Saturday afternoon on Senior Day, in front of 108,607 spectators and with Joe Paterno watching from the press box, they earned a reprieve from the skeptics as the passing game put together a game-winning drive in the third quarter for a 17-13 Penn State victory over Michigan State.
With the win, the Nittany Lions (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) clinched fourth place in the Big Ten and likely a bid to the Outback Bowl.
On the difference-making drive, Morelli rolled right and found Jordan Norwood for a 6-yard touchdown. The first TD catch by a wideout since the Sept. 9 Notre Dame game gave PSU a 14-13 lead with 6:51 left in the third quarter and the defense took over from there.
We needed that, Lion receiver Derrick Williams said. With the kind of athletes we have, [the slump was] just not supposed to happen. It was big. I was happy for the whole receiving corps and I was happy for Jordan.
Penn State tacked on a Kevin Kelly field goal in the fourth quarter to finish out the scoring on the day against the Spartans as Morelli broke Wally Richardson's school record for completions in a season on the afternoon as well. Morelli now has 194, while Richardson had 193 in 1995.
For MSU (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten), it was another game that slipped away and a fitting end to the John L. Smith era. The head coach said that he would resign at the end of the season.
The deciding touchdown drive began when Morelli hit Williams along the sideline just past the marker to keep the chains moving. Williams slipped a tackle and picked up 23 yards before accidentally stepping out of bounds.
Following a 23-yard screen to running back Tony Hunt two plays later, Morelli split several defenders in the middle of the field to hit tight end Andrew Quarless for a 29-yard gain to set up first and goal from the MSU 6. Then he found Norwood.
The first half was a nightmare for Penn State. Defensively, PSU struggled to stop the MSU passing game even though sophomore Brian Hoyer was filling in for senior Drew Stanton (concussion) at QB for the Spartans. Hoyer completed 15 of 29 passes for 165 yards in the first half.
Penn State was even worse offensively. The Lions fumbled five times in the opening half, losing four. Three of those turnovers led to MSU scores. At one point, PSU fumbled on three consecutive drives.
Any time you have that many turnovers, you're taking a very good chance at getting beat, offensive coordinator Galen Hall said. Fortunately, we were able to stay in the football game with them, come back and have some drives at the end to win the game.
The subplot Saturday was the Nittany Lion head coach.
Paterno, still recovering from surgery to repair a broken leg and torn ligaments sustained in a sideline collision at Wisconsin Nov. 4, arrived at the stadium around 11 a.m. (it was a noon kick) and talked to the team in the locker room.
Then a van brought him to the foot of the press box, and, with security doing its best to keep photographers away, was pushed via wheelchair to an elevator entrance shrouded in canvas. He watched the game from the PSU coaches' room on the second floor of the press box, taking notes and talking to other assistants but not wearing a headset.
Paterno missed the previous week's game against Temple, the first home contest he did not attend since becoming an assistant at Penn State in 1950.
But neither Paterno's return nor the pre-game ceremony honoring the 23 seniors playing their final game at Beaver Stadium could stop the Lions from being their customary flat selves early on.
Hoyer got the start and kept the Spartans moving in the first quarter. On their second drive, they advanced to the PSU 17 before Brett Swenson was wide left on a 35-yard field-goal try. The Lions seemed to catch a break, but gave the ball right back when Morelli was sacked by Travis Key and fumbled. Ryan Clifton recovered at the Lion 11 and two plays later Hoyer found Kerry Reed on an 11-yard TD pass for a 7-0 lead.
Hunt lost a fumble on State's next possession leading to a 45-yard Swenson field goal and a 10-0 edge.
In the second quarter, the Lions drew close when Morelli found Quarless on a crossing pattern and the tight end broke a tackle and scored his first career touchdown to make it 10-7.
He's a big kid, he has good speed, Morelli said of Quarless. He finds the open zone in the defense and makes plays. He's basically another receiver out there.
However, Hunt fumbled again on Penn State's next possession and Ogemdi Nwagbuo recovered at the Penn State 43 yard line. It led to a Swenson 29-yard field goal that gave MSU a 13-7 lead at the break.
In the second half, the Lions' defense clamped down, limiting MSU to 119 total yards.
On the drive following Norwood's score, Penn State forced Michigan State to punt from its own 25 as sophomore safety Anthony Scirrotto leveled junior wide receiver Terry Love over the middle as the pass fell incomplete.
On the punt attempt, Scirrotto came off the left edge for the block, giving PSU the ball at the Spartan 19. That drive led to a missed 36-yard field goal by Kevin Kelly, the sophomore's first miss of less than 40 yards since the Sept. 16 Youngstown State game.
But it didn't matter. Despite going pass crazy Hoyer finished the game 30 of 61 for 291 yards Michigan State didn't score a point in the second half. The 61 attempts were a school record.
With less than two minutes to go in the game, MSU moved to the Nittany Lion 38, thanks in part to a drive-sustaining personal-foul penalty on PSU defensive tackle Ed Johnson. But on fourth and 2 from the 38, senior Tim Shaw sacked Hoyer for a loss of nine.
It was a special way for me to go out, to get our team off the field, Shaw said. It was probably a highlight moment of my career here.
Penn State ran out the clock as Hunt, who finished with 29 carried for 130 yards, gained a key first down.