Understandably, Kelly was eager to try again.
Everybody was telling me, just relax and stay focused. Don't worry about the first one. Don't worry about the second one. You'll get the third one eventually, Kelly said. It was just a matter of me getting my chance again.
Redemption was the theme of Penn State's entire Orange Bowl trip. The Nittany Lions wanted to put behind them memories of their checkered recent past, including four losing seasons from 2000 to 2004.
Despite some tense moments, that's just what they did.
To win it, to win this one this way at the end of the year, is a great tribute to these kids and to a great coaching staff, Lion coach Joe Paterno said. It's a great feeling, but not really personally. I'm just so pleased for these guys. They came off a couple of lousy years, got together and made up their minds that that was enough. They went to work and fought hard.
Penn State's Orange Bowl victory was exactly the kind of ragged, imprecise game Paterno had said he feared whenever he reflected on his team's long layoff. The third-ranked Nittany Lions (11-1) hadn't played since wrapping up the Big Ten championship at Michigan State Nov. 19. There was rust was everywhere, at least on offense.
Fortunately for Penn State, the defense was as stout as ever, hounding freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford and bottling up the 22nd-ranked Seminoles' running game. Florida State managed only 284 yards including just 26 rushing yards. But Penn State also suffered a serious blow as Butkus Award-winning linebacker Paul Posluszny was helped off the field midway through the fourth quarter with what appeared to be a right knee injury.
They think he has got some ligament problems, Paterno said. They are going to do an MRI on him as soon as they can and find out how serious it may be. It's a tough break for him.
Florida State (8-5) tied the score, 16-16, on a 48-yard field goal by Gary Cismesia with 4:08 to play. Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Lions had gone ahead 16-13 on a safety as Weatherford, dropping back into his own end zone, panicked and flung the ball haphazardly, drawing an intentional grounding penalty.
The teams each missed field goals in the first overtime period, then traded touchdowns in the second, with Austin Scott scoring on a 1-yard plunge and B.J. Dean answering with a 1-yard run of his own to make the score 23-23 heading into the third overtime.
Emotions were starting to fray, even among the coaches.
I kept saying to myself, when are we going to get this thing over? Paterno said. I kept looking at my watch - 12:30, a quarter to 1. I've usually been asleep three hours by that time. That's the longest game I've ever been in. That game was almost five hours long.
The Orange Bowl had been promoted as a meeting of the two old lions of college football. Paterno and Bobby Bowden went into the game with a combined 712 victories in 80 seasons. What's more, they were the winningest bowl coaches of all time, with Paterno holding the records for most appearances (32 including the Orange Bowl) and victories (20) and Bowden ranking second in bowl wins (19).
But once the game began, the two figureheads ceded the spotlight to their players.
Not that the players seemed to want it.
The Lions' offensive stars couldn't do much against Florida State's high-pressure defense. Denied his usual running room and harassed whenever he tried to throw downfield, Michael Robinson completed 21 of 39 passes for 253 yards in his final college game. Worse, tailback Tony Hunt went down in the first quarter with a left ankle injury.
It was a hard-hitting game, perhaps too hard considering the Seminoles were penalized 13 times for 129 yards.
That's a great team, a great defense, Robinson said. They did some things I never saw before. But we hung in. I said, no matter how slow I get up, I'm gonna get up.
The Lions' struggles reached a crescendo in the third quarter when Florida State pressed its field-position advantage a little more with each Penn State punt. Fortunately for the Lions, their opponent was stymied, too. The two teams managed only two first downs between them in the third quarter, and one of them was by penalty.
A pro-Penn State crowd created something resembling a home-game atmosphere for the Lions. They showed their appreciation with an 85-yard drive on their second possession. Scott, filling in for Hunt, accounted for 57 of those yards and walked into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown to give the Lions a 7-0 lead.
Scott rushed for 110 yards after taking over for Hunt, whose ankle was injured on Penn State's first possession. It was the little-used junior's best day as a collegian.
I just knew I couldn't hold back, Scott said. I couldn't be hesitant. It was time to take off the diaper and be a real [running] back.
It took a fluke two-play, 11-second drive to revive Penn State. Ethan Kilmer's acrobatic 24-yard touchdown reception with six seconds left sent the Lions into the Orange Bowl's less-interminable-than-usual halftime break sporting a 14-13 lead.
They never trailed again.
It's amazing, Kilmer said. I'm happy for my teammates, for the coaching staff and the fans. We have come such a long way, on such a hard road. It's unbelievable.
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