It was looking like the end was near for Penn State’s legendary, but aging coach, Joe Paterno. After a career that had seen national titles in 1982 and 1986, plus four other unbeaten and uncrowned teams, Paterno’s program had fallen on hard times. Four of the previous five seasons had been sub-.500 and the calls for him to step down were getting louder.
The 2005 Penn State football team responded with an outstanding season. After sweeping three soft non-conference games, they opened Big Ten play with a come-from-behind win over Northwestern. Then a 44-14 blowout of Minnesota got the Nittany Lions into the national rankings at #16. The stage was set for Ohio State to come to Happy Valley.
Penn State’s October 8 game with the Buckeyes was in prime-time and ESPN’s Gameday pregame show got its highest rating to date. The game itself was the second-highest rated regular season game ever telecast by ESPN.
And the game itself was worth of the stakes. It was a tough defensive fight, with a big interception return by Penn State’s Calvin Lowry setting up a first half touchdown and being the difference late, as the Lions held on to a 17-10 lead. Ohio State’s final drive ended with Penn State’s All-American defensive end Tamba Hali sacked quarterback Troy Smith and forced a fumble.
A controversial loss at Michigan a week later was the season’s only defeat. With Penn State leading 25-21 at Ann Arbor and the Wolverines driving in the final minute, officials put two seconds back on the clock after a UM timeout originally taken with :28 left. As it turned out, the game’s final play inside the red zone took place with one second left and was the game-winning touchdown.
Paterno’s defense, led by Butkus Award-linebacker Paul Posluszny, kept the team on track. They blasted Purdue and then Wisconsin, both games at home, and held control of the Big Ten race. A victory of Michigan State, 31-22, at East Lansing in the final week secured a conference co-championship, sharing honors with Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions harbored hopes of getting back into the national title picture throughout the stretch drive, and they climbed to #3. In a lot of years, they would have gotten the necessary upsets in November for things to work out. But 2005 as not one of those years. USC and Texas opened the season in the 1-2 spots and held serve all the way through. The #3 spot was a glass ceiling in the national polls.
Penn State’s head-to-head win over Ohio State meant the Lions got an automatic spot in the Bowl Championship Series (though the Buckeyes got an at-large selection as would have the Lion, in any case). The Rose Bowl, the normal destination of the Big Ten champ, was playing host to the national championship game this year with USC and Texas in those spots.
The Orange Bowl was the destination and Florida State was the opponent. Ironically, FSU coach Bobby Bowden, was also experiencing some vindication after critics were saying he was staying on too long.
The two legends saw their teams put on a great battle, not settled until the third overtime when Penn State won 26-23. It was a fitting ending for a comeback year in Happy Valley.