There have always been memorable twists and turns to the Penn State – Northwestern series. Heretofore, the most unforgettable moment was in 2005 when Michael Robinson completed a 4th-and-15 pass to Isaac Smolko, which provided the spark that would eventually take the Nittany Lions to the Orange Bowl.
“We actually felt like we were winning the game going in at halftime. We were pumped up, we were ready to go.” —Matt McGloin
Few thought that that magical moment would be eclipsed an another Northwestern game, particularly this season with this team, a hobbled and underachieving bunch that had already lost three games. Doubtless, many switched off this game when Northwestern jumped off to a big lead. But persistence paid off on this November 6th in Beaver Stadium. Penn State fans will remember this game for the rest of their lives.
It was a win, of course. Penn State (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) beat Northwestern (6-3, 2-3) 35-21 to become bowl eligible. It was Joe Paterno’s 400th career victory and one of the greatest comebacks in Penn State history. This is the story of how it unfolded at The Cave.
On Saturday morning, Artificially Sweetened read my preview of the game. Suddenly, I heard her shriek, “Bolden’s going to start? Why?”
I could only offer that he had won the starting job at the beginning of the season and he had apparently recovered from the concussion suffered two weeks ago. Plus, the coaches seem to regard him as the guy to lead the Nittany Lions for the next four years.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said AS. “McGloin won the Michigan game. He should be starting.”
I couldn’t argue with that. In fact, I had wished that the PSU brain trust would have seen it that way, too.
“They don’t want to destroy Bolden’s self-confidence,” I responded feebly. “He needs to get back up on that horse and get some game reps.”
AS seemed disgusted. She likes McGloin’s style. So do I.
“By the way,” she said, “I disagree with you. We’re going to win.”
With that, this Turkey offered a “Harrumph!”, asserting that I knew best and that the Lions would be returning to pre-Michigan form for oh, so many reasons. I was convinced that NWU would get an early lead and that the uninspired play of Bolden, the O-Line, Royster, and the no-nothing defense would all conspire against the possibility of a Penn State win. No way could AS ever be wise enough to outanalyze the Supreme Turkey.
We prepared The Cave for the arrival of our guests without another word about the game. Qué sería sería. (What would be would be.)
It was a low-energy day in The Cave. Two of the guests would be arriving late and I forgot to put out all my Penn State tchotchkes. (I have a ball autographed by Joe Paterno, a lucky cardboard cut-out of a much younger Paterno, some pennants and stuffed Nittany Lions, etc.) I have been fighting a cold and a cough, so I’m dragging anyhow. As such, the 3:30 kickoff felt like a nooner. El Pavo Grande de Nittany settled into his LaZboy Mark McGwire model recliner and hoped it wouldn’t be too embarrassing.
You all know what happened. The Lions came out flat and the defense came out porous. Northwestern quickly drove down the field for its first TD before we had even switched from the ridiculous Illinois-Michigan game. It appeared that it would be a banner day for Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa, who would be a one-man wrecking crew running all over the PSU no-nothing defense.
The Lions lost momentum when on the next series they tried for a fourth down conversion at the Wildcats’ 33, where Evan Royster ran into a brick wall. After a three-and-out by Northwestern, the Lions tried again. Thanks to a couple of long runs by Stephfon Green and Silas Redd, they managed to drive to the NWU 30. On third-and-eleven, Rob Bolden dropped back to pass and was pursued by Hunter Bates. He tried to scramble, but Bates had radar lock on him. Instead of eating the ball and taking the sack, which would have lost 18 yards, Bolden thought about getting rid of the ball, and in doing so, coughed it up and lost it to Bates at the NWU 48.
Post concussion syndrome or just sloppy play? Let’s split the difference and call it a rookie mistake.
The ‘Cats drove down to the PSU 10 and then missed the field goal attempt. Still 7-0 as the first quarter wound down.
Zbeard opined that Bolden should be replaced by McGloin. I said something about that destroying his confidence, but I wanted McGloin in there, too. AS sure as hell did, too, I know that.
We all got our wish at :28 of the first quarter. McGloin’s first drive was unsuccessful. A putrid Anthony Fera punt gave the Wildcats great field position, on which Persa capitalized with another touchdown. 14-0.
The teams traded punts and then Collin Wagner tried a long field goal, which failed, giving the ball to Northwestern at their own 34. Persa completed a 41 yard pass to Jeremy Ebert, the Big Ten’s leading pass receiver, and marched it into the end zone yet again. 21-0.
Could anyone see what was coming? All ye of no faith believe ye in miracles when ye see them! Could Penn State—this Penn State team—come back from 21 points down with a shaky offense and no defense? Hell, no! You were thinking the same thing, too, weren’t you?
Yet, with 50 seconds left in the first half, McGloin suddenly started looking like John Elway back there, taking charge and leading the Lions on a 91 yard drive for the first Penn State touchdown. I had to pause the DVR just before the TD when Jackstand and his brother finally arrived. They had family business to attend to but they managed to reach the Cave at just the right time. The Nittany Lions went into the locker room with momentum on their side and this Turkey and AS went into the kitchen to cook for the Cave denizens. Still, no one believed there was any hope for the Lions. Good food would provide some comfort.
You need to know that the menu was grilled coho salmon with lemon/butter/caper sauce; spinach salad with orange mustard vinaigrette dressing, mandarin oranges, and warm goat cheese; and finally, my Jewish Italian baked zucchini. Jackstand brought an apple pie and some ice cream for dessert. Zbeard, of course, was in charge of alcohol. No turkey was on the menu. Praise the Lord.
Back to the game, the momentum was on Penn State’s side coming out of the locker room. McGloin directed yet another masterful drive, this one 84 yards, using all his weapons, both aerial and terrestrial. When I say all his weapons, I mean all, including a capstone touchdown pass to converted lineman Nate Cadogan, brother of former Nittany Lion tackle Gerald Cadogan, playing tight end. The game was now within reach at 21-14. This one propelled the Beaver Stadium crowd of over 104,000 back into the fray.
Now it was Northwestern playing sphincterball in the face of the sudden advantage for the home team. Pat Fitzgerald’s countenance was contorted as he completed his Kegels, and the Wildcats went three-and-out. A Brandon Williams punt gave PSU decent field position at their own 37. Two passes from McGloin to Derek Moye were all that were required to score from there. Game tied at 21!
Another Wildcat three-and-out. Was this the no-nothing PSU defense out there? Suddenly, Persa couldn’t move the ball. It seemed likely to this Turkey that the energy of the offense created by the enthusiasm of Matt McGloin’s field generalship and the noise of the Beaver Stadium crowd had rubbed off on the defense. That was the only explanation for it. We hadn’t seen anything like this all year. Michael Mauti was all over the field and would wind up with 11 tackles.
This was followed by another Penn State score. Silas Redd did the honors from four yards out. The Nittany Lions had a lead they would never relinquish. 28-21.
After yet another three-and-out by the hapless ‘Cats, Penn State scored again for the final time, this one on a 13 yard swing pass to Evan Royster. Thirty-five unanswered points coming back from 21 points in the hole. Good show, guys!
Northwestern threatened once after that, but couldn’t score from the PSU 9. Final score, PSU 35, Northwestern 21.
McGloin threw four touchdown passes in the course of completing 18 out of 29 passes for 225 yards. He was not intercepted.
Well, the Turkey was wrong and Artificially Sweetened was right. I have a new nickname for Matt McGloin: The Answer. (Sorry, Allen Iverson. You might have been The Answer at one time in the NBA, but you ain’t nobody’s answer now!) McGloin adds energy and enthusiasm to the Penn State huddle. His self-confidence shows in his play and it rubs off on teammates. Hell, it even rubbed off on the defense. You know how all year long I’ve been saying that this team lacks leadership? Well, mateys, we’ve found it. McGloin is The Answer. He is a natural leader.
This isn’t just my opinion. Senior running back Evan Royster, Penn State’s all-time leading rusher, feels the same.
“He really brings a calmness to the huddle,” said Royster. “He can kind of come in there and tell a joke or something like that and kind of relax people. That helps. There’s people being tense, and it really helps loosen up and kind of gets ’em in a flow.”
He is The Answer.
Not since Kerry Collins in 1994 in the fabled Illinois game that included “The Drive” has Penn State come back from a 21 point deficit. And not since the Franco Harris/Lydell Mitchell days 40-some years ago have two Penn State players run for over 130 yards each in a game. Royster had 134 and freshman sensation Silas Redd had 131. The amazing effort juiced all in Beaver Stadium with energy, but the coup de grace was that head coach Joe Paterno notched his 400th career win when it seemed in the first half that it wouldn’t happen at least for another couple of weeks—or perhaps at all this season.
Paterno was carried off the field and was uncharacteristically moved in more than just that sense. With regard to why he’s stayed around so long, he gave a sweeping wave to Beaver Stadium, whose crowd had stayed put after the game to celebrate his milestone, one which will never be equaled. “Look around!” he said. “Just look around!” A fitting end to a celebration of an achievement earned in a fitting manner. “Now that the celebration is over,” Joe added, “let’s go beat Ohio State!”
Even my fellow hippie friend (that’s hip replacement, not communes, peace signs, and bongs) from Ottawa watched this game, eh? Lizard, a professor of nursing, offered the following.
So why didn’t they throw cold H2O over Paterno’s head after the 400th win. Would it have stopped his heart?
I must say watching these college games takes me back to my youth which as we know is wasted on the young!
Well, Lizard, the tradition started by Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants calls for Gatorade, not water, but I think that the players might have thought twice about dousing an 84 year-old guy with iced electrolyte juice on a 35 degree day. But great minds think alike. Toward the end of the game I wondered aloud whether the dousing would be attempted. In my semi-inebriated state I was thinking that if someone was stupid enough to do it, I’d personally go up there and shoot the bastard(s).
So this morning I asked AS if she thought the Nittany Lions would beat the Buckeyes next week.
“No! Not without a defense,” she replied, “even if they have the sense to play McGloin.”
I’ll be back later in the week with a preview of the big Ohio State game, and I might even take AS’s sentiments into account this time.