I hate to be the buzzkill. Not with many Penn Staters still coming down off the high from the Nittany Lions’ 24-21 upset of No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday night at Beaver Stadium. Sure, the team still needs a lot of help to win the Big Ten East Division and play for a conference title in Indianapolis come December, but the symbolism alone of knocking off the Buckeyes is generating so much excitement. I understand that sobriety is probably the last thing the good people of State College want in their analysis.
So … sorry?
The inconvenient truth is that Penn State’s recent history is dominated by a pair of crippling upset losses that followed triumphs over highly ranked Ohio State squads.
In 2005, it was a 3-3 Michigan group that knocked off the 6-0 and eighth-ranked Nits just a week after Penn State dispatched the No. 6 Buckeyes, 17-10, before one of the most raucous crowds in Beaver Stadium history.
After a furious fourth-quarter rally gave Penn State a late lead, quarterback Chad Henne marched the Wolverines down the field on their final drive, finding receiver Mario Manningham in the middle of the end zone as time expired. In case you somehow forgot:
That throw knocked Penn State from the ranks of the unbeaten, and it never recovered in the national championship race as Texas and USC remained unblemished, relegating the Nits to the Orange Bowl while the Longhorns and Trojans staged a classic in the Rose Bowl for the title.
Three years later, Penn State blew it again. Sitting 9-0 and No. 3 in the polls after beating the No. 9 Buckeyes at the Horseshoe two weeks earlier, the Nittany Lions fell at 5-4 Iowa, 24-23.
The Nits looked sluggish for much of the game while coming off a bye, but still managed to take a 23-14 lead into the fourth quarter before a Shonn Green touchdown got the Hawkeyes back in the game. A long final drive fueled by a controversial pass interference call on Penn State allowed Daniel Murray to drill home a 31-yard field goal with one second remaining for the 24-23 win.
Once again, it was a loss that cost Penn State dearly in the national championship race, as Florida and Oklahoma both advanced to the BCS National Championship game with one loss that year. Had Penn State taken care of business that blustery day in Iowa City, it may well have gotten a shot in that game instead.
It should be noted, however, that Purdue, the Nits’ opponent this week, is significantly worse than either of those squads that caused Penn State so much heart break in the past. The Boilermakers are 3-4 and trudging along with an interim coach (Gerad Parker) after Darrell Hazell was fired earlier this month.
It should also be noted that this Penn State team is not those Penn State teams. While the computers may have had these Nittany Lions underrated heading into the showdown with Ohio State last week, this club had its warts exposed a couple of times by Pittsburgh and Michigan.
And nothing quite says “trap game” like going from a whited out crowd of 107,000-plus for a game under the lights at Beaver Stadium to a noon kick in what’s likely to be a pretty sparse crowd at drab Ross-Ade Stadium. That’s a drop-off in intensity level that the Lions will have to prove they can cope with.
So while the Nittany Lions should be favored in each of their final five games and some fans are already beginning to say the words “Rose Bowl” and “Penn State” in the same sentence, the team would be wise to consult its history and remain focused on shaking those Ohio State hangovers of the past.
Get past the Boilermakers, and it shouldn’t be hard to get up for home games against Iowa and Michigan State — two squads that are down this year but played in major bowl games last year — and road contests at upstart Indiana and angry neighbor Rutgers.
If ever there was a program that needs to heed the “one game at a time” cliche, though, it’s this one at noon Saturday.
Just ask Chad Henne.