Is Penn State-Michigan a rivalry?
Game week between these two teams usually brings all kinds of Serious Takes on the answer out into the open waters of the World Wide Web, but I’m here to tell you the answer does not matter because Penn Sate-Michigan is the most lit series in the Big Ten over the last 25 years.
A four-overtime game? Check. Game played in a stadium that prisoners were brought in to shovel snow out of? Check. Game that the refs just kind of made up the ending to? Check!
It’s not necessarily “good” football, but it’s frequently as wild as some of the tailgating that goes down outside before the games, and friends, that’s why you don’t need to call it a “rivalry” to legitimize the notion that this Saturday, when the two teams meet at 3:30 p.m. in Ann Arbor, is one of the highlights on every Big Ten schedule. Not convinced? Let’s take a look back at four of the nuttiest games between these two teams, and hopefully you’ll come to appreciate the beautiful absurdity that the series has become.
1995:- The ‘Snow Bowl’
Michigan welcomed Penn State to the Big Ten with a 21-13 win in 1993, and the Nittany Lions returned the favor with a thrilling comeback victory in 1994. If this was a list of great games rather than of lit ones, those two would probably be near the top.
Alas, we’re going to talk about the 1995 game in which both teams were well out of the Big Ten race because look at what a snowstorm in State College before the game wrought. (Watch the first two minutes or so. Not the whole three hours. Unless you have some time to burn.)
Michigan fans standing side by side with dudes from the jail to dig Beaver Stadium out of an arctic hellscape! ABC’s Jack Arute dodging snowballs in his intro! A big wall of snowpack mere feet from the sideline!
This thing was unhinged before it even kicked off, and then it just kept going. Check out this account from Tim Aydin of Black Shoe Diaries from a few years ago.
“I still recall seeing Michigan’s star receiver Mercury Hayes (that’s a name you never forget) getting pelted in the eye right after missing on a catch near the sideline by the student section. This was followed by Joe Paterno running over to the student section and yelling at them to cut it out. Of course, being (likely) drunk students at a football game, they didn’t listen. Things got so out of the hand with the snowball-chucking that the PA announcer at the time (current radio play-by-play guy Steve Jones) repeatedly had to warn the students to stop, lest PSU be assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.”
And then! Joe Paterno of all humans called a fake field goal.
Now that’s lit! (Penn State won, 27-17.)
2005: Time to leave the B1G?
The meeting a decade later lacked those shenanigans in the stands, but if you ask Penn State fans, not from the guys in stripes.
As if a fourth quarter that saw three lead changes and 22 points from a Penn State team that had scored just three in the first three quarters wasn’t crazy enough, Michigan got one last shot at the undefeated Nittany Lions defense with less than a minute left.
On a first-down play, Michigan quarterback Chad Henne found Carl Tabb on the sideline, with Tabb failing to get out of bounds, forcing Michigan to call a timeout. The clock ran down to 28 seconds before officials stopped the clock, and Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr threw a fit on the sideline, resulting in the refs restoring two seconds to the game clock.
They became kind of important.
Michigan drove down to the Penn State 10-yard line and got a final play with one second remaining, a second that wouldn’t have existed had Carr not gotten the time added earlier in the drive. And:
Henne found Mario Manningham in the end zone as time expired. The Nits’ national title hopes were dashed, and the Penn State message boards had a conspiracy theory about crooked Big Ten refs to run with until the end of time, one Paterno apparently considered indulging himself in, suggesting to friends that he might take the Nittany Lions out of the conference over it.
And once you’ve gotten to the point where you’re talking conspiracy theories and conference secession, you’ve reached “lit” status pretty safely.
2006: Planet of the Aches
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defense more vicious than the one No. 4 Michigan brought to Beaver Stadium that day to do terrible things to Penn State’s offense. Well on their way to that epic 1-2 showdown with Ohio State in Columbus to close that regular season, the Wolverines held the Nits to minus-14 yards rushing that day and dealt out seven bone-crunching sacks.
How bone crunching?
Well, Penn State’s starting QB, Anthony Morelli, got annihilated by Adrian Branch. Completely smoked. And he had to leave the game. So did Daryll Clark, who was ruined by Lamarr Woodley. Just total devastation.
Branch, Woodley and the rest had so broken Beaver Stadium’s spirit that most people had left by the time third-string QB Paul Cianciolo came in to try to attempt one of the more improbable comebacks you can imagine. But attempt he did.
Apparently unfazed, Cianciolo threw a 44-yard touchdown to Tony Hunt to make the score 17-10. Then Penn State got a stop on the ensuing Michigan possession and got the ball back with a chance to tie.
Of course, the Michigan defense stepped up to force a turnover on downs seal the win. But the scene for the last five minutes was as bizarre as it gets. A third-string QB taking the only significant snaps of his career. A stadium that usually isn’t so empty even when Penn State is losing by 20-plus points. And a top-five team that still barely escaped without overtime.
Moral of the story? When these two teams play, don’t leave until they’re out of QBs.
2013: Chaos times four
Ah yes. The most lit game of them all.
Like the 2005 game, this tilt was back and forth, and would have been remembered as pretty wild even without the ending it produced. But then Penn State receiver Allen Robinson decided to do this with his team down seven and trying to tie the game at 34 on its final drive.
That moment, which set QB Christian Hackenberg up for the game-tying QB sneak score, is now tattooed onto Mr. Robinson and is probably the iconic play of a dark decade for Penn State. Then there was somehow still a large handful of plays that ended up being just as important to the outcome. Let’s review.
- Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons missed a field goal with two seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
- His Penn State counterpart Sam Ficken missed a 40-yarder to start the extra session.
- Gibbons, with another chance to win it for the Wolverines, saw his kick blocked to send it a second OT.
- Both teams finally made kicks in the second OT to go to a third.
- Gibbons missed again (!) after a Penn State fumble set him up with a chance to win the game.
- And in the fourth overtime, after a Michigan field goal, Penn State finally found pay dirt with Bill Belton, whipping Happy Valley into a victorious frenzy that not even a 63-14 shellacking the following week at Ohio State could dampen.
As you can see, after the Robinson catch, it was about an hour of simply horrifying offensive football. And man, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t revel in something just as weird going down Saturday when these teams meet at the Big House.
The “rivalry” debate will continue. But it’s these frantic moments we remember Penn State-Michigan for, and as long as that’s the case, count me among those not so concerned about the labels.
It’s lit. And that’s all it has to be.
Honorable mention: 2002 in Ann Arbor, where Michigan won, 27-24, in overtime.