With about 45 minutes left in warmups, Wagner returned to the locker room. When he came back out for the start of the game, he was stunned by what he saw.
I didn't know what to think, the junior kicker said.
Nobody did. By the time Penn State and LSU players were done warming up, the field looked as though it had hosted a tractor pull. There were divots and potholes everywhere, and every step made a squishing sound.
The footing was especially hazardous for the kickers, for whom planting and timing are everything. But if the field conditions bothered him, Wagner didn't let it show. He kicked four field goals, including the decisive 21-yarder with 57 seconds to play to lift the Nittany Lions to a 19-17 victory over LSU in the Capital One Bowl.
It was just one of those things that you had to be mentally tough about, Wagner said. As the game went on, you made the adjustment for it and there was nothing you could do. You just had to deal with the conditions that were dealt to you.
Wagner's final kick allowed Penn State (11-2) to overcome two quick LSU touchdowns in the second half that gave the Tigers (9-4) a 17-16 lead and had them on the verge of what would have been their milestone 100th victory of the decade. After the Nittany Lions gained possession at their own 31 with just under six minutes left, Daryll Clark led them downfield, taking them to the LSU 4 in 11 plays before making way for Wagner.
Clark said he was confident heading into his final drive as a college player, which gave 11th-ranked Penn State its first victory over a ranked opponent this season and gave it a shot at a top-10 finish in the final polls. We're not losing this football game no matter what, he told himself.
And that's when I told the guys when we were huddled up on the sideline on our way in, I told them, 'Whatever it takes, we have to keep these chains rolling and we have to keep the ball moving.'
Also moving fast on Friday: storm fronts and rain clouds.
The field conditions had emerged as a concern in the days leading up to the game. In the Champs Sports Bowl, which was played in Citrus Bowl Stadium three days earlier, the field appeared to be in terrible shape, with clumps of sod coming loose as players tried to plant their feet. One player, Miami tailback Graig Cooper, suffered a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for the 2010 season.
The field looked even worse Friday, as a hard rain pelted central Florida throughout the morning and early afternoon. The stadium's grounds crew tried using squeegees to push the water off the field prior to kickoff, but it was a futile effort. The rain came down faster than it could be absorbed, so fast that players could only marvel.
I was shocked, tailback Evan Royster said. I've never seen a field that didn't drain. I've seen puddles and stuff like that, but usually there's a crown on the field that usually helps it drain. But there wasn't on this field. There were puddles, and there was water underneath the grass.
Once the game began, players hydroplaned all over the place, including Royster, who seemed headed for a touchdown in the second quarter before skidding to a stop at the LSU 6-yard-line. By the fourth quarter, the rain had tapered off, but the field was so chewed-up it hardly mattered.
The weather gave everyone fits, especially the receivers and defensive backs. LSU dropped passes, bobbled potential interceptions -- Tigers safety Danny McCray had a pass bounce off his chest -- and fumbled. The Tigers were nearly as messy as the weather, with three interceptions, two fumbles, 10 penalties and, depending on who was doing the estimating, anywhere from eight to a dozen dropped passes. Said LSU coach Les Miles, Those things happen, especially on a wet field.
In the first quarter, Penn State's usually reliable Derek Moye dropped a pass on which he had gotten open for a potentially big gain. Paterno gave him an earful when he went to the sideline, although Moye said he didn't hear it. I was so upset with myself I couldn't hear anything anyone was saying to me, Moye said. His lips were moving, but he wasn't saying anything.
No matter. When Clark threw to him three plays later, he caught the ball on the left sideline for a 37-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
The Lions added two field goals in the second quarter and one in the third. They had built a 16-3 lead when LSU got back into the game with a 24-yard touchdown catch by Brandon LaFell late in the third quarter and a 1-yard run by Stevan Ridley early in the fourth.
LSU seemed to be headed for a narrow victory. But that was before Clark, the game's MVP with 216 yards passing, took charge. And it was before the defense stopped LSU in the final minute with the help of a personal foul that cost the Tigers 15 yards on their final desperate possession.
As the Lions piled onto buses to begin the trip back to the team hotel, a few shafts of sunlight beamed through the clouds. But by that point, as far as players were concerned, the weather was just a footnote.
We were down here to win a big game for our Penn State program, Clark said. We had a never-die attitude. We ran into a couple of pit stops this game, but we were able to get it done when we needed to.