Irony has marked Joe Paterno’s career at Penn State in so many ways.
Numerous undefeated seasons, yet few national titles. Incredible football accomplishments, yet a relentless focus on academics. A career marked by integrity and honor, yet a retirement marred by scandal.
Another irony is that some of Joe’s greatest personal achievements came in his worst seasons. He passed the mystical 400-win mark in a 7-6 season (2010); he passed Eddie Robinson for all-time Division 1 wins (409) in the season where Penn State’s administration pushed him out.
But the first record Joe needed to get was the major college football record: Paul “Bear” Bryant’s 323 career victory mark. The win normally would have happened in 2000, but a losing season—and then a terrible start to 2001, meant that the record still loomed.
After a dramatic win over Northwestern a week earlier, No. 323 and a tie with Bryant had finally arrived; when would the record be entirely Paterno’s? Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State and their rookie coach Jim Tressel came to town the following week, and a fan base hungry for a victory—any victory—knew that the next victory would be one for the history books, even if the 2001 season were one to forget.
By the time Pittsburgh dropped off of Penn State’s schedule in 2001, PSU and OSU had played over a dozen times and four of those contests determined the Big Ten championship. One rivalry may have died, but a new one was being solidified.
After firing John Cooper, Ohio State surprisingly picked up a former assistant coach (under Earle Bruce) and a Division 1-AA legend at Youngstown State, Jim Tressel, over numerous bigger coaching names. Tressel’s four titles at Youngstown State between 1991 and 1997 captured Ohio State’s imagination, even though his star player (QB Ray Isaac) took enormous benefits and YSU received probation and three-vacated titles under Tressel’s watch. Ohio State either believed in Tressel’s improbable innocence or were blinded by their desire to win. When Tressel promised a win over Michigan shortly after he was hired, the Buckeye nation believed they had their new Moses.
Tressel’s first squad started off in the top 25 but lost to highly-touted UCLA in Los Angeles and again to a mediocre Wisconsin team at home (Ohio Stadium is commonly known as “the Horseshoe” due to its shape). Sitting at 2-1 in Big Ten play, however, meant that Ohio State could still straighten out their season and contend for the league title. A win in Happy Valley would be the first step.
Penn State started off 2001 with questions at quarterback and little time to answer them. Matt Senneca seemed the logical choice to follow in the disappointing footsteps of Rashard Casey. And disappoint he did. After being overmatched by eventual national champion Miami in week one and losing to Wisconsin the next week, Mills began seeing more and more playing time. The offense responded to Mills, even though they lost at Iowa and against top-20 Michigan in Happy Valley. Paterno had never started 0-4 in his career, and tensions ran high in State College.
The Lions’ next game wasn’t in State College though; it was in Evanston to play a ranked Northwestern team. Penn State trailed until late in the fourth quarter when Robbie Gould’s 24-yard field goal put PSU up 31-28. Northwestern needed less than two minutes to regain the lead with a 1-yard touchdown run, leaving Penn State just 2:03 to work a miracle. Senneca was concussed on the final drive, leaving backup Mills to deftly lead the Lions the last 45 yards, finally hitting Eric McCoo on a 4-yard TD pass on 1st and goal with :22 remaining. Penn State had its first win of 2001; Paterno had his 323rd.
Most of Paterno’s victories may have come while Penn State was an independent, but now they were in the Big Ten. He could tie the record against anybody in the Big Ten. But to be the best—to gain sole possession of the major college football win record—he’d have to beat the Big Ten’s best. College football titan Ohio State was the perfect antagonist on October 27, 2001.
Penn State received the first kickoff and—in typical Joe Paterno fashion—started the shaky Matt Senneca. Perhaps still woozy from his concussion, Senneca struggled on the first drive. Ohio State wasted no time when they gained possession, as
QB Steve Bellisari threw a 66-yard post to WR Michael Jenkins behind the secondary.
Hoping to tie the game, Penn State inserted Mills on its second series. The results were immediate. Bryant Johnson made a leaping catch for 30-yards, and then Mills got annihilated on an option pitch but RB Larry Johnson tallied 31-yard on the rush. The team ran out of explosions inside the 10 though and had to settle for a 23-yard field goal from true freshman Robbie Gould
The PSU defense held strong on the next series, but a boomng punt put PSU inside their own 10. Off to a fantastic start, Mills was 5 for 5 passing when he hit Eric McCoo on a 35-yard touch pass. The drive then stalled outside the red zone, but Gould hit his career-long field goal of 46 to bring PSU within 1.
DE Michael Haynes’s 3rd-down sack ended Ohio State’s next drive, and Penn State went for broke on its next offensive play. The young Mills threw up a prayer under pressure—a common problem for the exciting quarterback—that was picked off by LB Cie Grant and returned into PSU territory. Bellisari scrambled for 18 yards, but the Buckeyes mustered little else. Tressel stayed conservative on 4th and 1, and Mike Nugent drilled a 28-yard field goal to give OSU a 10-6 early in the second quarter.
Penn State then put together a solid drive—featuring big completions to TE John Gilmore and Bryant Johnson—which was capped off by another Robbie Gould 46-yarder, a missile into the wind that would’ve gone in from 56 yards away.
OSU had the last possession of the first half, and Bellisari hit Jenkins again on a devastating post route for 68 yards to the PSU 2. The Nittany Lions defense morphed into a brick wall though and kept OSU from a touchdown. The short field goal by Nugent was good for a 13-9 Buckeye lead at the half.
Penn State controlled time of possession in the first half, but the stat was misleading because of OSU’s two huge pass plays and PSU’s two huge turnovers. The third quarter just continued both trends. On the second play for Ohio State, Jonathan Wells scooted through the middle of the defense for a 65-yard touchdown. In just 57 seconds, the Buckeyes took a commanding 20-9 lead. Penn State continued the turnover trend a few plays into their first drive; WR Eddie Drummond let a wide-open reception bounce off his helmet and into the hands of OSU’s Derek Ross for a 45-yard touchdown return. The boo birds came out in Beaver Stadium as the 1-4 Lions fell behind 27-9.
Since the game’s first series, Senneca watched Mills carry the team on his shoulders. PSU’s next drive featured a career highlight for Mills, the kind that Senneca never could perform. On an option run to the short side of the field, Mills saw a gap and leapt over his own downed lineman five yards down the field. The jump threw the safety’s timing off, allowing Mills to bounce off of his tackle towards the sideline. From there, Mills won a footrace 69 yards for the score. The two-point conversion failed, but Mills’ touchdown brought the sunshine out in Happy Valley (literally) and brightened PSU’s hopes for the day.
After a Lydell Ross fumble in Penn State territory, Penn State kept the momentum rolling. Mills rolled left and hit Bryant Johnson on a diving 33-yard reception. One play later, Mills looked right and threw to the left, finding another Johnson—Tony, this time—just past the pylon for a 26-yard score. PSU still trailed 27-22, but in three plays, Mills had taken the Lions 124 yards and tallied 13 points.
Shawn Mayer and Anthony Adams notched a blindside sack on Bellisari to force a Buckeye punt on the next series. Penn State moved the ball again, and on the first play of the fourth quarter, Mills mustered more of his magic. The shotgun snap sailing over his head, Mills picked it up on the bounce and ran away from the defenders to his left. Wide open in the flat was FB R.J. Luke, and Mills calmly hit him. Luke turned and ran thirty yards down the sideline. The next shotgun snap was perfect, and the freshman signal caller led Eric McCoo perfectly on a wheel route for a 15-yard touchdown. After giving up two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the second half, Penn State scored three of their own in the next ten—29-27 Penn State with a whole fourth quarter to play.
Late in the fourth quarter, Ohio State rushed down the field with impressive catches by WR Jenkins, and all of Beaver Stadium was holding its breath over the narrow 2-point lead. On the PSU 32, an offsides call on PSU negated a second Israel interception and kept the Buckeyes moving. Michael Haynes stormed Bellisari again for a key sack, and the defense forced an Ohio State field goal. Freshman (and future NFL-er) Nugent booted the 35-yard kick with a low trajectory, and DB Bryan Scott elevated for the game-saving block. Penn State had to hold the lead for just 2:55 more.
Larry Johnson rushed for one first down, and then on the next third down, Mills scrambled for 35 yards and stayed in bounds at the end of the play. Tressel’s timeouts were gone, so three rushing plays later, Gatorade showered down on Joe Paterno as he celebrated the momentous victory—win number 324 of his career. After an emotional embrace between Joe and wife Sue at midfield, players carried their leader from the field, and Penn State unveiled a 7-foot bronze statue of Paterno to commemorate the milestone. A bitter season was sweetened by a record-setting Saturday in Happy Valley.
The Rest of the Story
Penn State looked like a different team once Mills assumed the reins. They won three of their last five (including a dramatic comeback in East Lansing against Michigan State), only losing heartbreakers at Illinois (the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl rep this season) and at Virginia (on a controversial last-minute fumble call) and narrowly missing a bowl opportunity.
In addition to the return of the playmaking freshman quarterback, a majority of main contributors returned for Penn State in 2002, like Michael Haynes, Anthony Adams, and Jimmy Kennedy on defense and Larry Johnson, Bryant Johnson, and Tony Johnson on offense. FB Omar Easy would be missed, as he was drafted in the fourth round and went on to play four seasons in the NFL. Also, TE John Gilmore was taken in the 6th round of the 2002 draft, going on to play in the professional ranks for over a decade. Penn State would start off 2002 in the top 25 and have renewed hopes of glory.
Ohio State lost far more off their 2001 team; eight players were drafted from Tressel’s first squad. Enough key components returned in 2002 to warrant a No. 13 pre-season ranking, but few saw the Bucks as national championship contenders. But, besides inheriting a talented group from his predecessor Cooper, Tressel chose a superb game-manager as his starting quarterback (Craig Krenzel) and secured a blue-chip freshman running back (Maurice Clarett).
They climbed their way up the polls and found some luck along the way. Narrow wins against average Cincinnati and Northwestern teams and four other close victories (over Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State, and Michigan) earned Ohio State the nickname the “Luckeyes” as they pushed on towards a championship game appearance. The perceived “luck” continued in the championship game against heavily-favored Miami. In the first overtime, Ohio State seemed to have lost the game on an incompletion, when a late, pass interference flag came out and gave the Buckeyes 1st and goal from the two. They scored and forced a second overtime. Clarett then scored a five-yard run to put OSU up 31-24, and Miami—a virtual NFL team playing in the NCAA—couldn’t find the end zone, surrendering a potential back-to-back title run to Tressel’s improbable heroes.
Success may have been Tressel’s after 2002, but the man on the other side of the field from Tressel in 2001 gave him a blueprint for success with honor; Paterno never fell under NCAA investigation for academic, financial, or recruiting illegalities in all his years of coaching. Yet even while he did things the right way, without any stigma as a cheater, Paterno found his name at the top of all the coaching record books.
The 22-part "The Games of Our Lives" series is featured every week on the Nittany Lions Den. Excerpts are taken from the forthcoming book, Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy (Father's Press, summer 2012).