Lions Keep the Faith in Road Win

EVANSTON, Ill. — Michael Robinson never lost faith. When he trotted onto the field for Penn State's last-chance drive against Northwestern, it was with the same sense of destiny he had at the beginning of the afternoon, before all those fumbles and interceptions.

“This is what we wake up for,” he told his teammates. “This is what we put all our time in for, for games like this, situations like this. We need to make our statement right now.”

Consider it made.

The fifth-year senior quarterback orchestrated an electrifying drive as the Nittany Lions rallied in the final two minutes to overcome Northwestern, 34-29, Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field. Robinson threw to freshman Derrick Williams on the left sideline, and Williams spun out of a tackle for the winning touchdown with 51 seconds left.

Robinson, who completed a 20-yard pass to Isaac Smolko on fourth-and-15 earlier in the drive, was cheered by a large throng of Penn State fans as he left the field. “You the man!” shouted one of the many blue-jersey wearers who crowded into the stadium, tickets being rather easy to come by outside. Other fans patted him on the shoulder as he made his way to the locker room.

“We made the catches when it counted,” he said. “We made the plays when it counted, and we move on from here.”

It was a dazzling end to an afternoon in which the Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) seemed determined to make an entirely different kind of statement. They fell behind 23-7 in the first half and trailed until midway through the fourth quarter before rallying to take a 27-26 lead on Robinson's 8-yard touchdown run with 8:52 left to play.

Furthermore, they nearly sabotaged their comeback when safety Chris Harrell plowed into quarterback Brett Basanez as he scrambled out of bounds short of a first down on Northwestern's next drive. The Lions were flagged for a drive-sustaining personal foul and Joel Howells went on to kick a 25-yard field goal as Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) took a 29-27 lead.

“That was tough,” Harrell said. “I didn't want that to be the play that let the team down. I just had to accept it and move on to the next play.”

Robinson got Harrell off the hook. The quarterback had suffered through an awful first half, with three interceptions and two fumbles, but he kept his composure in the waning moments. He was 5 of 7 on Penn State's winning drive.

“We felt like in the first half we were giving them the game,” Robinson said. “In the second half we struggled a little bit, but that last drive was all heart.”

Robinson finished with 17 completions in 36 attempts for 271 yards. He threw two touchdown passes in the first half, hitting Justin King for a 37-yard score and Deon Butler for 26-yarder in the second quarter as the Nittany Lions trailed 23-14 at halftime. He also fumbled twice in the second half, and would likely have come under heavier message-board fire (along with Harrell) had the Lions lost.

The defense wouldn't have gotten off unscathed, either. It allowed Northwestern to convert 12 of 24 third downs including 5 of 5 on a 16-play touchdown drive to start the game. Penn State had its hands full with the senior Basanez, who completed 20 of 38 passes for 229 yards and added 54 rushing yards. It also had trouble with slippery freshman tailback Tyrell Sutton, who finished with 112 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The Wildcats' success left Joe Paterno impressed. Said the coach: “They do some things really well.”

Penn State's defensive players were impressed as well. Northwestern scored on its first five possessions and ran 95 plays to Penn State's 63.

“They were very efficient with what they were doing, especially early in the game,” Harrell said. “They were doing a lot of things that we weren't used to. They were trying to get the ball on the perimeter and run it from there. It was tough on our defense. After a while, we got adjusted but by then we'd given up 23 points.”

When Anwar Phillips stepped in front of Basanez's final pass for the Nittany Lions' only interception of the day, the relief was palpable. They bounded off the field excitedly, arms raised to the sky.

“We're back, baby,” defensive tackle Jay Alford exclaimed to no one in particular “We're back.”

It remains to be seen whether the Nittany Lions are all the way back - they're unlikely to beat Ohio State or Michigan with four fumbles, three interceptions and a 10-minute disadvantage in time of possession - but that didn't stop them from celebrating a rare Big Ten victory.

“This is a great feeling,” Smolko said. “It gives us all the sense that we can do it, that we are a good team and can come from behind and make big plays and pull out big victories.”

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