The illustrious career of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has seen some remarkable highs, including his first national title in 1982 to an epic victory over Miami in 1986. And the last months of his life saw unfathomable lows, as his beloved program was tarnished by the sexual abuse charges former assistant Jerry Sandusky was convicted upon, and Paterno himself came in for unfair and inaccurate criticism.
In any telling of the history of Penn State under Paterno, the 2008 season will likely get lost in the shuffle, but it holds its own unique place in history. The 2008 Penn State football team was the last group that Paterno ever took to a major bowl game.
Penn State had won the Orange Bowl in 2005. The ensuing two years had been okay, but not great. The Nittany Lions won eight regular season games in both 2006-07 and won a bowl game each time, but hadn’t been a serious threat for the Big Ten crown.
2008 started with adversity, when linebacker Sean Lee was lost for the season with an injury and corner Justin King entered the NFL draft a year early. There were disciplinary problems off the field that resulted in player suspensions and on September 6, the Lions had to play a good Oregon State team—one that would finish the season in the Top 20, without playmakers like defensive end Maurice Evans and tight end Andrew Quarless.
It’s here that we got a hint that this Lion team could be something special. Running back Evan Royster ran for 141 yards, Penn State was ahead 35-7 by halftime and coasted home. It was the signature win of a 4-0 non-conference slate that moved them from #22 in the preseason to #6 by the time Big Ten play opened on October 4.
Penn State had a series of big games in the early portion of the Big Ten schedule. After beating Purdue to start league play, the Lions traveled to Madison for a prime-time game against #24 Wisconsin. This writer traveled with them. I’m a Wisconsin fan whose friends with a Penn State fan and we went Camp Randall for the game.
He had a better night than I did. By a lot. PSU’s junior quarterback Darryl Clark ran for two touchdowns and threw another. Derrick Williams returned a punt for a touchdown. Defensive end Aaron Maybin spent the better part of the evening in the UW backfield. Penn State won 48-7 and it looked every bit that decisive.
Michigan did not have a good team in 2008—this was the first year of the disaster that was the Rich Rodriguez era in Ann Arbor, but the Lions still hadn’t beaten the Wolverines since 1996 and any win would suffice. It had to seem like a Penn State fan’s worst nightmare when, on their homefield, they fell behind 17-7. But Clark threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Jordan Norwood just before the half and then Royster ran roughshod over Michigan in the second half, as the game turned into a 46-17 rout.
The trifecta concluded with the biggest game yet, a trip to Ohio State to play for control of the Big Ten race on October 25. At #3 in the nation, Penn State was squarely in the national title picture. A defensive battle for a prime-time audience ensured and the Buckeyes led 6-3 early in the fourth quarter. Then the Lion defense forced a fumble that set up the go-ahead touchdown and they ended the game with an interception on the goal line to preserve the 13-6 win.
Penn State had control of the Big Ten race. Now #2 in the nation, they had control for a shot at a national title. And they had a week off to recuperate from their October blitz. All was well in the Valley.
That is, until the second weekend of November. Penn State went on the road to Iowa. The Hawkeyes were not having a very good year, but they had matched up well with the Lions over the years under head coach Kirk Ferentz. They did so again. Penn State only led 23-21 and Iowa had the ball in the closing minutes, facing a 3rd-and-15. A pass interference call kept the drive going and a last-play field goal dashed Penn State’s national championship hopes.
Penn State won an easy game over Indiana and then faced #15 Michigan State with the Rose Bowl bid in the balance. The Spartans had the nation’s leading rusher in Javon Ringer, but the Lion defense held him to just 42 yards. Clark had his finest hour as it snowed in Happy Valley, throwing for 341 yards and four touchdowns. The game turned into a rout, and with the 49-18 win, Penn State was headed to Pasadena.
The Rose Bowl trip for Penn State matched them up with USC and it was here the season really died hard, as it has for so many Big Ten teams in recent years when play either USC or teams from the Southeastern Conference. The Rose Bowl was tied 7-7, but the Trojans then showed why bookmakers made them a nine-point favorite, ripping off 24 unanswered points.
USC quarterback Mark Sanchez would one day become the butt of jokes with the New York Jets—quite literally, thanks to his “butt fumble” of 2012–but surrounded by this collection of talent he was unstoppable. The game ended 38-24 and it wasn’t that close.
Still, Penn State had made it back to the top of the Big Ten for the second time in four years. And in retrospect, they had made history that no one would have preferred to know at the time. It was Joe Pa’s last dance in one of college football’s showcase bowl games.