Superman has kryptonite. Achilles had his heel. Joe Paterno, well, he had Alabama’s Bear Bryant and then Michigan’s Lloyd Carr.
For over a decade, Penn State found ways to lose time and time again against Michigan. Regardless of whether Penn State had a better team (like in ’99, ’02, and ‘07), the ball always seemed to bounce the wrong way or officials always seemed to make a questionable momentum-changing call when Michigan lined up across the ball. Carr’s nine-game streak against Penn State stretched from 1997 (also the year of his only national championship—a shared one, at that) to his retirement in 2007.
In 2008, Carr was gone, but the question remained: would the Michigan mojo continue into the Rich Rodriguez era? On paper, it seemed like nothing short of a supernatural curse or a worldwide conspiracy could tip the scales in Michigan’s favor in 2008. They won just twice in their first six, while Penn State was off to its best start since 1999.
The first half’s script was nightmarishly familiar, but Penn State awoke from its slumber to erase a decade of heartache and to start its own triumphant streak over the Wolverines.
A few years after Joe Paterno took over in State College, Michigan hired a legend of its own—Bo Schembechler. Schembechler’s success against his mentor Woody Hayes of Ohio State during the “Ten Year War” made him popular immediately. Schembechler, who received his Master’s degree from OSU, won or shared thirteen Big Ten titles in his 21 seasons at the helm, relying on aggressive defenses, sound fundamentals, and punishing rushing attacks. Quizzically, his regular season success didn’t translate into the post-season, winning just five times in seventeen tries and just two Rose Bowls out of ten. Schembechler never won a national title.
Successor Gary Moeller won two Big Ten titles (one with Heisman-winning speedster Desmond Howard in 1991), but his tenure ended with an embarrassing off-field incident and two down seasons on the field (concurrent with Penn State joining the Big Ten). His fellow Schembechler protégé, Lloyd Carr, took over in 1995. After losing his first two to Penn State, he put together an undefeated team in 1997 (led by the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, Charles Woodson) and was given a share of the national title with Nebraska (unlike Penn State in 1994).
Despite all of Carr’s success on the field against Penn State, his greatest coup may have been landing Pennsylvania high school quarterback Chad Henne. Paterno had hoped that the Wilson High player would follow in former Wilson graduate Kerry Collins’ footsteps to Penn State and lead him to another undefeated season. Henne , however, saw Michigan’s track record with sending quarterbacks to the NFL (Jim Harbaugh, Todd Collins, Tom Brady, Drew Henson, to name a few) and spurned the home school. Not only was Henne ready to start at Michigan from day one in 2004, he also beat Penn State three times (most painfully in 2005 when his touchdown pass on the game’s final play destroyed the Nittany Lions’ undefeated season).
After failing to get a commitment from Henne, Penn State scrambled to find a quarterback recruit. They eventually landed five, most notably five-star prospect Anthony Morelli who had originally committed to Pittsburgh. Morelli had the most potential of the five Penn State signed, but his failure to develop was partially to blame for Penn State’s struggles in 2006 and 2007. While Henne was leading Michigan to two Rose Bowls and was becoming a second-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins, Morelli staggered to two 9-4 seasons and became the target of Penn State fans’ frustrations.
Daryll Clark backed up Morelli in 2006 and 2007 (after spending a year at prep school out of high school) but beat out blue-chip underclassman Pat Devlin in fall of 2008 for the starting spot. The offense under Clark was electric.
Victories over non-BCS schools Coastal Carolina and Temple (66-10 and 45-3 final scores) were expected, but demolitions of solid programs Oregon State and Syracuse (45-14 and 55-13) were unexpected results on the non-conference schedule. Big Ten play started with convincing wins over No. 21 Illinois and at Purdue, but a 48-7 annihilation of No. 24 Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium caught the nation’s attention. The Lions springboarded to third in the nation following that game.
But all of that meant nothing to Penn State. All they cared about was beating Michigan.
The grudge match started off with a great kick return by Chaz Powell (to the PSU 35), but the good vibes ended quickly when a high snap sailed over Clark’s head for a 16-yard loss. Jeremy Boone’s punt flipped field position though, as he boomed a 52-yarder and put Michigan inside its 20. The starting point didn’t matter though. Michigan drove down the field unabated until they faced a 4th and 1 from the PSU 29. LB Navorro Bowman and DT Jared Odrick stopped Michigan RB Brandon Minor dead in his tracks, but he stayed on his feet and stumbled forward just far enough for a first down. Soon after, Minor leaped over the nation’s eighth-ranked defenders to a 5-yard touchdown. The six-plus-minute drive shocked the Beaver Stadium crowd, as did a 7-0 deficit.
A 20-yard jaunt by RB Evan Royster was all Penn State could muster on their next drive before QB Daryll Clark coughed up the ball on a blistering hit by LB John Thompson. Michigan’s second drive started on their own 45. Minor kept running downhill against Penn State, plowing forward for a 36-yard run on UM’s second play. In the red zone though, the Lion defense held and forced a 27-yard field goal by K.C. Lopata. Undefeated Penn State trailed 10-0 in the first quarter to their 2-4 nemesis.
Penn State’s offense emerged on the next drive, sparked by another long return by Powell to midfield. The first play, a pass to WR Derrick Williams, went for 8 yards; the second, a 44-yard explosion by Royster, put the Lions on the scoreboard.
PSU special teams player Mike Mauti blew up return man Sam McGuffie, but Michigan miraculously recovered the fumble, eager to see if they could score in their third drive as easily as they did in the first two. Penn State began to figure out the Michigan run game, but young QB Steven Threet used his arm to gain huge chunks of yardage, moving the ball 78 yards until Minor again found the end zone for a 1-yard score. The collective consciousness in Happy Valley worried, “Could we really lose to Michigan yet again?” The 17-7 deficit seemed to indicate that they could.
Penn State had a chance to take some momentum into the half when they took possession with 2:01 remaining. First down passes to WR Deon Butler and TE Mickey Shuler Jr. and a 13-yard run by Royster (giving him 111 yards on 10 carries in the first half) set up a 3-yard touchdown strike from Clark to WR Jordan Norwood. Trailing by 3 still seemed frighteningly unsettling for the Nittany Nation.
To start the 3rd quarter, Threet and Minor gashed Penn State for long first-down runs but eventually punted. Penn State put together a long drive that culminated in a 42-yard Kevin Kelly field goal (making 28 straight games for him with a field goal). The three points may have only tied the game at 17, but it continued the process of wearing down the Wolverine defense—a process that would become complete later in the 3rd.
Rodriguez pulled an odd move on Michigan’s next drive, replacing successful starting quarterback Threet with Nick Sheridan. Desiring to give equal time proved costly as Sheridan couldn’t handle the defensive line’s pressure or the student section’s noise. On 3rd and 20, Odrick took down Sheridan in the end zone and gave Penn State their first lead of the day, 19-17.
The fading Michigan defense then gave up a 25-yard reception by Butler and a 21-yard scoot by Royster. From there, Clark pushed it in from the 1 to give Penn State a two-score lead. The fears and struggles of a decade were being replaced by hope and excitement in Happy Valley.
Nate Stupar blocked punter Zoltan Mesko’s kick on the next drive, allowing PSU to begin on the Michigan 37. Penn State advanced the ball far enough to set up Kelly’s 32-yard field goal to start off the 4th quarter with a 29-17 lead.
Threet returned to the game, but momentum had flown from Michigan’s camp. DE Aaron Maybin made a blindside swipe of the ball and forced a fumble which was recovered by DT Abe Koroma. Penn State’s drive started on the Michigan 19 and surged to the 1 on an 18-yard Norwood reception. The burly quarterback punched it in behind a powerful, senior-laden offensive line for the score, as Penn State breathed a sigh of relief with a 36-17 scoreboard advantage.
Penn State added another field goal to the score on their next possession, and the bullish defense gave Michigan zero room to breathe. Backup QB Devlin took the helm on PSU’s final drive, finding RB Stephfon Green on a screen pass that he took 80 yards to the house. As Michigan’s downtrodden defense gave up one last score, the one which would officially end the decade-long streak of dominance by the Wolverines, Penn State enjoyed a 46-17 salve to heal years of pain.
The Rest of the Story
Penn State didn’t have much time to savor the momentous win over Michigan. The next opponent on their schedule was Ohio State in the Horseshoe.
ESPN’s GameDay crew broadcasted from the game (the fourth straight year they chose the OSU/PSU game), but neither Terrelle Pryor’s offense nor Clark’s could find success against the stellar defenses. A 6-3 Buckeye lead in the 4th quarter seemed solid, especially when Clark was knocked out of the game with a concussion. But inexperience ended up hurting Ohio State. Pryor coughed up the ball on a backfield tackle by safety Mark Rubin, and Penn State capitalized on the short field with the game’s only touchdown, a 1-yard sneak by replacement QB Devlin. Pryor would throw another interception late to seal the game for the Nittany Lions, 13-6 victors for the first time in Columbus since 1978.
All the emotions in the Michigan win and the victory in Columbus may have left the Lions drained when they went to cold Iowa City to face the 5-4 Hawkeyes. Second-ranked Penn State dominated time of possession (36 min.-24 min.) but couldn’t find the end zone enough to put away Iowa. With just a 23-21 lead late in the game, Penn State’s Clark overthrew Derrick Williams at the Iowa 15 and Iowa safety Tyler Sash made the easy catch. The normally stout Lion defense allowed the home team to drive into field goal range, where—with :01 left on the clock—Daniel Murray kicked a 31-yard field goal over the fingertips of athletic DE Aaron Maybin to crush undefeated Penn State’s national title dreams.
The team sleepwalked over Indiana the next week (a 34-7 win) but reemerged in vintage form for the Senior Day clash against No. 15 Michigan State. The offensive line’s four seniors paved the way for 557 yards of total offense and Clark’s career-high 341 yards passing yards with 4 touchdowns. On defense, Penn State held the NCAA’s third leading rusher, Javon Ringer, to just 42 yards. The 49-18 outburst notched Penn State its 800th all-time victory, making it just the sixth school to reach the mark (along with Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas, Nebraska, and Ohio State). By virtue of the tie-breaker over Ohio State (also 7-1 in the Big Ten), Penn State players paraded around the snowy Beaver Stadium with roses in their mouths; the Nittany Lions were headed to Pasadena for the second time in school history.
Their opponent in the Rose Bowl wasn’t just any Pac-10 foe; their opponent was a USC squad in the midst of a dynasty. Since Pete Carroll’s arrival in 2001, USC had finished in the top 5 every year from 2002 until 2008.
By 2008, voters had begun to fatigue of the theme of USC’s greatness. The week after they wowed the country with a bootstomping of Ohio State, they traveled to Oregon State and lost. It would be their only loss, but in a year when three Big 12 teams and their dynamic offenses (Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech) and two SEC powerhouses (Alabama and Florida) stole the stage while also losing just one game, USC was left on the outside looking in. In most seasons (like 2007 when only one major team had one loss or less), Penn State and USC were national championship caliber squads. In 2008, No. 6 Penn State played No. 4 USC in the Rose Bowl, far from title game contention.
Penn State fans have seen dozens of slow starts in bowl games, only to be remedied at halftime on the way to a thrilling comeback victory. A slow start against a team of USC’s caliber though was fatal. Penn State made costly first-half errors in the Rose Bowl (momentum-killing penalties by WR Deon Butler and DE Aaron Maybin and a fumble by RB Stephfon Green) and couldn’t stop a second quarter aerial attack by QB Mark Sanchez. The Lions were looking no better than every other Big Ten team that was pulverized during the Carroll era, trailing at half 31-7.
Penn State did make adjustments though and outplayed USC’s showboating and classless roster filled with future NFL stars. But the 24-0 second quarter couldn’t be overcome, and the gutsy Lions fell 38-24 to the Trojans, finishing the season at 11-2 and No. 8 in the country.
Michigan won just one more game after the Penn State drubbing, finishing an appalling 3-9. The Maize and Blue thought Rodriguez had turned the corner the following season when he started out 4-0 but close losses to Michigan State and Iowa had them reeling when Penn State came to Ann Arbor. The 5-2 Wolverines lost to Penn State by the score of 35-10 (the Lions’ first win there since 1996) and failed to win another game or reach a bowl.
Rodriguez did make it to a bowl the next season (a landslide 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl), but the Michigan Men had seen enough. A former Michigan assistant (’95-’02) and head coach at Ball State and San Diego State, Brady Hoke, succeeded Rodriguez. Accompanied by a strong coaching staff, Hoke’s tenure at Michigan started off strong in 2011 with a win over Ohio State (UM’s first since 2003) and a BCS bowl win (the Sugar over Virginia Tech).
Penn State recorded another victory over Michigan in 2010 before the Wolverines rotated off of their schedule in 2011. The three-game winning streak leaves a sweet taste in Penn State’s mouth, almost sweet enough to erase the bitterness of the decade of futility. The curse is dead, and the only thing that could be even more satisfying for Nittany Lions fans is a decade-long streak of their own.
Maybe Penn State can be Michigan’s kryptonite for a while.
The 22-part "The Games of Our Lives" series runs each week on the Nittany Lions Den and is excerpted from Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy. Stay tuned for the book launch coming summer 2012 through Father's Press and Amazon Kindle.