Tuesday, well before the Nittany Lions' regular-season finale at Michigan State, the crafty coach played one last motivational card. The team had handled itself so well in starting 9-1 and putting itself in position to control its own destiny for the conference's title and automatic BCS. But it was coming off a bye week. There was too much talk of potential bowl destinations. And a little too much strut in their step.
So when star freshman Justin King dropped a pass 40 minutes into the session, Paterno said I blew my stack, throwing down his papers and kicking the entire team off the practice field. Get out of here! he screamed in his nasal Brooklynese. Team captain and starting quarterback Michael Robinson immediately called a meeting and said everyone better straighten up.
Which was exactly what Paterno wanted.
He should have [thrown everyone out], Robinson said. We were stinking up the place. So I challenged them. [And said] stop reading all the things these reporters are writing. We can go out there and lose it; then the previous games are for nothing. I got the sense everyone responded well.
Did they ever. Though the Nittany Lions didn't exactly play their most polished game against the struggling Spartans, they came up with clutch plays at clutch moments. The 31-22 victory in which they kept MSU at arm's length throughout wrapped up a share of the Big Ten title (with Ohio State) and earned the Nittany Lions (10-1, 7-1) a BCS bid, most likely to the Orange Bowl or Fiesta Bowl.
I can't even remember when I felt this good, Robinson said in a wild postgame celebration that erupted in the corner of the field where the Penn State fans were crammed. Hats with the PSU logo bearing the words Big Ten Champs appeared as if from thin air.
This is the way it needs to be, added cornerback and fellow senior captain Alan Zemaitis. This is Penn State.
Zemaitis had as much a say in that as anyone, coming through with a career-high three interceptions to keep standout Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton and company from making things too dicey in the game's final three quarters.
Penn State hardly brought its A game in this one, especially in the early going. But against the bumbling Spartans (5-6, 2-6), losers of five of their previous six, the Lions didn't need it. Following an efficient opening drive that ended with a Kevin Kelly field goal, PSU gave MSU every opportunity to make things interesting.
The rest of the quarter, it seemed, was played in Nittany Lion territory, as a pair of ducks from punter Jeremy Kapinos (26 and 15 yards into a heavy wind) gave the Spartans possession at the Lion 38 and then the 27. MSU, showing the form that had it going into the game as the second-worst red zone team in the Big Ten, generated a punt and a missed field goal from the great field position.
And the punting wasn't the only issue for PSU in the first half. King, Ethan Kilmer and Deon Butler all dropped catchable passes, for once looking like the first-year contributors they are.
They were sloppy today in spots, Paterno said of his entire outfit.
But Penn State's strong defense and Robinson's cool huddle demeanor kept the team from losing its collective cool. And when the Lions eventually struck, they did so quickly, as Donnie Johnson blocked a Brandon Fields punt midway through the second quarter and Matt Hahn recovered for a touchdown and 10-0 lead.
Tony Hunt opened PSU's next possession by dancing 20 yards with a screen. On the next play, Robinson avoided a blitzing defensive back and shot straight up the field. He angled left and outraced everyone to the end zone for a 33-yard score and 17-0 lead.
Stanton led the Spartans methodically downfield on MSU's next drive, but had three different passes that were nearly picked. With 11 seconds to go, and from the Lion 15, he gambled once too often, as a toss to the left side of the end zone was picked by Johnson to secure the 17-0 lead at the break. Stanton came into the game ranked eighth in the nation in pass efficiency, with only eight interceptions.
The game wasn't exactly over, but you wouldn't have known it by the reaction of the Spartan fans, who booed their team - which began the season 4-0 before falling on difficult times. Many fans who left the stadium did not return after the break, as huge spots of steel bleachers were visible all around the facility.
But give credit to Stanton. Though the fans gave up, he didn't, opening the second half by directing an 8-play, 75-yard scoring drive to make it 17-7. The teams swapped possession before Zemaitis grabbed his second pick of the day and raced to the MSU 4-yard line. Robinson hit Butler for a short TD and 24-7 lead, and even more fans began streaming for the exits.
MSU responded with another score - this one when receiver Jerramy Scott lined up at QB and ran four yards for the TD. The tally was 24-14 late in the third quarter, and when PSU went three and out on its next drive, and then Stanton led his troops to the Lion 13, it looked as if it might get tight. But on third and 11 Jay Alford sacked Stanton for a 13-yard loss. Then a bad snap prevented MSU from even getting a field-goal try off, as Fields (in his role as holder) smothered the ball.
By this point there were less than 10 minutes to go in the game and the stadium was half empty. And Robinson - despite not having a great game statistically (90 yards rushing, 105 yards passing) - did what he has done all season: produce under pressure. He and Hunt pounded the ball down the field, with the latter trotting into the end zone on an option left to make it 31-14 with 4:58 showing.
Make that 4:58 until the inevitable celebration. The Spartans later took advantage of a Robinson fumble to get a late TD, but that took none of the shine off this win from PSU's perspective. As the Lions and their fans whooped it up, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno was overheard telling a group of players to Act like you've been there before.
Which would have been difficult, because none of them had been. The old head coach who quietly slipped off the field so his players could soak in the atmosphere was another story.
He's done it all and seen it all. And knows every motivational trick in the book. Like kicking his players off the practice field during the week of a crucial game. And knowing they would not take it the wrong way.
He never gave up on us, senior defensive end Tamba Hali said Saturday. And we never gave up on him.
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