The spring of 2002 was dominated by two story lines surrounding the Penn State football program.
Matt Seneca's decision to forgo his senior year nor the emergence of redshirt freshman QB Zack Mills could knock the "Is Joe Paterno done" mantra off the minds of sports editorialists around the Commonwealth. Two losing seasons had given many of the beat writers who may have already disliked Joe's penchant for keeping the press locked out of team affairs all they needed to rip him up and down their columns.
Then there was the State College trial of R.J. Luke and T.C. Cosby on charges stemming from a summer of 2001 frat fight. The two Penn State players were charged with assault and battery after Penn State student Jules Sandt suffered a bad cut in one of his hands when he was pushed thru a sidelight window adjacent to the front door of one of our off campus fraternities.
The press mocked Joe for not only fielding two losing teams in a row, but they mocked him even worse because he had players brought up on charges. It wouldn't matter that, like Rashard Casey before them, both Cosby and Luke would be acquitted of all charges, the press just rousted Paterno at every turn. The press and the fans were on Cosby and Luke pretty hard as well. So much so that Luke would transfer from Penn State within days of the outcome of the trial.
The off-season was difficult to say the least. On top of that there was an unprecedented level of uneasiness over how good, er, how bad, the team would be. Many pundits proudly jumped on the bandwagon denouncing the program as one that was already half dead and with a fan base of blind loyalists ready to jump off the cliff with their crusty old coach.
Gone from the team after the 2001 season were not only Luke, but also players like Omar Easy, John Gilmore, Eddie Drummond, Eric McCoo, the aforementioned Matt Seneca, Shamar Finney, Bob Jones and Bruce Branch. Some were in the NFL, others had moved on to careers in the private sector, and then you had Seneca's election to not return amid the swirling criticism levied at him by Penn State fans, and then Luke.
It was all a bit much. Hardly a week went by that off-season where the program wasn't being pilloried by some know it all writer. Then a funny thing happened - they started playing the football season and the team actually turned out to be pretty good.
First up was a feisty UCF Golden Knights squad. Central Florida had been a full fledged D1 team for only a few years, but they have aspirations of being a top twenty program and felt they could knock Penn State off. While the battle for field position was fairly even, Penn State was in complete control of this game.
When Paul Jefferson scored on an 8 yard run midway thru the 4th quarter to move the advantage to 27-9 Penn State it appeared all drama would soon end. That was not the case as Penn State backpedaled all the way into their own end zone on two straight UCF possessions, one complete with a 2-point conversion. The end result of this late game timidity was that UCF was executing an onsides kick with 30 seconds to go while suddenly trailing by only 27-24. The Lions would recover that kick and run out the clock to mercifully end a game they had total control up until the very end.
The fans howled predictably. Everyone knew that UCF had a very good QB and WR, but when we played prevent defense and gave up a quick 160 passing yards at the end the fans took it as a sign. The woes of 2000 and 2001 fresh in their minds made it easy for them feel, well, uneasy. But things got better quickly.
Penn State had two weeks to prepare for a Nebraska team that was shredding the opposition. The fans had two weeks to fret over how we would be beaten, maybe even humiliated. The pessimists looked at how UCF had thrown the ball on us with ease, never mind the simple defenses we were using.
But some had noticed that Nebraska, while doing well on the scoreboard, had plenty of chinks in their own armor. A few of us dared say it, they didn't look all that good really. Their QB Jamal Lord looked shaky, their backs looked average, their WR's mediocre, and their OL slow. Not good.
On September 14, 2002 the Penn State program came back. Back in a big, big way.
The game was a night game, it was on national TV, and it was being played in a packed out Beaver Stadium. The Cornhuskers were 3-0 and probably thought nothing had changed with regards to their dominance over most of the college football world. Then Penn State rocked them, socked them, and generally trounced them to the tune of a 40 - 7 beating that few of us will forget any time soon.
Penn State amassed 476 total yards in the game while playing near perfect football. The Nittany Lions displayed a fierce pass rush that harassed Husker QB Jamal Lord into three interceptions. The crowd basically went crazy with delight as the stadium noise hit levels unseen in several years.
Things were starting to really click for the Penn State offense, and the defense was playing some good ball now too. Penn State drilled an over matched Louisiana Tech the following week by a 49-17 count before taking on Iowa.
The Hawkeyes came to town already sporting a loss to their cross state rival Iowa State. Iowa had a very good team though and everyone expected this to be a dogfight. The game was surreal.
Iowa jumped all over Penn State early in getting out to a 23-0 lead. After Penn State got one score back the Hawks managed to get three critical points when all Big10 kicker Nate Kaeding booted a 55 yard FG on the final play of the half to make it 26-7 at intermission.
Penn State got another score back, but things would go wrong again when the extra point was not only blocked, but it quickly caromed right into the hands of Iowa cornerback DJ Johnson who returned it for two more critical points.
Penn State would score three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 35 apiece, but overtime would prove to be no friend in this series. Penn State had dropped an overtime game to Iowa two years earlier, and this game would be no different in that regard. It would be much different to Coach Paterno and hundreds of thousands of Penn State fans though.
In overtime Iowa completed a controversial pass play at the sideline on a play most thought was an incompletion. The side judge ruled it a catch. Iowa would score. On the ensuing Penn State possession Tony Johnson caught a pass near the sideline that most felt was a legal catch, but this time the same side judge ruled it incomplete, and when Penn State failed to convert Joe Paterno chased the head official all the way to the tunnel to complain.
The fans were irate too. In that prior overtime loss to Iowa there had been another officiating controversy involving Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. Now we had sideline mania. The fans could all see that Paterno was livid and they were pissed off themselves. The fans would later find out that this crew had been reprimanded by the Big 10 for shoddy work in a game in week 1 of the season and that just made things worse.
The bad feelings were muted for a week when Penn State went to Madison and beat what was considered at the time to be a good Wisconsin team. Zack Mills was injured in the game, but not hurt so badly he couldn't still lead the team to victory. With the win and Michigan on the docket there was little time to remain upset over the Iowa controversy.
Penn State traveled to Michigan looking for some much needed revenge. Michigan had a 5 game win streak going on Penn State and this looked like a great opportunity for Penn State to end that streak. The game was very close from the outset. The teams would play turnover free football in this game as the teams traded scores.
Penn State got up a touchdown in the third quarter when the first key play of the game occurred. Michigan had been forced to punt from their own 20-yard line on a 4th and 10 play, and PSU had the momentum going their way. An expected short field could have led to a two-touchdown lead. But Penn State was flagged for a 15-yard penalty on a play where our rush man was trying to evade the punter. Most thought it should have been a 5-yard call, thus forcing another punt. The refs deemed it a 15 yarder and gave the ball back to Michigan. They scored.
Near the end of the game with the score tied at 21 and Penn State facing a 3rd and 5 from near midfield, Zack Mills found Tony Johnson inside the Michigan 25 yard line for what was a certain first down conversion. Like any big play we would get on Michigan, I looked for the flags, but there was no offsides or holding called on the play. Mills had thrown it cleanly and Johnson had certainly caught it cleanly. Johnson hadn't interfered and he came down with both feet in bounds. He even kicked up a huge clump of turf on the play.
The side judge promptly ruled him out of bounds forcing Penn State to punt the ball. The staff, once again, was livid. Our fans were livid. We have had three games now against Michigan where the referees have inserted themselves into the game. We would lose the game in overtime, Michigan aided by an offsides call on PSU that I have yet been able to figure out.
Joe was so irate over what had happened that he would not give a post game press conference nor would he answer questions for reporters hanging around the team bus. Stunned at the outcome, his players showered, boarded the bus, and flew back to State College, Pa.
Paterno immediately set the wheels in motion for Athletic Director Tim Curley to ask the Big10 for a review of their officiating procedures. It was pretty obvious he thought changes needed to be made. The Big10 did conduct an off-season review and concluded that everything they were doing was just fine and not much would be done about the Penn State request.
Later in the year a ref doll would be hung in effigy from the doorknocker on the Paterno household. Somehow the press found out about it and took a photograph of the doll, which turned it into another big story to hang Joe with. The words flowed, most calling Joe a crybaby. Some supported him though, like other Big10 coaches.
Ron Turner, Joe Tiller, Barry Alvarez, and Ron Mason all sided with Joe when asked if the league should conduct a thorough review of procedures. In an expected move, Lloyd Carr felt things were fine the way they were. No shock there given how many times he has personally benefited from Big 10 officiating.
Penn State would play Northwestern the next week. It was a rout. Penn State got up 35-0 by halftime and cruised home a 49-0 winner. Larry Johnson had a big day, a really big day.
The Penn State rushing record for yards in a single game was set at 256 yards when junior tailback Curt Warner ran for that many at Syracuse in 1981. Larry broke that record very early in the third quarter and finished the day with 258 yards on the ground. Larry would prove to be very productive over the second half of the year, and the Northwestern game was the first of several incredible efforts from the talented senior tailback.
Ohio State in Columbus came next. This was an incredibly hard fought game. Penn State got out to a 7-0 lead and led it 7-3 at halftime, but on the third play of the second half Zack Mills under threw Tony Johnson on a deeper crossing route and Chris Gamble was able to step in front of the pass to pick it off. Gamble took the ball and wove his way threw the crowd of would be tacklers on his way to the end zone.
Penn State couldn't muster much offense as Mills was hurting and couldn't throw the ball downfield. Still, the game was very close before Ohio State won it 13-7. This was one of 6 very close wins for Ohio State and one of three very close losses for the Nittany Lions on the year. Such is the fickle hand of fate and the cards it sometimes deals in big time college football.
Penn State tore thru it's remaining regular season opponents. None of the games were close.
First up was Illinois at home. Penn State would only win the game by an 18-7 final score, but as noted above, the game wasn't that close. In fact, with roughly 8 minutes to play in the game it was 18-0 and it could easily have been 35-0. Illinois had all of about 100 yards in total offense to that point and Larry Johnson had seen another long touchdown erased in the game. No matter, Larry still ran for 379 yards and his second all time single game rushing record set on the year.
Penn State would hold the ball for more than 36 minutes against Virginia en route to a 35-14 drubbing of the Cavaliers. Mills led Penn State to 533 total yards of offense that day while the defense pretty much smacked UVA around. Virginia was playing with several true freshmen, and one named D'Brickshaw Ferguson was a hotly pursued prospect in high school. He thought it was a good idea to talk trash that day to Penn State sr. DE Michael Haynes.
Michael was beating Haynes so soundly during the game that at one point he said to him "You're a freshman and you should have just redshirted", or something to that effect. It was on point to say the least.
After Virginia came Indiana. It was more of the Larry Johnson show. Larry ran rings around IU and finished up with an incredible 327 yards on 28 carries. Astounding. For the third time on the year Johnson set a new mark for yards in a single game for Penn State tailbacks.
Penn State closed out the regular season by thumping Michigan State. MSU had basically quit on Coach Bobby Williams and everyone in East Lansing knew that Williams would be fired at years end. Starting QB Jeff Smoker was out with a substance abuse problem and star WR Charles Rogers had pretty much just packed it in. The result wasn't pretty for Spartan fans.
Penn State got up 49-0 on MSU - at halftime! Larry Johnson had 270 yards at the half and, mercifully, they pulled him before he got it up to some unimaginable number like, say, 400 yards. The final score was 61-7. There are not many superlatives in this world that I could throw out there to describe what kind of second half of the season that Larry Johnson had, but he did manage to post a 2000+ yard season total. It would be good enough to win him the Maxwell Award and a few other awards as the nation's premier college football player.
Penn State closed out the year with another close loss, this time to Auburn in the bowl game. As was the case against Ohio State, Mills looked like he was really hurting. It would later be determined that he had tendonitis in his throwing arm and shoulder, something helped only with rest.
The team finished up the year at 9-4 with 1 close win, 8 blowout wins, and 4 tight losses. A healthy Mills and some better luck and who knows, maybe they can win those tight contests. Even so, given the two prior years this one was a good one.
Penn State would finish near the top of the Big10 in many offensive and defensive statistical measurements. Truth was, Penn State was one of the best teams in the nation last fall. Four losses or not, they were pretty darn good.
Michael Haynes, Jimmy Kennedy, Larry Johnson, Bryant Johnson, Anthony Adams and Bryan Scott would all get drafted in the off-season. To varying degrees they are all doing well this NFL preseason, and their former teammates are, pretty much, doing well in State College.
The 2003 Nittany Lions are fairly young, but they have talent all over the place. Youth and inexperience are mixed with ability and promise. Ten years in the Big 10 are now behind us and a bright future awaits the Penn State Football program.
Ten Years in the Big10 - Part 10
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