Penn State's 2011 Story
After breezing past Indiana State, Penn State set its sights on #1 Alabama. Although no one gave #24 Penn State a chance, the Lions stormed out of the gates to a 13-7 lead at halftime. The lead would change hands four times in the second half before Cade Foster hit a 54-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining to seal the Tide victory, 20-19. In the aftermath, Alabama’s quarterback struggles gained more notoriety than the impressive performance by Penn State, and Oklahoma overtook the Crimson Tide in the polls after their win over Florida State in Tallahassee. The team continued to grow in two road tests (Temple and Indiana) and a home thumping (Eastern Michigan), leading to a true gut check against Iowa. Having won 8 of the last 9 contests, the Hawkeyes had every reason to believe that they could walk away from Happy Valley victorious. Although Iowa led 10-7 at halftime, Penn State came out of the locker room with determination and shut out Iowa for a 24-10 victory. Penn State sustained its first national ranking of the year against Purdue with a 37-17 homecoming victory.
The next week’s road game would be the rallying point of Penn State’s season. In the Big Ten Network’s night game, Penn State trailed Northwestern throughout as the lake winds limited the Lions’ passing attack. But Silas Redd ripped off a long touchdown run in the final four minutes of regulation and then a 22-yard jaunt in overtime to give Penn State a 28-25 win. The following week was a revenge game, and it was sweet—a 49-20 drubbing of Illinois in State College. Even more significantly, Paterno passed Eddie Robinson’s win total for college football coaches earning #409 against the Fighting Illini. Penn State headed into the bye week at 8-1, and suddenly the nation took notice. Undefeated in the Big Ten and only marred by a loss to #2 Alabama, the Lions headed into their last three with their destiny in their hands.
No one expected Penn State (#11) to be ranked higher than Nebraska (#18) when the Huskers came to Beaver Stadium, and no one expected the Lion defense to shut down the Nebraska run game, which had been so strong all season. Penn State sent Nebraska back to 3-3 in the Big Ten with a commanding 17-6 victory, while keeping their own conference record perfect. However, Penn State couldn’t survive the trip to Columbus. With the renamed “Tat 4” back in the fold for over a month, Ohio State’s offense was clicking while Penn State’s stalled. Penn State’s top 10 ranking—the highest it’d been since early 2009—faded with a 21-13 loss at Ohio Stadium. All hope for a Big Ten title wasn’t lost for Penn State though, thanks to Illinois. Leaders Division front-runner and #3 ranked Wisconsin saw their national title hopes crash a week before their season finale in Camp Randall against Penn State, and they played without passion. A fiery PSU defense stymied the Badgers on their own turf while the Penn State offense played their best game of the year on the road. Penn State won the Leaders with a 31-14 victory and punched their ticket to Indianapolis.
#9 Penn State against #20 Michigan State might not have been the dream match-up Big Ten execs dreamed of when they created a championship game, but the game was a blockbuster. No team led by more than 5 the whole day, and the lead changed hands seven times. Trailing 24-21 with three minutes remaining, Penn State’s Rob Bolden hit TE Kevin Haplea on a 7-yard touchdown pass to put the Lions in the lead for good and to send Paterno to his third Rose Bowl game. In the Rose Bowl, #6 Penn State got a favorable match-up against PAC-12 champion, #11 Oregon but couldn’t capitalize on the Ducks’ soft defense, losing 21-14. 2011 Results: 11-3 overall, 7-1 Big Ten (4-1 in Leaders).