Late in the fourth quarter, with the No. 16 Nittany Lions nursing their touchdown lead and the sixth-ranked Buckeyes driving from the shadow of their own goalpost, the stadium sound system was cranking out Zombie Nation between plays. And the PSU students crammed in the southeast corner of the facility were hopping to the techno-beat. The entire stadium literally shook and the press box wobbled.
On the southeast sideline, a host of former players was doing the same thing. From former stars like Ki-Jana Carter and Brad Scioli and Kenny Jackson, to meat-and-potato players like Mike Cerimele and Chris McKelvy and Paul Jefferson and Mac Morrison, they were all caught up in the moment, hopping about.
And when PSU defensive end Tamba Hali slammed into Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith, causing a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Scott Paxson to all but end the game, the former players, many of whom had lived through the best of times in Happy Valley, erupted with joy.
After four losing seasons in the past five years, Penn State football is back. The Lions are now 6-0 and bowl eligible for the first time since the 2002 campaign. And, as the Big Ten's lone unbeaten team, they now own sole possession of the league lead.
It's sweet, man, fifth-year senior quarterback Michael Robinson said. Like the rest of his teammates, he celebrated in the middle of the field after the win, then — at the prompting of PSU assistant coach Mike McQueary — they all made a beeline for the student section, like stampeding cattle shifting direction en masse. Then he walked through a frenzied tunnel back toward the locker room, where he said, We told y'all we were gonna do it.
Indeed he did. Yet while players former and present were soaking up the program's best moment since 1994, veteran coach Joe Paterno wasted no time trying to keep the lid from blowing completely off the Nittany Nation.
I think we beat a good football team tonight, he said. But I am not going to get carried away with one win. Overall I'm pleased, but I realize this isn't the end of the road.
Which was one of the funny things about Saturday's game. Though the Nittany Lions were extremely intense, did not commit a turnover and made plays when they had to, they hardly needed a perfect game to beat a now 3-2 Ohio State outfit whose only other loss was by three points (25-22) to powerhouse Texas.
The Penn State offense generated only 11 first downs. The defense, while dominant most of the game, allowed a series of long third-down conversions. And punter Jeremy Kapinos suffered through what may have been his worst game as a Nittany Lion.
None of which is said by way of nitpicking. But rather to point out that even at 6-0, there is room for improvement.
We have to go back to work, Paterno said. We are a good football team, but I think we can be better.
This gets us going on the right path, freshman receiver Deon Butler added. We just have to keep rolling. Everyone knows who Ohio State is, but I like how Joe says that it's just another game for us. We are trying to go undefeated, so no game is bigger than any other game.
Of course, this was anything but just another game. To be the best in the Big Ten, you have to beat the best, and the Buckeyes have had as much claim to that title as anyone the past few years. There was also the little matter of a national TV audience looking on. And the dozen or so prime-time recruits who made unofficial visits to Happy Valley for the game, a list that included prep stars such as Jared Odrick, Antonio Logan-El, Aaron Maybin, LeSean McCoy and J.B. Walton, to name a few.
And if it had been just another game, the parking lots would have been clear around midnight and the roads leading out of Happy Valley might have emerged from gridlock well before 2 a.m. Unfortunately for anyone who drove to the game, neither scenario played out.
Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, if there was any chance of them getting big-headed over this win, their next opponent should put an end to that. Though Michigan is 3-2 after a home loss to Minnesota Saturday, the Wolverines did run off six straight wins over PSU before the series went on a two-year hiatus leading into this season.
With the game in Ann Arbor, the challenge should be stiff. So the Nittany Lions intend to approach it in business-as-usual fashion.
We wanted to go out there and prove to the world that Penn State is back, said freshman receiver Derrick Williams, whose second-quarter TD run Saturday gave the Lions a lead they would never lose. We'll still go out and practice hard every day. Everybody has worked hard for this, and I think that the world knows we're back.