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B1G Times: Top moments from Penn State's first quarter-century in the Big Ten

by on August 31, 2017 1:37 PM

It’s a milestone many Penn State fans probably don’t care to recognize.

The 2017 football season is the 25th campaign for the Nittany Lions as members of the Big Ten.

Nittany Nation doesn’t exactly brag about or show a lot of love for its conference. Most likely because the conference, even from the start, hasn’t exactly been all loving and supportive of the school that became its 11th member in the early 1990s.

Still, the Lions have won four Big Ten titles and have played many memorable games and enjoyed many memorable moments during the past 24 seasons — and had a few games that they would like to forget. Here is one person’s humble opinion of the top 10 moments for Penn State football beginning with its first Big Ten season in 1993. 

No. 1: A Walk to Remember.

Since Penn State prides itself on not just being a “football school,” it’s fitting that the top moment isn’t about a game. Less than one year after he suffered a spine fracture that could cause him to be paralyzed for the rest of his life, Adam Taliaferro walked onto the field of the newly expanded Beaver Stadium prior to the Lions’ 2001 opener against Miami and showed the more than 109,000 in attendance and a national-television audience his heart and courage.

A season earlier, Taliaferro was a freshman defensive back for the Nittany Lions. In the final minutes of what ended up being a 45-6 loss to Ohio State in Columbus, he went in to tackle Ohio State tailback Jerry Westbrooks. Taliaferro’s head snapped backward after hitting Westbrooks’s knee. He remained

on the field motionless.

“I remember waking up on the ground and trying to get up and there was nothing there,” Taliaferro said in a 2011 interview with Town&Gown. “There was no pain or anything. I was just numb from the neck down. I had no idea what was going on.”

He underwent cervical fusion surgery, and a few weeks later he could move one of his toes on command. It was the first sign that he could recover from the injury.  On September 1, 2001, Taliaferro walked out of Beaver Stadium’s south end zone tunnel with a slight limp — but he was walking, and he even ran a little to the middle of the field.

“There were so many people pulling for me and praying for me,” he said in 2011. “My recovery, it wasn’t a one-person thing — it was a team effort.”

No. 2: The Comeback is Complete.

The 2016 Big Ten Championship game win over Wisconsin receives a ranking higher than the other conference

titles, including an undefeated season, for one simple reason: because of where the program had been just four seasons prior.

The 38-31 victory over the Badgers in Indianapolis put a stamp on the fact that Penn State had survived the sanctions handed down by the NCAA in 2012 as well as the penalties the Big Ten and commissioner Jim Delany dealt that same year because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Thanks to quarterback Trace McSorley’s 384 yards passing and four touchdowns, the Lions came back from a 28-7 deficit to win the title. The sweetest moment for Penn State fans — and another reason why this moment is ranked No. 2 — was watching Delany, with a chorus of boos raining down on him from the fans inside Lucas Oil Stadium, hand the Big Ten Championship Trophy over to head coach James Franklin.

No. 3: A Rose Like No Other.

The Nittany Lions, in just their second season in the Big Ten, capped a perfect 12-0 season in 1994 with a 38-20 Rose Bowl win over Oregon. While the win ultimately didn’t give Penn State a share of the national title, it gave fans one more memorable game and moment for, perhaps, the greatest team in program history.

The Lions’ offense, which averaged nearly 48 points per game, scored on its first play when Ki-Jana Carter ran 83 yards for a touchdown. Carter rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns in the game.

Oregon kept the game close and tied Penn State at 14-14 late in the third quarter. The Lions scored the next 24 points to pull away. After the game, head coach Joe Paterno said, “We proved to everyone in the country we’re certainly worthy to be national champion as much as anyone else.”

No. 4: Rallying Nittany Nation. 

Where others walked away or crumbled in the wake of the NCAA sanctions imposed in July 2012, it was the likes of Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti who demonstrated to everyone what real leadership looks like. 

On the day NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the unprecedented penalties against Penn State, Zordich and Mauti, two senior members of the 2012 team, stood in front of several of their teammates and spoke from their hearts for two minutes before the media.

“We have the ability to fight not just for a team, not just a program, but an entire university. We’re going to embrace this opportunity,” Zordich said. 

Mauti added, “This program wasn’t built by one man, and this program sure as hell isn’t going to get torn down by one man.” It was a definitive statement to Emmert and the nation that Penn State wasn’t going anywhere. At the end of the speech, Zordich said, “I’m personally calling out every member of Nittany Nation … please come support us. We need you just as much as you need us. Together, we’ll get through this to the end.”

No. 5: Signature Win

Through James Franklin’s first 2½ seasons as head coach of the Nittany Lions, he didn’t have a “signature win,” according to some fans and experts. That all changed on October 22, 2016.

Trailing 21-7 in the fourth quarter against undefeated and No. 2-ranked Ohio State, the Lions scored 17 unanswered points to produce one of the biggest wins in program history — a 24-21 upset over the Buckeyes.

The winning points came when Marcus Allen blocked a 45-yard field-goal attempt by Ohio State’s Tyler Durbin. Grant Haley picked up the ball and ran 60 yards for a touchdown that gave Penn State a 24-21 lead with 4:27 left. The Lions hung on for the win, which helped propel them to the Big Ten Championship game.

No. 6: The Drive

Trailing Illinois 31-28 with six minutes remaining in the game, Penn State and its vaunted offense of 1994 had to go 96 yards against a formidable Illini defense to preserve its undefeated season.

The Lions had battled back all afternoon. They trailed 21-0 in the first quarter and 28-14 at halftime. In a story in the New York Times, tight end Kyle Brady said after the game, “We looked at each other and said, ‘If we deserve a national championship, if we deserve the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl, we have to do it right here.’”

Quarterback Kerry Collins completed all seven of his pass attempts on the final drive, and the Lions converted three third downs. Fullback Brian Milne ended the more than five-minute drive with a two-yard touchdown plunge, his third score of the game. 

The 35-31 victory clinched Penn State’s first Big Ten title and helped the Lions stay undefeated.

No. 7: “We’re Back.”

After four losing seasons in five years, Penn State started the 2005 season 5-0, but then came the real test. Sixth-ranked Ohio State visited Beaver Stadium for a prime-time game.

As soon as the Lions had defeated Minnesota a week earlier to go to 5-0 and set up the showdown, students camped outside Beaver Stadium and stayed all week. 

On a rainy night in front of a raucous crowd of more than 109,000, the Lions’ defense forced three turnovers. Freshman wide receiver Derrick Williams scored on a 13-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter to give Penn State a 7-3 lead. A few minutes later, Calvin Lowry intercepted a Troy Smith pass and returned the ball to the Ohio State 2. Three plays later, quarterback Michael Robinson ran into the end zone from one yard out to give Penn State a 14-3 lead.

Late in the game, with the Lions holding onto a 17-10 lead, defensive end Tamba Hali sacked Smith, forcing him to fumble. Scott Paxson recovered to all but seal the win.

“That was definitely one of the highlights of my career, one of the highlights of my life,” Robinson said in a story in the Patriot-News.

No. 8: Big Win in the Big House.

While Penn State has had a few heartbreaking losses at Michigan Stadium, it enjoyed an unforgettable win there when it first visited Ann Arbor as a member of the Big Ten in 1994.

The Lions were undefeated and No. 3 in the nation. Michigan was No. 5, with its lone loss coming a few weeks earlier to Colorado on Kordell Stewart’s Hail Mary touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook. Penn State controlled much of the first half, but led by just 16-3. Wolverines’ running back Tyrone Wheatley gave Michigan the lead with touchdown runs of 67 and 21 yards in the third quarter. 

The game was tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter, when Collins and the Penn State offense went 55 yards for the winning score. On third-and-11, Collins completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bobby Engram to give the Lions the lead with just under three minutes left. 

Cornerback Brian Miller intercepted Wolverine quarterback Todd Collins’s pass with 1:26 remaining to end Michigan’s final drive.

Penn State became the top-ranked team in the country after the win.

“It’s been a while since Penn State has won a very big ball game,” Kerry Collins said after the game in a story in the Los Angeles Times. “We needed that to get us back into the elite in the country.”

No 9: Topping the Bear.

Heading into the 2001 season, Paterno needed just two wins to become the winningest coach in major college football, breaking Paul “Bear” Bryant’s all-time victory total of 323.

Penn State, however, started the season 0-4. But after a come-from-behind win at Northwestern, the Lions returned home to play Ohio State with a chance to give Paterno the win he needed to break the record.

With the Buckeyes leading 27-9 in the third quarter, it appeared as if Paterno would have to wait at least one more week. Quarterback Zack Mills, who a few plays earlier threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown to give Ohio State its 18-point lead, ran 69 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly Penn State had momentum.

The Lions scored 20 unanswered points and pulled out a 29-27 victory. Mills threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Eric McCoo on the first play of the fourth quarter for what ended up being the winning score.

Mills threw for 280 yards and ran for 138 on the day.

“You never think it’s going to be a big deal until it happens like this, with this many people,” Paterno said after the game. “It’s just hard to describe. But I’m a very, very lucky guy to be at an institution such as Penn State with all these fans.”

No. 10: 409.

The number has taken on an additional meaning over the past few years. But on October 29, 2011, in what ended up being the final game of his coaching career, Paterno became the winningest coach in all of Division I football, breaking former Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson’s record.

Penn State came back to defeat Illinois 10-7 on a snowy, windy afternoon in Beaver Stadium.

While the weather was bad, Penn State’s offense, as it had been for much of the season, was worse. Still, it came through in the final moments. 

The Lions trailed 7-3 when they took over at their own 20 with 3:05 remaining. Quarterback Matt McGloin completed four passes on the drive for 58 yards (he completed a total of nine passes for the game). Tailback Silas Redd scored on a three-yard run with 1:08 left to give the Lions the lead.

Illinois drove to the Penn State 25 to give kicker Derek Dimke a chance to tie the game with a 42-yard field goal on the game’s final play. In a remarkable scene, Penn State students moved from their seats to place themselves in the stands behind the goal post in the south end zone with the hopes of distracting Dimke. 

The kick hit the right upright, and Penn State won the game — and Paterno had win number 409.


Win in the Horseshoe. Penn State pulled out a 13-6 win over Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State to remain undefeated in October 2008.

Triple the Fun. The Lions needed three overtimes to finally beat Florida State, 26-23, in the 2006 Orange Bowl, capping an 11-1 season.

Comeback in East Lansing. Kerry Collins threw for 352 yards and the Lions came back from a 37-17 deficit to pull out a 38-37 win in East Lansing in November 1993.

Four-OT Thriller. Penn State knocked off previously unbeaten Michigan, 43-40, in four overtimes in 2013. Allen Robinson made one of the great catches in program history to set up the tying touchdown toward the end of regulation.

Win No. 400. In November 2010, the Lions came back from a 21-0 deficit to beat Northwestern, 35-21, and give head coach Joe Paterno his 400th career win.

LJ Goes for 2K. Larry Johnson rushed for 2,087 yards in 2002, going over the 2K mark with 279 yards in a home win over Michigan State in the regular-season finale.

Senior Day. The 2012 Penn State seniors will always be

remembered for the leadership they showed during the program’s toughest times. They went out on a high note, defeating Wisconsin, 24-21, in overtime on November 24 at Beaver Stadium.

Back to Bowls. With the NCAA sanctions lifted, Penn State returned to playing bowl games in 2014. The Lions defeated Boston College, 31-30, in overtime in the Pinstripe Bowl. Kicker Sam Ficken made a 45-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game, then converted the game-winning extra point in overtime.

Revenge for 1994. Sure it was eight years after the 1994 season when Nebraska was voted national champs over Penn State, but a record crowd at Beaver Stadium still loved seeing the Lions whip the Cornhuskers, 40-7.

Beating the Buckeyes. A forgotten classic. The Lions came back from 27-17 down late in the third quarter to beat Ohio State, 31-27, in October 1997 at Beaver Stadium. Curtis Enis rushed for 211 yards. Combined with the Florida Gators losing that same day, the Lions took over the top spot in the national rankings.

Goal Line Stand in Bloomington. Penn State entered the November 2004 game against Indiana on a six-game losing streak. Leading 2216, the Lions’ defense stopped Indiana four straight plays at the goal line and pulled out a 22-18 win. The victory was credited as a turning point for the program, leading to the Big Ten title season in 2005.

LaVar Leap. In a 1998 game against Illinois, linebacker LaVar Arrington leaped over the offensive line as the ball was snapped and stopped Illini fullback Elmer Hickman on a fourth-and-1 play.

Wild Win Over the Wildcats. The Lions looked as if they would lose their Big Ten opener in 2005, but quarterback Michael Robinson lobbed a 36-yard touchdown to Derrick Williams with 51 seconds remaining to give Penn State a 34-29 win.

Upset in Madison. At 6-5, the Lions were heavy underdogs to the 9-2 Wisconsin Badgers in November 2013. But Christian Hackenberg threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Lions to a 31-24 upset win.

The First. Can’t forget about the game that started it all. Penn State opened its first Big Ten season by defeating Minnesota, 38-20, on September 4, 1993, at Beaver Stadium.


End of a Dream — and Aftershocks. Penn State entered the 1999 season with dreams of a national title, and after eight games, the Lions were undefeated and ranked No. 2. Then Minnesota came to town and pulled out one of the more shocking upsets in Beaver Stadium history. Freshman Minnesota kicker Dan Nystrom booted a 32-yard field goal on the game’s final play to give the Gophers a 24-23 win. The Lions would lose the last two games of the regular season, and then they went through four losing seasons in five years before the 2005 Big Ten title team.

Adding Time. Speaking of the 2005 team. The lone loss that season came in Ann Arbor. The Lions had taken a 25-21 lead with 53 seconds remaining. Michigan drove down the field, the referees, inexplicably, added a few seconds to the clock, and on the game’s final play, Wolverine quarterback Chad Henne threw a 10yard touchdown to Mario Manningham. The dreams of an undefeated season and possible national title run were over.

Another Undefeated Season Ends. Similar to 2005, the 2008 Lions were coming off a big win over Ohio State and were rising in the rankings when they stubbed their toe. Penn State was 9-0 and ranked No. 3 when it traveled to Iowa. The Lions led 23-14 going into the fourth quarter. Iowa pulled to within 23-21 midway through the quarter and won the game on Hawkeye kicker Daniel Murray’s 31-yard field goal with one second left.

6-4. The score alone tells most Penn State fans all they need to know. The 2004 Lions lost their fourth consecutive game as they fell to Iowa, 6-4. The Hawkeyes even conceded the second safety, knowing the Lions’ offense had no chance of scoring. The 6-4 score also serves as a bad reminder of the early 2000 Penn State teams that suffered four losing seasons in five years.

Will They Win A Game? The Lions, of course, entered the 2012 season with the cloud of the Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions hanging over them. Under first-year head coach Bill O’Brien, the Lions lost their opener to Ohio, 24-14. The next week, they traveled to Virginia. The Cavaliers took a 17-16 lead with 1:28 remaining. The Lions drove to the Virginia 25 to give kicker Sam Ficken a 42-yard field-goal attempt to win the game on the final play. Ficken missed his fourth field goal of the game, and the Lions fell to 0-2. Many saw the season, and the program, headed toward a collapse. But, of course, the Lions won their next five games and finished 2012 at 7-5. And Ficken became a kicker the team could count on in the clutch and was even a hero in several games during his career.

David Pencek is communications manager for Schlow Centre Region Library. He covered Penn State football for nearly 10 years for various newspapers.


David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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