Penn State week on LTP is here. We’ll need to invoke the spin of the most optimistic fan to try and ease the pain of this week considering the mere mention of the name “Penn State” should make you shudder. Compound the fact we haven’t won a football game since September 10th and well, we’re going to try and find some silver linings. Thankfully, our collective brains are wired weirdly and somehow the name “Penn State” triggers a slightly pleasant reflex as fans over the age of 30 instantly associate the words with “The Real Deal” cover shot of Darnell Autry after our magical win in 1995. Yes, for some reason the brain goes in to “protect” mode and we’ve turned the coldest gameday experience of our memory in to one that takes us to that happy place. We somehow use that game sixteen years ago as a coping mechanism to cover the complete domination Joe Paterno’s squads have had over our teams since that game. Penn State is 11-3 against Northwestern, but our minds go to Darnell’s TDs in the gloamin’ or Dave Beazley’s reverse. Come to think of it, that was Fitz’s most complete game as a player that I recall.
There seems to be a connective tissue between Penn State and Northwestern. It is deeper than the fact that JoePa was on the sideline in that 1995 game lending his icon status to help make the win over the glistening white helmet, white uniformed Nittany Lions a final stake of legitimacy – adding Penn State to wins over Michigan and Notre Dame – in our miraculous season. Fitz was the star on the field that day and now gets to coach against the same guy that made the win so big time. It is more than the fact our defensive mastermind of that dream team, Ron Vanderlinden has been a staple of the Penn State defensive coaching staff for double digit seasons. Yes, it is much deeper.
Despite the surprising success of Penn State (LTP’s most overrated preseason team) and the precipitous fall of Northwestern in recent weeks, from a big picture, thanks to the never ending gauntlet of cheating scandals in college football, the ‘Cats and Nittany Lions are connected by a shared spirit of doing things the right way. Sure, Penn State has had its fair share of individual player issues during the Joe Paterno era, but, the Nittany Lions have an image of doing things the right way. Their players graduate. Paterno’s priorities are about the molding of young men, playing by the rules and practicing what he preaches by being the most generous philanthropist of the CFB coaches (he’s given millions to Penn State including a well noted donation to build the Penn State library). They’re the good guy image of college football. While they have an overwhelming tradition and students who literally camp out for days on end to get football tickets each week to be part of the 100,000+ weekly party, there is a lot in common between Northwestern and Penn State.
Penn State is coming off a 7-6 season, which is just about Armageddon for their fans. Despite the fact Penn State rattled off consecutive 11-2 seasons the two years prior, the most recent one-year dip had preseason murmurs surfacing about the inevitable “is this his final year?” questions. The ‘Cats are seemingly there in the photos of every JoePa milestone. We were on the wrong end of JoePa’s 400th win last season (we’ll get to that in a minute) and were also a party to helping him set the all-time win mark back in 2001 in the Zack “bleepin’” Mills game. Fitz has yet to beat Penn State (0-3) in his six seasons at the helm, but his name surfaced quite a bit this off-season in Penn State circles thanks to an unsubstantiated “report” that he would listen seriously if Penn State offered him. This came amid the swirl of alleged head coaching overtures, most notably Michigan, that played a part in Fitz getting a new contract – through 2020 – on the heels of his own 7-6 season.
Saturday’s Penn State game is at Ryan Field under the lights (6 pm ct on BTN) – a homecoming game no less. It is the last time we’ll face the JoePas until 2014 season as they roll off of our schedule. It is very realistic to think it is the last time JoePa will ever set foot inside Ryan Field (although how many times has that angle been wrong!). Penn State isn’t a team that intimidates Wildcat fans as those in the know realize the program has lost its uber premiere luster in the past decade, however, from a marketing perspective it is a huge game. Penn State raises the eyebrow of that much needed casual Northwestern fan in need of season ticket conversion. Regardless of record beating a Penn State team screams legitimacy for a program that needs to do so annually to stay on the radar. I rang this bell about beating Michigan AND Penn State were a key catalyst for the build for fan momentum in 2012. Now, Penn State has become the last gasp at salvaging a season that is slipping away. Let’s take a quick capsule approach to some of pain that Penn State has conjured up along with the three shining moments for NU in the series.
Northwestern – Penn State Series Capsule
Alltime Series: Penn State leads 11-3
In Happy Valley: Penn State 6-1
In Evanston: Penn State 5-2
Pat Fitzgerald Record vs PSU: 0-3
LTP favorite win: 1995 The Real Deal
LTP least favorite loss: 2001 “The Zack Mills Game”
Reliving The Magic of Beating JoePa:
1995 – The Real Deal
I won’t insult your fandom by positioning this as a game you need to be debriefed on, but how can we not relive one of the greatest all-time wins in NU history? I’m reminded of this game every day I walk in to my office and see the framed cover of Sports Illustrated with Darnell Autry on the cover and the bold headline “The Real Deal: Darnell Autry Leads Powerful Northwestern Past Penn State” in an era when gracing SI carried a LOT more weight than it does today. The ‘Cats entered the game 5-0 in the Big Ten having already defeated #9 Notre Dame in the opener and #7 Michigan in the Big House and this ABC featured game brought the iconic white jersey, white pants Nittany Lions and Joe Paterno to Dyche Stadium with a #12 ranking. The game was – ding, ding – 15 years ago TODAY.
We all know NU won 21-10 as Darnell led the way grinding out another 100-yard, 3 TD game, but the magic of this bitter cold afternoon/evening was amplified by the most partisan NU crowd in memory. Of the 49,000+ at Dyche, there were about 47,000 in purple. It was absolutely electric and surreal with the horrible lighting adding to the dream-like quality of the game. Keith Jackson called the game, it was another sellout and it was our attempt at the Holy Grail trifecta of wins in CFB – Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State in the same season. Many of the players I talk to believe this win was bigger than the Notre Dame game (I always differ with them) because they believed this was a much better team. The Dave Beazley end-around is one of the key trickeration plays that many of you are likely hoping we invoke on Saturday. Having watched this game many times, the thing that you forget about this is how dominating Pat Fitzgerald was and Keith Jackson and Bob Griese’s on-air love affair with him that day. Fitz was making tackle after tackle at the point of hand-off and was just downright sick in this game. To me, with the national audience and his performance that day THIS was the key reason he won the Nagurski Award. I’ve never asked him, but I wonder if this is his favorite game from a personal standpoint. My favorite on-air moment though, is when the ref stops the game and asks a fan to sit down so the players could see the game clock.
2003 – The “Around The Horn” Game
The 2003 season might be one of the more underrated seasons in NU lore as the Big Ten was loaded with ranked teams. Penn State was one of the only un-ranked teams we faced all season and the ‘Cats entered the game at 4-5 while Penn State was trying to stave off the longest losing streak (it was at 5 coming in to the game) in Joe Paterno’s tenure. As usual, it was a dogfight as NU made it more interesting than it should’ve been. The ‘Cats were knocking all day long but fumbled (Herron) at the Penn State 9 and were also stuffed on a 4th and goal from the 1. Down 7-0 entering the 4th, a fake FG set-up the tying score. Then, with the score tied at 7-7, Baz threw a bomb that was short but two Penn State DBs went up for the sure interception and they tipped it and it came down right to Brandon Horn for the very lucky TD. ‘Cats go on to win 17-7 and drop Penn State to 2-8, 0-6 and the worst losing streak since 1931 for the Nittany Lions.
2004 – “The Only One”
This season for me is simply lost in the memory banks. I still associate the conspiracy theory refs aiding in our loss at Hawaii which preclude us from a bowl game. I have ZERO memory of the Penn State win in Happy Valley – “the only one” we have. Apparently Noah Herron doesn’t either despite dropping 175 yards as he scored 1 TD and setup another, but suffered what appeared to be a concussion as he doesn’t remember the play that set-up Terrell Jordan’s TD. Another scrappy defensive battle in bend-don’t-break game for both teams, but the ‘Cats had the chip on the shoulder from a 49-0 embarassment just two season prior. The win moved NU to 5-4, 4-2 with three games left to play – Michigan, Illinois and Hawaii. The ‘Cats would beat the Illlini but at 6-6, they stayed home for the holidays thanks to the soul-crushing loss at Hawaii.
House of Pain
2010 – The Collossal Collapse
If you want to save time on the infuriating inconsistencies of the ‘Cats 2010 season on defense, look no further than this game. The JoePa 400th win coronation on ABC Sports was about to turn in to a Pat Fitzgerald infomercial as the ‘Cats blitzed PSU to a 21-0 first half lead. Sean McDonough was gushing over the ‘Cats, in particular citing the athleticism of our team while reminding viewers this was not your father’s Northwestern (which is only partially correct, because for my kids, it was). The too good to be true karma kicked in and Matt McGloin promptly led Penn State on a end of the half 2-minute drill TD drive that set off a tidal wave of mojo that was downright painful to watch. Penn State, thanks to Silas Redd and McGloin, ripped off 35 straight points as they manhandled our D-line. Game, set, JoePa coronation. Penn State wins 35-21.
2001 – The Zack “Bleepin’” Mills Game
If you want to point to one game that seems to have been a program turner of the negative variety I point to October 20, 2001 when Penn State crushed our soul and defeated us 38-35 at Ryan Field. I think many of us share the same sentiment when we look at that game as the “what if” game. Some context. Northwestern was the defending Big Ten co-champs (2000) and after an electrifying 2000 season Randy Walker had the program buzzing. NU entered the game 4-1 including one of the alltime best finishes in the Michigan State Victory Right II game. With wins over Sparty, Minnesota, Duke and UNLV and the lone loss being a 38-20 variety at Ohio State the ‘Cats were ranked #22 in the country. JoePa’s Penn State team was way below average (entered 0-4) and off to the worst start in JoePa history. It was also the worst starting Penn State team in the 115 year history at the time. Oh yeah, and it was a milestone game. With a win JoePa would tie Bear Bryant at 323 wins for most among FBS coaches. And, as I mentioned, it was on ABC Sports.
The ‘Cats had a very manageable schedule ahead of them and as Zak Kustok was Persa-like rushing for 115 yds, 3 TDs and bombing through the air, it was typical ‘Cats fare. We dominated on offense, scoring almost at will, yet let Penn State – a team that was God awful in rushing – move the ball at will on us and hang around. Every time we seemed to be ready to pull away, Matt Senneca would answer, usually to Eric McCoo. But, the ‘Cats mounted what seemed to be a game-winning drive by Zak which was capped-off with a Kustok TD with 2 minutes to go and boom – we were up 35-31. On the ensuing drive we licked Senneca and he was injured and forced to leave the game. Enter freshman Zack Mills. Game over, right? Nope. I remember the drive vividly as you do most nightmares. Mills promptly led Penn State on a 69-yard drive in his first appearance in college football. He was money going 5-8 through the year and with :22 left he hit McCoo for the game-winner. Game over.
From there, Northwestern imploded losing every game the rest of the way including a 43-42 heartbreaker to Urban Meyer’s Bowling Green team and finished 4-7. We went from a top 20 team to 4-7 just like that. The momentum of the season hinged on that Zack Mills drive. As we all know, 2002 was equally as bleak and while we had a blip in 2003, it wasn’t until 2005 that we really recovered to be in the plus side of the program with Baz as a senior and Tyrell as a freshman. Clearly there were other figures – namely Damien Anderson getting injured in 2001 that played a huge part in the epic collapse. The tragic death of Rashidi Wheeler hung over the team like a dark cloud. However, when it comes to on-field point at the moments, that Zack Mills drive sticks out as a turning point in program history.
2005 – The Michael Robinson Game
Ugh. This one is eerily similar to the 2001 game. Penn State entered undefeated, yet the first half was a Michael Robinson turnover fest – fumbles, INTs – and even an NU onside kick, yet despite the 4 FIRST HALF Penn State turnovers, NU was only up 23-14 at the half. The ‘Cats couldn’t put the JoePas away and with 1:33 left and a 4th and 15 at their own 15, this was “it”. Yet, Robinson connected on a 20-yarder right down the middle to the PSU tight end. Then, with :51 left Robinson – on 3rd and 6 – got crushed as he released it but Derrick Williams had slipped behind our D and was off to the races for a TD that broke our hearts. Final score Penn State 34 NU 29.
1996 – The Streak Breaker
This was rare air for Northwestern. The ‘Cats were riding a 13-game Big Ten winning streak (yes, you read that right) and were #11 in the nation heading in to Happy Valley to face #15 Penn State. On a day where seemingly everything went wrong, Penn State absolutely crushed us 34-9 in the only Big Ten loss we would suffer in two consecutive seasons. I’ve erased most of this one from my memory it was so painful.