Ten Years in the Big10 - Parts 8 & 9

The eight and ninth installments in a series of articles through which Marsh Creek takes a look at Penn State's experience in the Big Ten Conference.

In the spring of 2000 Penn State conducted their practice sessions for the first time in several years without a bonafide marquee name on the roster.

Gone were the likes of Lavar Arrington, Courtney Brown, Brandon Short, and David Macklin. So many experienced players had moved on that Penn State was looking to replace 15 starters that year.

Penn State was also looking to replace long time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who had retired after 32 years with the program, the last 23 served as defensive coordinator.

Sandusky's retirement wasn't the only void on the staff that year. Long time assistant Joe Sarra moved into an administrative post that year, thus allowing Coach Paterno to hire former players Bob White and Al Golden to the staff. White would help Larry Johnson with the defensive line, Golden worked as linebackers coach, and Tom Bradley became the new defensive coordinator.

Aside from the hiring of two new coaches, the spring was uneventful that year, that is until a late May incident in Hoboken, NJ literally rocked the program.

In the early morning hours on that late May date QB Rashard Casey was arrested near a Hoboken nightclub on charges that he and another man badly beat an off duty police officer causing very serious injuries.

It would later turn out that Rashard was innocent of what he was being accused of, but the headlines and subsequent publicity of the event, and of how Coach Paterno handled it, were sensationalized.

Casey, and Paterno, were vilified and pilloried by sportswriters, radio sports jocks, TV journalists, and college football fans, both Penn State fans and opposing fans. The bad press and publicity seemed to never end that off-season.

The Hoboken Police Chief seemed to me to be particularly vindictive towards Casey and remained adamant that his off duty officer was an honest truth telling cop while Casey was a thug. He was constantly in the press making all sorts of claims regarding this incident, which did nothing except paint the worst possible picture of Casey, and of Penn State's handling of the situation.

The press dogged Paterno all preseason and into the season as he stood behind Casey. They questioned how he could start a player charged amid such serious allegations. But Paterno stood firm and repeated time after time that he believed Rashard was telling the truth and that this was enough for him to play Casey.

It took more than a year, and his career at Penn State was long over, but Rashard Casey's charges were dropped when the Hudson County District Attorney's Office entered was is called a "no bill" on the case. What this means in layman's terms is that there was not enough evidence to even proceed to trial against Casey.

Casey would eventually win a civil judgment against the Hoboken Police department for damages to him arising from the charges made in the summer of 2000, but that didn't happen until just recently.

So, in the end, as has been the case so many times before, Coach Paterno was vindicated, but not before the media at large made life miserable for Paterno and Casey in the fall of 2000. It had to have played some part in what would turn out to be a poor season for Penn State football.

Entering the 2000 season it seemed clear that the offense would be built around Rashard Casey's pyrotechnic running and passing abilities, but he wasn't the only talented player among our skill guys. Casey had run for 290 yards in the prior season and had also completed almost 63% of his passes in 1999, so it seemed natural that he would be heavily relied upon to lead the team.

Penn State had a stable of backs to hand the ball to that year in Omar Easy, Eric McCoo, and Larry Johnson. Kenny Watson was set to see time at both RB and flanker, and Eddie Drummond, a young Bryant Bryant Johnson, and Sam Crenshaw were being counted on at the WR spots. Penn State had a pair of good TE's in John Gilmore and Tony Stewart.

The offensive line that year started out with Francis Spano again trying to make an impact at center and with Joe Iorio and Eric Rickenbach backing him up. Kareem McKenzie was a returning all Big10 selection at one tackle spot, and the other side saw Imani Bell, Gus Felder, and Matt Schmitt battling it out. The guards were Josh Mitchell, Jordan Caruso, Greg Ransom, Joe Hartings, and former TE Tyler Lenda.

On Media Day that year Joe Paterno told the press about how injuries had caused major disruption along the line in 1999 and that to be better in 2000 we would need to see some players take control of the starting spots and nail them down. That never really happened. Much the same cast of linemen from the year before went through the same spate of injuries and the line never really came together.

A pair of three-year starters was gone in the kicking game in kicker Travis Forney and punter Pat Pidgeon. Long snapper Rich Stankewicz was also gone. Senior Ryan Primanti was looking to handle the placement kicking while David Royer would handle punts.

9 starters and Jerry Sandusky were gone from the defensive lineup that opened the 1999 campaign against Arizona. Although James Boyd and Jimmy Kennedy had some part time starting experience heading into the season, only Justin Kurpeikis and Bob Jones could be considered full time returning starters.

Kurpeikis, Kennedy, Jones and sophomore Michael Haynes would become the starting front four. As the year went on we'd see a lot of Anthony Adams and some of true freshman Sam Ruhe on the line as well.

The linebacker corps had seniors Eric Sturdifen and Aaron Gatten along with juniors Ron Graham and Shamar Finney set to vie for the starting spots. Junior Tom Williams and a trio of heralded redshirt freshmen - Deryck Toles, Gino Capone, and Horace Dodd were targeted for depth.

Graduation had taken all four of the 1999 starters from the defense. Senior James Boyd, soph. Shawn Mayer, senior Titcus Pettigrew, and rs Freshman Yaacov Yisreal were battling it out for the safety spots while senior Bhawoh Jue and junior Bruce Branch, with soph. Bryan Scott in reserve, were set to take over at the corners.

From start to finish, the 2000 football season at Penn State would be like none other I have witnessed since Joe Paterno became our head coach in 1966. An age-old axiom in coaching goes something like "how you start is how you finish." That little gem deals with practice habits, but it could easily apply to many of our experiences in life, and the 2000 football season would be one of them for Penn State fans. As the new season had begun amid the Rashard Casey controversy, so it would end. Penn State would struggle for respectability that year while bringing home only the 2nd losing season of the Paterno era.

Penn State started the season in East Rutherford, NJ in the Kickoff Classic. The Nittany Lions had played in the inaugural Kickoff Classic back in 1983 and this would mark their fourth invitation to the game. It seemed Joe Paterno liked the game and the sponsors sure as hell liked having Penn State and it's swollen throng of ticket buying fans. Having Penn State in this game was always a match made in Heaven, but this match up against USC was a blow out from the beginning.

Penn State made USC look like world-beaters that day. We held the Trojans to 251 total yards, but Penn State was so inept on offense that we managed to get beaten badly anyway to the tune of a 29 - 5 shellacking. Our rushing offense was so inept that we managed to eclipse the record of futility set just one year earlier against Michigan when USC held us to only 6 yards on 22 rushing attempts.

We didn't do a whole lot better passing the ball. Rashard Casey went 10-30 for 136 yards. Our punt game was horrid and even gave up a score against when the Trojans blocked an early punt attempt and returned it for a touchdown. Yes, we made the Trojans look great that day. Truth was they were mediocre themselves. USC would go 5-7 that year and lose to 5 opponents with losing records.

As bad as the USC game was, the Toledo game at Beaver Stadium the following week was worse, much worse.

Penn State fans were licking their wounds all week, but just about all of them had to think we'd be getting better in a hurry against Toledo. It was obvious we had some thing to work on, but this was Toledo! But things just went from bad to worse. Penn State managed 10 first downs against USC. We managed 9 against Toledo, a MAC school.

Perhaps the most ignominious stat of the day was that we could only manage to have control of the ball for little more than 19 minutes that day. Part of the reason for that was that this time the defense was as bad as the offense. Toledo would gain 385 total yards that day in beating Penn State by a 24-9 score. How bad was it? Try this - Toledo had 54 rushing attempts that day and our starting linebackers had only 5 tackles. Our starting secondary had 23 tackles. What does that tell you?

At the time of this game I called it the lowest point in the Paterno era, and now that we have rebounded nicely I'd have to say that description is pretty accurate.

Week three saw a completely out manned Louisiana Tech squad come to Beaver Stadium. We pounded them by an incredible 67-7 count. The score was amazing given how poorly we had played the two weeks prior. I think many Penn State wondered if our early season malaise would be short lived. It wouldn't.

Next up was Pitt. This would be the final game against our cross state rivals for the foreseeable future, and given we were riding a 7 game win streak against Pitt, nothing would have been better than to break out against the Panthers. Instead, it was a series ending 12-0 loss.

Penn State was out gained that day by 379 yards to 225 yards. The truth of the matter is that we could easily have lost this game by a lot more than 12 points. Our receivers couldn't catch passes in part because Rashard Casey threw the ball very hard, and our linebackers were nowhere to be found half the time.

On September 23rd Penn State traveled to Columbus to take on Ohio State. Our Nits got blown out that afternoon by a 45-6 score. Penn State had 3 turnovers, gave up 4 sacks, didn't run the ball well, and couldn't stop Ohio State even a little. As bad as the play on the field became, there was a much bigger story that day.

Late in the 4th quarter with Penn State trailing 38-6 and Ohio State driving downfield deep in PSU territory, freshman cornerback Adam Taliaferro came up to make a tackle on Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks. Taliaferro had been a high school all American the year before and was tantalizingly quick and athletic. He remains one of the smoothest freshmen I've ever seen in a Penn State uniform.

But Adam came in with his head low on that play. Westbrooks was running hard and the collision was thunderous. After the play only one of them rose up to walk away. Taliaferro would lay motionless near the 20 yard line as Penn State personnel frantically sprang into action.

In a sense, Adam Taliaferro is a very lucky young man to have attended Penn State. You see, our trainers take 2 bags of special medicine to each game that can be used to fight the swelling that accompanies spinal injuries. Prior to that play, Penn State, to the best of my knowledge, had never opened even one of those bags at a football game.

Adam was paralyzed from the neck down and needed just that kind of medicine, and the fact that it was on hand contributed to his care. The doctors would later say that having that medicine was the difference between Adam eventually regaining his ability to walk, and his motor skills, and being permanently paralyzed.

Ohio State head coach John Cooper would be fired later that year. I didn't lose much sleep over that dismissal. Cooper was a slug in my opinion, and never was that more evident than when he made certain to punch in another touchdown while laughing on the sideline at the site of it. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

Penn State returned home that week to play Purdue. The story, however, was Adam's care out in Columbus. It would be an ongoing story line that fall and winter, but the team still had to play on Saturdays, and play they did against a very good Boilermaker squad.

Purdue had Drew Brees leading a high-powered offense, but somehow, just as Jerry Sandusky had done before him, Tom Bradley managed to take a huge chunk out of Purdue. In one of the loudest games at The Beav I have ever witnessed, Penn State prevailed 22-20.

Just when things appeared as if they might be turning around, the team laid an egg. Penn State did not run the ball well, didn't catch the ball well, didn't kick it well, and didn't tackle well. You are usually going to get beaten when you play that way, and that's just what happened. Once again, James Boyd was our leading tackler. Shamar Finney played OK that day, but even though Minnesota had 50 rushing plays, Ron Graham and Eric Sturdifen had a grand total of three tackles between them.

Add to all of this the fact that the sideline looked a mess. Penalty flags were everywhere and the staff couldn't seem to make up their minds who was calling plays and substitutions. The team really needed a week off, and thankfully they had one coming.

Illinois had a pretty good team in 2000. The Illini were royally screwed in their early season game against Michigan. They were screwed so badly that the Big10 Office made an official apology to the school in the wake of an officiating atrocity that gave yet another tainted victory to Michigan. The Illini would later play Ohio State very close as well, but this was an up and down team that came to Happy Valley in the third week of October.

Penn State had a week off to prepare and it showed. The team played with a newfound sense of urgency. The Illini still out gained Penn State in total yardage, but we made plays when they counted. Penn State created two interceptions and two fumble recoveries that day, and Shamar Finney's 49-yard interception went all the way for a touchdown. The turnovers combined with some highlight reel running by Casey were the difference in a 39-25 win over the Illini. Casey had a 39-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that was so spectacular that it became the ESPN Play of the Week

Indiana had a bad football team that year, but they still managed to run for 225 yards on Penn State. If not for some nice halftime adjustments by Bradley and three interceptions by PSU, the game winning field goal by Ryan Primanti with 18 seconds to go might have never happened. Somehow we managed to win the game by a 27-24 score.

The following week Penn State had Iowa at home. Iowa was not a good team, but neither was Penn State. For once that year we managed to out gain the other team by a few yards, but we still gave up untimely plays. The game wound up going to overtime where our bad luck continued when a deflected pass was intercepted to give Iowa the win.

Michigan was next up. We weren't very good and Michigan won the game. We actually didn't play all the badly compared to some other games that year. Our offense managed to grind out over 400 yards on Michigan, but 4 interceptions and some untimely breakdowns led to a final score of 33-11. That final wasn't etched into the books, however, until Lloyd Carr rushed his offense back on to the field to jam in one more score with all of one second to play. It was bush league, but that's Lloyd Carr for you.

I mean, what was the point? The game was already won and any coach with class would have let the clock expire, but not Lloyd Carr. Nope. Had to get one more score to run it up on Joe.

The final game of the year came on a cold November day against Michigan State. MSU was 5-5 and seeking a bowl game invitation while Penn State was just looking to end the year. In one of the interesting subplots to the game, the Spartans were starting Pennsylvania hotshot freshman QB Jeff Smoker who had been the subject of an intense Pennsylvania recruiting story from the year before.

If Michigan State was playing for a bowl berth you'd hardly have known it by their play. Penn State trounced them early and often en route to a 28-0 first quarter lead. That advantage swelled to 42-10 despite the fact that Penn State had been liberally substituting from the onset. The final score was 42-24 in a game in which our defense finally showed up. For one of the few times all year you could say the defense actually looked good.

2000 was a year of frustration.

It started with the arrest and persecution, really, of Rashard Casey. Along the way a young man became paralyzed. At season's end we had a losing record for only the second time since 1938. But if frustration and turmoil larked the beginning of the year, hope and promise were evident at the end. Losing record and all, there were some flashes of promise in the second half of the year.

Names like Graham and Sturdifen were more and more giving way to players called Wake, Capone and Toles. Younger players were doing very well on scout team too. Players like a baby faced Zack Mills.

Yes, 2000 was a season on the brink, but a new day was surely coming, and with it new stories.

In the early winter of 2000/2001 Adam Taliaferro was transferred from Columbus General Hospital to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, Pa. After a 3-week stay Adam was transferred a second time to Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia where he would remain until the spring of 2001.

In between there was hope, and much work done in the miracle story of Adam Taliaferro. Adam got a lot of help from generous Penn State alumni through a nice fund raising effort that went all out to raise cash to meet his staggering medical bills. Adam got help on a daily basis from both volunteers and the rehab specialists at the various hospitals he had been a patient of, most notably Magee Rehab. Adam's doctors were first rate too.

But mostly this is a story about a young man who never gave up hope. This is a story of courage and determination. And yes, this story had a happy ending. On the night of our home opener in 2001 against the pre season top ranked Miami Hurricanes, Adam Taliaferro did not walk, he ran out of the tunnel at Beaver Stadium in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a football game in Pennsylvania.

There were many tears of joy shed that night. Adam's story gave hope to tens of thousands of victims of spinal chord injuries. It gave hope and inspired a great many to never give up in life, to never allow yourself to be beaten down by what life throws at you.

ABC Television captured the moment on national television. A book and made for TV Movie "The Adam Taliaferro Story," would follow. Adam remains a part of the Penn State football team to this day.

Penn State had placed the final touches on its most ambitious expansion of Beaver Stadium in 20 years. This project was several years in the making and culminated with an upper deck and club seat section that would close in the north end zone and luxury boxes to close in the east side of the stadium. It would turn out magnificently as it brought the stadium seating capacity to over 107,000, thus making it the largest on campus stadium in America and the second largest on campus seating capacity stadium in college football.

When Miami came to town in September of 2001 for the inaugural game in the newly expanded stadium, it seemed as if all we had was hope. Everyone knew this Hurricane team was special and they had little trouble defeating an overmatched Penn State squad. It was 30-0 at halftime and Penn State would end up on the short end of a 33-7 score that night.

Penn State's run of bad luck wasn't limited to the scoreboard. The team had suffered another spate of preseason injuries along both the offensive line and in the linebacker unit, and in the second quarter against Miami Derek Wake suffered a season ending knee injury.

Penn State was playing with much of the same personnel they had used in 2000, but there were some new faces as well. Matt Senneca had taken over for Rashard Casey at QB, but was knocked out, literally, in the Miami game. Matt would play only about a little more than a quarter of that game before redshirt Freshman Zack Mills took over.

Mills actually had a fairly incredible debut against what was a great Miami defense. The redshirt freshman seemed unfazed that night in throwing for 240 yards. A star was being born here folks.

Eddie Drummond, injured the year before in the season opener against USC, was at WR. Sean McHugh was now at FB and looking pretty good. Paul Jefferson was helping Sean out at FB. Penn State had some nice athletes in uniform, but we weren't quite there yet.

Disaster struck American on September 11, 2001.

The season, like everything else in our great land, was turned upside down in the aftermath of 9/11. Penn State's game with Virginia was cancelled. The Nits would eventually take to the field after a three-week layoff to play Wisconsin in what seemed like a flashback game.

Wisconsin ran all over Penn State and Wisconsin easily held Penn State in check. Penn State decided it hadn't set enough records for futility, so it set a few more than day.

Wisconsin ran 85 plays that day to only 45 for Penn State. Wisconsin never once was forced to punt. Penn State converted only 1 of 9 third down opportunities and held the ball for only 18 minutes in the game. These are pretty much all new records at Penn State. What is amazing is that the final score was only 18-6 against us.

Matt Senneca started the UW game but it was clear that he was struggling at the QB spot and he was replaced in the fourth quarter by Mills.

Matt would start the next game against Iowa too, but he'd play only one drive before coming out with an injury. Despite not playing real well as a team, the Nits almost had a chance to knock the Hawkeyes off. The final was 24-18 Iowa in a game that probably wasn't that close, but for Penn State to just hang in there and improve was a statement that things were probably not as bad as they looked against Wisconsin. Young Zack Mills went 17 for 31 in the game and showed flashes of what was to come.

The next week we had Michigan at home. Mills would get the start and he would throw three consecutive passes right on the money to begin the game. All three were dropped. Punt!

Penn State would drop a 20-0 yawner that day to begin the year at 0-4 for the first time in program history. An off week and much soul searching was in the offing. There was a lot of work to be done, and there were some flashes of hope, but as the team walked off the field in a steady drizzle following the shutout loss to Michigan, even the most devoted fan had to have their confidence shaken.

The fans were making a statement too, with their feet. At the end of the Toledo game the stands were still full. At the end of the Wisconsin debacle there were maybe 80,000 fans in the seats. At the end of the Michigan game there were maybe 10,000 fans in Beaver Stadium. That's a statement. No, it was a declaration that the fans were not happy.

At this moment in time, Penn State had won only 6 of its previous 20 football games. Big changes were needed to fix this, changes most fans didn't think could happen, but that's exactly what they got.

Two weeks later Penn State traveled to Evanston, IL to take on a 4-1 Northwestern team. This was a team that had played a 10-2 Nebraska team in a bowl game the year before and one that had already displayed it knew how to win. Penn State matched the Wildcats score for score that day, but when Northwestern took a 35-31 lead in the waning minutes of the game it appeared that we'd again be on the wrong end of the score.

Matt Senneca had gotten the start that day and had played brilliantly, but as he led Penn State on a final drive into Northwestern territory he suffered a concussion and was knocked from the game. In came Mills who calmly said to his mates in the huddle "it's been a while guys, remember me? Let's take this down the field and score."

Mills was incredible. There was only a minute and a half to play, but Zack did exactly what he said he'd do. He led the team downfield for the winning touchdown. This would be the game where Mills, in a picture pose than most Penn State fans can easily recall, would pump his fist skyward after the winning score.

Things were changing for Penn State!

Ohio State came to town the following week. Matt Senneca got the start, but when he came out and went 0-3 right out of the gate Mills came in and relieved him. Mills was simply sensational that day. Mills would set all kinds of records that afternoon in leading Penn State to 531 total yards. Zack was 17-32 passing for 280 yards while toting the ball 15 times for 138 yards.

Ohio State had jumped out to a big early lead before placing things on cruise control at 27-9, but Mills would not give up. When it was over, Zack Mills had brought Penn State all the way back in the biggest come back win in Beaver Stadium history. Final score: Penn State 29 Ohio State 27.

Oh, and one more thing happened that day. Coach Paterno won his 324th game to become the all time winningest coach in Division 1 football history.

A flotilla was brought out after the game. The scoreboard and PA system were in full swing. Joe's family was all there. His players. A national TV audience! Sue spoke. Joe spoke. It was an emotional time all the way around. Finally, Joe had the record!

Joe didn't really know what to do with all the attention. He downplayed the achievement by praising everyone and everything but himself. It was vintage Paterno.

Penn State continued to improve in handily beating CUSA foe Southern Miss. Then came league-leading Illinois on the road.

Illinois would win the Big10 in 2001, but not before Penn State nearly beat them. Mills started the game and led Penn State to a 14-0 lead before being knocked from the game in what looked like a cheap shot attempt at injuring him by one of the Illini LB's. It worked, and with Mills out of the game our offense came to a screeching halt. The Illini would win the game 33-28 and Penn State fans could only imagine what could have been.

Next up was Indiana. Matt Senneca got the start for ailing Zack Mills and actually played brilliantly in victory. But as things had been in the past, his success was short lived. On the road at Michigan State Senneca struggled for a quarter and a half before Mills came in to take over.

Once again, Mills was sensational throwing for 240 yards in little more than a half of football. Mills was the catalyst as Penn State scored on five consecutive possessions to take Michigan State out. Penn State won by a final score of 42-37.

Not only was Mills playing like Joe Montana, his receivers were catching everything he threw to them. His passes were floating down like the proverbial manna from Heaven to invigorated Bryant and Tony Johnson. Mills' dazzling touch was now backing teams up off the line of scrimmage.

Penn State went down to Virginia in the make up game that came about due to 9/11 to see if they could win a bowl berth. A win would place them at 6-5 while a loss would mean another losing season. Considering the 0-4 start, this was not something to take lightly. The game looked to be going our way when Penn State jumped up 14-6 at halftime. When Mills led the team down inside the Virginia 10 yard line late in the third quarter victory seemed certain.

As fate would have it, on a crazy play Mills would be stripped as he was going down. Pennsylvania native Art Scott would scoop the ball at full speed near the Cavs goal line and take it nearly 100 yards the other way for a score. The game changed on that play and Virginia would ultimately pull out a close win.

Things were changing for the better though. The despair and turmoil of September had turned to hope and victory as the season went on. While we didn't get all the way back to a winning record, we did start winning again.

Penn State saw a lot of things go very right for them in the second half of that 2001 season. A QB who knew how to win, a spring in the step of some very good WR's, and better blocking and tackling. Things were definitely looking up.

2001 saw change, 2002 would see even more.

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