Just Out of Reach for PSU

The Nittany Lions were on the cusp of greatness. But it slipped away in the blink of an eye in what became a 27-25 loss to Michigan in the Big House.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was the kind of game a great 6-0 team wins. More than 111,000 hostile people in the stands, an amazing back-and-forth final quarter with two Big Ten heavyweights trading power punches, and the fate of the contest riding on a solitary second.

Yes, great teams win these games. And Saturday evening at Michigan Stadium, Penn State stood on the cusp of greatness and — with everything on the line — stumbled ever so slightly.

Wolverine quarterback Chad Henne hit Mario Manningham on a 10-yard post pattern with no time remaining as the home team secured a 27-25 victory over the previously unbeaten and eighth-ranked Nittany Lions. Penn State fell to 6-1 on the season and 3-1 in the Big Ten with its first loss in 10 games (and its seventh consecutive defeat to U-M).

“It was a great football game,” said PSU coach Paterno, who was so concerned about his players' emotions afterward that he kept them from talking to the media. Asked how they would rebound, he said, “It's not going to be easy. But what are we going to do, hide?”

There was no hiding the pain the Nittany Lions felt as they slowly walked off the field while the Michigan players swarmed the field in celebration. But that's the problem in a crazy game like this — someone has to walk away the loser.

The Wolverines (4-3, 2-2) held a 10-3 lead after the respective defenses and a slew of errors on both sides dominated the first three quarters. Then a shootout broke loose. Lion QB Michael Robinson scored on a 4-yard run on the first play of the final quarter and Kevin Kelly's PAT tied it at 10-10. Two plays later, PSU cornerback Alan Zemaitis stopped Henne after a 7-yard gain, stripped the ball and — a la Gary Brown vs. Ty Detmer in the 1989 Holiday Bowl — sprinted into the end zone to stun the crowd.

Then it got even better. Penn State's placement snaps from Jay Alford to Jason Ganter had been an adventure all day, and this one skipped in low. Ganter never got the ball set, but Kelly, all 5-foot-7, 170 pounds of him, picked it up and scurried in for the two-pointer.

Michigan counter-punched by going 55 yards in five plays, with Henne hitting Manningham for the TD and Mike Hart bulling in on the extra point to tie it at 18-18.

Garrett Rivas kicked a field goal for U-M with 3:45 left to make it 21-18. And when Robinson was intercepted two plays later PSU appeared to be dead. But a hold on the return pushed the Wolverines back to the PSU 40 and the Lion defense dug in. Thanks to smart use of timeouts, State got the ball back with 2:46 to go.

And Robinson led what on another day may have been remembered as a drive for the ages. He picked up yards on the ground, including converting a huge 4th and 7. He hit open receivers. PSU benefited from a couple of U-M penalties. When Robinson scrambled into the end zone with :58 seconds left, he gave PSU a 25-21 lead and the visitors' sideline erupted.

But the game was hardly over. Kelly kicked the ball straight to Steve Breaston, one of the most dangerous return men in the nation, and Breaston busted loose for 41 yards to his own 47.

“I was kicking myself in the rear end for not power-kicking there,” Paterno said.

Henne quickly guided the Wolverines into PSU territory. After a pass to Tyler Ecker netted 5 yards, U-M called timeout with 28 seconds showing. Just before play resumed, the officials added two seconds to the clock.

Paterno was furious with the referees.

“I said, ah, baloney,” Paterno said. “They walked away from me.” He added that he never received an explanation on the added time, but the decision would prove to be huge.

Henne hit Manningham for a 6-yard gain to the PSU 10 with 12 seconds to go to set up 3rd and 4. His next pass was incomplete, and U-M called timeout with one second left. With everyone in the stadium on edge, Henne dropped back on what was certain to be the final play of the game.

Manningham angled in front of the standout corner Zemaitis and behind safety Calvin Lowry. Henne threw a bullet. Touchdown. The celebration was on.

On one sideline, at least. As reporters filed past the Nittany Lion locker room on the way to the visiting press area, Zemaitis, a senior captain, could be seen sitting on a chair, his head in his hands.

Greatness was that close. And the Nittany Lions, who may or may not get another chance to claim that mantel in the ultracompetitive Big Ten (State is still tied for first place), let it slip away.

“I was disappointed for a great bunch of kids,” Paterno said. “But I can't feel sorry for them too long. We have to go and get back to work.”

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