as more of a sign that prized sophomore Anthony Morelli was being protected than a sign that Penn State was about to win a Big Ten title.
Like Morelli, I was just a naive sophomore back then, wondering how my college career would go after a freshman year filled awkward social situations and peer pressure. Also like Morelli, I was about to watch my football team do something amazing.
September 3: vs. South Florida
The Penn State offense looked a little sluggish out of the gate against a USF team that many fans thought the Lions ought to demolish. Tailback Tony Hunt ran for 140 yards on 15 carries, but Robinson didn't instill much confidence with only 90 yards passing on 15 attempts. And if it wasn't for a fumble returned by a touchdown by cornerback Alan Zemaitis, the 23-13 final score might have been even closer. Sure, it was a win, but many thought it made the Lions look too similar to the 2004 team. If only we could have looked into the future to see the upstart Bulls crushing Big East power Louisville 45-14 just three weeks later.
September 24: at Northwestern
Speaking of three weeks later, that's when Penn State started its Big Ten campaign against the Wildcats. After easy home wins over Cincinnati and Central Michigan, there was optimism that the Lions could roll into Ryan Field and avenge an embarrassing 14-7 home defeat from the year before. The bad news was that this was the first road game of the season, and that meant me having to watch the game on a 50-inch standard definition TV in the dorm common room instead of inside Beaver Stadium.
At least it would be easier to grab a soda this way, but it wouldn't be easier for Penn State to win. The deft passing ability of Brett Basanez, a lunch-pail effort by Tyrell Sutton and four Penn State turnovers led to Northwestern taking a 23-17 lead into the fourth quarter. Even after the Lions finally took the lead on a Robinson touchdown run, the Wildcats bounced back with a field goal go back in front 29-27 with two minutes to play. This one looked like it was over when Penn State faced a 4th-and-15 on the final drive, but Robinson drilled a pass to tight end Isaac Smolko over the middle to move the chains. A few plays later, Robinson found Williams on a lob near sideline for a 36-yard touchdown strike.
It wasn't pretty, but that was a heck of a game for Penn State to win. Not only did the team overcome a horrible, turnover-filled first half, but Robinson bounced back from a poor start to lead a pair of comeback drives in the fourth quarter. Not bad for a kid who wasn't supposed to be a real quarterback. Maybe this team was worth believing in.
October 8: vs. Ohio State
That victory in Evanston was neat, but it didn't prepare us for what came next: a 44-14 dismantling of No. 18 Minnesota at Beaver Stadium in which the Lions accumulated 364 rushing yards. Not only did Penn State feature a pair of 100-yard backs in Hunt and Robinson, but the defense completely shut down star Gopher back Laurence Maroney. All of a sudden, Paterno's team was 5-0 with Ohio State coming to town.
At this point I had been to nine Penn State games in my college career, but nothing could prepare me for Beaver Stadium at night with an undefeated PSU team defending home turf. ESPN's College Gameday came to town and woke everyone up early. Once the show ended, there was nothing to do until the big game except for tailgating. I'm happy to say that I was wise enough even back then to pace myself and ensure a memorable experience. When my friends and I finally made our way into Beaver Stadium, I was shocked by how drunk everyone was.
The tailgating, the high-level opponent, and the frustration of two fruitless seasons all combined to create the craziest sports atmosphere I have ever been a part of. The game itself did nothing to quell the craziness.
Penn State jumped out to a 7-3 lead on a Williams rushing touchdown, and the stadium nearly hit full frenzy when safety Calvin Lowry intercepted Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith minutes later. With the ball returned inside the five-yard line, Robinson cashed in with a touchdown run three plays later, but Smith countered with a scoring drive of his own to make the score 14-10 PSU at the break.
The second half was a battle of attrition, with neither side able to move the ball much against the opposing defense. Robinson and Smith combined for just over 200 yards passing in this game with both sides preferring to pound away with the ground game. The Lions mustered a field goal to go up by seven heading into the final period, where the punt-fest continued. The Penn State defense had the Bucks backed up in the final minutes, but back-to-back strikes from Smith to Ted Ginn Jr. and Santonio Holmes put Ohio State at midfield with over a minute remaining.
Smith appeared to be on the comeback trail, but the scoring threat was ended abruptly when Tamba Hali drove the quarterback into the ground while forcing a fumble that was picked up by defensive tackle Scott Paxson. With the Buckeyes out of time outs, Penn State had just ensured itself a shot at the Big Ten title.
October 15: at Michigan
There might have been a shot at something even greater if not for that next week's game against Michigan. Maybe Penn State was emotionally exhausted after the epic victory over Ohio State, or maybe the team's streak of great play was unsustainable. Either way, the Lions didn't play to their full potential against a Michigan team that had already lost three games in 2005. On the other hand, maybe this loaded Wolverines squad was finally playing up to its talent level.
The Penn State offense was stymied for three straight quarters before finally punching its way into the end zone to tie the game at 10-10 early in the fourth quarter. On the ensuing possession, Zemaitis stole the ball away from UM quarterback Chad Henne and ran 35 yards for another six points. After a botched extra point somehow turned into a two-point conversion by kicker Kevin Kelly, the momentum appeared to be firmly in Penn State's favor.
However, Michigan rebounded with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Henne to Mario Manningham followed by a Michael Hart two-point conversion that tied the game at 18-18. The Wolverines later took the lead on a Garrett Rivas field goal, but Robinson countered by leading a touchdown drive that ended with him in the end zone and less than one minute on the clock. The score was 25-21 Lions.
At this point I was in a car bound for an ill-timed family engagement in New York City. After watching most of this soon-to-be-classic game on TV, I had to listen to the rest on the radio, but I still clearly remember the frustration as Penn State somehow allowed the Wolverines to return the kickoff all the way to midfield. Time was still on the Lions' side, though, and they appeared to get a final stop when Steve Breaston dropped a pass on the PSU five-yard line. Had Breaston held on, he almost certainly would have been tackled and the game would have ended.
Instead, there was one second left on the clock with one final play remaining. That was just enough time for Henne to find Manningham in the end zone to give Michigan an incredible victory.
October 22: at Illinois
That was one brutal pill to swallow, but Penn State showed in the coming weeks that it was still better than the majority of the Big Ten. Back on October 22, though, we didn't know how the Lions would respond to defeat. After Illinois scored a field goal on its opening drive, there was reason to think that perhaps Penn State had lost a step.
Those fears would be put to rest in the mere minutes it took Robinson to throw for four touchdown passes in the first quarter. Then the Lions added four more scores in the second to make it 56-3 at halftime. It was a nice way to relax a fan base that had just been shocked into submission the week before. After cruising to a 63-10 victory, Penn State rode the momentum to three more wins, including a 31-22 decision in East Lansing that secured a share of the Big Ten championship.
January 3: Orange Bowl vs. Florida State
After a long layover between the final game of the regular season and the Orange Bowl in Miami, perhaps Penn State wasn't ready for the speed and athleticism of the ACC champion Seminoles. Twice in the first half, Florida State scored on big plays, with Willie Reid cashing in on an 87-yard punt return to tie the game at 7-7 before Lorenzo Booker scored on a 57-yard screen play to give his team the lead. Fortunately, for Penn State, that second FSU touchdown was followed by a botched extra point. It wouldn't be the last we'd hear from the kicking game in this one.
The Nittany Lion offense struggled for most of the first half after Austin Scott opened the scoring with a two-yard touchdown run, but it came back alive in the closing minute when Robinson connected with Ethan Kilmer on a 24-yard touchdown pass. Those would be the last points that PSU would score in regulation, as the team needed a fourth-quarter safety to hold off the 'Noles and head to overtime tied at 16-16.
It figured to be a long night after Florida State kicker Gary Cismesia traded missed field goals with Kelly in the first extra period. Following rushing touchdowns by Scott and B.J. Dean, Cismesia missed yet another attempt at the start of overtime number three. That set up Kelly for another shot at glory, and he came through with a kick through the uprights from 29 yards away. A surprisingly successful season had ended with Penn State as Orange Bowl champions.
Glory in 2015?!
Is Penn State's awesome 2005 run a good omen for 2015? The parallels between 2004 and 2014 that we mentioned before are encouraging, but we don't know if the current Penn State team has a diamond in the rough like Robinson on its roster to take the offense to the next level. The 2005 team featured an offense that was re-tooled to focus on Robinson's rushing ability, while the 2015 quarterback is a pocket passer. If you measure Hackenberg in terms of untapped potential, though, he might just measure up to Robinson in terms of being a game-changing quarterback that can lead Penn State to a Big Ten title.