We had them all the way

It certainly looked like the football gods were smiling at JoePa (news alert – Joe chewed out a young reporter who called him that while down at the Orange Bowl – says he doesn’t like the name and wished he had said something years ago when it first started – PS: the name precedes JLo et al by 20+ years – personally, I think Joe started the trend ).

The game had a typical Penn State start to it – march down the field and score then seem to retreat into a defensive shell. Joe’s teams have always played that way. If we don’t have the offensive fire power to clearly overpower you, we play not to make mistakes. Unfortunately, when you play that way you often don’t make big plays either. Plus, when you play that way you keep your opponent in the game so that when you do make the almost inevitable mistake, it can be a truly costly one.

And make a mistake we most certainly did. It came halfway through the second quarter when while nursing a 7 point lead we let down on punt coverage – 10 seconds later the game was tied. FSU fed off that electrifying punt return to force a three and out, then quickly followed it with a one play touchdown drive (that gave them two scores in 80 seconds) and we trailed 13-7 despite having dominated FSU statistically.

Before that punt return, here’s what Florida State’s drives looked like:

  1. 7 plays for 16 yards and a punt
  2. 4 plays for -4 yards and a punt
  3. 3 plays for 2 yards and a punt
  4. 3 plays for -6 yards and a punt
  5. 4 plays for 6 yards and a punt
  6. 4 plays for 26 yards and an interception

That’s 25 plays for a total of 40 yards.

Our defense is just smothering. Two years ago, Tom Bradley our defensive coordinator told me that we were going to have a pretty good football team this year – he was certainly right. Paterno certainly thought that we were going to be good. I heard from a friend of mine that works for the football program that before the season started Paterno had called the team together and told them that he thought they had the tools to be a pretty special team. He flat out said that he wasn’t talking about a B10 championship either. He told them the team could go undefeated and challenge for the national championship (we were one second away from doing that . The team bought into it too. At the beginning of the season, whenever they broke the huddle after timeouts they would shout “Rose Bowl” in unison. At the beginning of the year, I thought it was pretty silly on the team’s part – after the Ohio State win, I was starting to believe too.

Back to the game.

Trailing by one, the offense responded just as it has every other time this year that it needed to (at Northwestern we drove the length of the field with time running out at the end of both halves to score TDs – btw, the Derrick Williams TD to give PSU the win at the end of the game is up for the Pontiac Game Changing Performance award to be announced at halftime tonight at the Rose Bowl). This time it only took 11 seconds for them to put a toucdown on the board.

Ethan Kilmer, the kid that made the acrobatic catch in the end zone for the touchdown is an interesting story – he never played football in high school. Normally, when you hear a story like this it turns out that the kid is a big black kid from Africa who never had the opportunity to play but when he shows up in this country he’s turned into a defensive lineman where all he has to be told is “go get the guy with the ball” (see the Tamba Hali story).

Not Ethan. Ethan is a white kid from football crazy Pennsylvania. He was a basketball and track guy in high school placing in the high jump in the state championships. He went to Shippensburg expecting to run track but never went out for the team feeling burned out. After a couple of years floundering around at Shippensburg, Ethan decided that he wanted to major in Kinesiology, a major that wasn’t offered at Shippensburg so he transferred to Penn State. On a whim he tried out for the football team and made the squad as a walk-on. Two years later and he is starting at wide receiver (his athleticism is legendary, rumored to have a 48″ vertical, and several people think he has an excellent shot at making an NFL squad because of his special teams play)

So we go into halftime leading 14-13, which allows us to go back into our “let’s be ultra careful and not make a mistake” offense and count on the defense to lead us to victory. Sure enough the defense responds absolutely shutting down FSU. Here’s all that FSU could muster following the touchdown pass that they got in the second quarter.

  1. 3 plays for 2 yards and a punt
  2. 1 play for 0 yards and the half ends
  3. 3 plays for 5 yards and a punt
  4. 3 plays for 3 yards and a punt
  5. 3 plays for 5 yards and a punt
  6. 4 plays for 8 yards and a turnover on downs
  7. 3 plays for 4 yards and a safety

That’s 20 plays for 27 yards and -2 points, an even better showing than the first half effort. Unfortunately, we are still playing it ultra cautious on offense and the only points we have to show are the two from the defense’s safety.

Still, I’m starting to feel a little comfortable when the offense drives down inside the FSU’s ten yard line. We are sitting on a three point lead and look about to go up ten (or at least a comfortable six) with under 10 to go when funny things start to happen. All of a sudden center EZ Smith doesn’t make a snap – his hand slips on the ball and it never gets back to the QB. FSU recovers on their own 5 yard line.

Time for another human interest story – EZ Smith. Only this one isn’t as positive as the others. Joe Paterno calls EZ a nice kid and says that he really likes EZ. That’s good because EZ has been guilty of some pretty stupid off the field incidents during his PSU career. Two years ago EZ was kicked off the team for underage drinking. While that seems a little harsh for something that all of us have done, there’s more to the story. EZ was cited by a campus cop for having an open container, i.e. a can of beer, outside his on-campus apartment following a PSU football game. OK – here’s where the “stupid” starts. Exactly one week later, EZ is once again caught by the same cop again outside his apartment with another can of beer in his hand. Adious EZ – end of the season for you. Scene shifts, and it’s a little over a year later, in January of 2005. EZ and his roommates decide to play a little game of darts in their apartment. Unfortunately this dart game has a little twist. Instead of darts, they use graphite arrows and a compound bow. When the residents of the apartment next to them call the police to object to the arrows that are piercing through their apartment wall, EZ’s goose is cooked. EZ is expelled from school for the spring and summer but is allowed to return for the fall. Halfway through the season he manages to work his way out of Joe’s doghouse and into the starting lineup.

Once again, back to the game.

FSU mounts a courageous drive and manages to go the length of the field to kick a game tying field goal with under five minutes to go. The score is 16-16.

Historical note. JoePa’s very first bowl game was the Gator Bowl in 1967 against Florida State (Bobby Bowden wasn’t the coach at FSU at the time) and the game ended in a 17-17 tie. In that game, Joe made one of his stupidest coaching decisions ever. PSU was leading 17-14 late in the game when we had the ball around our own 25 yard line. The Nittany Lions were trying to run out the clock when they got what Paterno thought was a bad spot from the referee on a second down play. Paterno thought the Lions had made a first down but the ref didn’t agree. On third and inches, the Nits once again came up short and Paterno once again felt we got a bad spot. Joe was irate and in a rash moment called for the team to go for it on fourth down. This time we clearly failed to make it, FSU took over on downs. They got nowhere but they were already in field goal position due to Joe’s dumb decision and they kicked the tying field goal.

However, ties are no longer allowed in NCAA football (a rule I don’t particularly like by the way), so we played on.

Frankly, the less said about the overtime the better. Let’s just say it was an emotional roller coaster with true freshman kicker Kevin Kelly finally winning it with his 29 yard field goal – a particularly gutsy kick since he had already missed twice with chances to win the game for PSU. Interestingly, the kick wasn’t supposed to happen – it was supposed to be a fake. The Nits went onto the field with a fake kick called but Florida State didn’t line up in the alignment that Penn State expected so holder Jason Ganter changed the call at the line of scrimmage to a real kick.

The Penn State win gave Joe his 354th victory and moved him only five behind Bowden 359 victories on the all time D1 wins chart. It also gives Joe a 7-1 record going head to head against Bowden (Joe is 1-1 against Bobby at Florida State and 6-0 against Bobby at West Virginia). Bowden’s 359 wins are a sore point with Nittany Lion fans. According to NCAA rules, once a coach has coached at a D1A school for ten years, ALL of his collegiate coaching victories count on his all-time record. Bowden started his coaching career at little known Howard (now named Samford) and has 31 wins at Howard that count toward his 359. There are some that think those wins shouldn’t count. When you look at who they are against, you just might agree. For the record, Bobby’s 31 Howard wins are:

  1. Maryville (TN)
  2. Sewanee (TN)
  3. Tennessee Tech Freshman (yup – TT can use only freshman)
  4. Millsaps (MS)
  5. Tennessee Martin
  6. Rhodes (TN)
  7. West Alabama
  8. Troy State
  9. Gordon JC (even junior college wins somehow count)
  10. Maryville (TN)
  11. Sewanee (TN)
  12. Georgetown (KY)
  13. Millsaps (MS)
  14. Delta St (MS)
  15. West Alabama
  16. Rhodes (TN)
  17. Troy State (AL)
  18. Millington Naval Air Station (yup – a win over a Naval Air Station counts)
  19. Georgetown (KY)
  20. Wofford (SC)
  21. Delta St (MS)
  22. Carson-Newman (TN)
  23. Rhodes (TN)
  24. Troy St (AL)
  25. Tennessee-Chattanooga
  26. University of Mexico (yes Mexico not New Mexico)
  27. Louisiana College (no not LSU)
  28. Furman (SC)
  29. Carson-Newman (TN)
  30. Mississippi College (not the one in the SEC)
  31. Wofford (SC)

Somehow they don’t seem to stack up against JoePa’s first thirty (and for the historical record here they are):

  1. Maryland
  2. Boston College
  3. West Virginia (Bowden was an assistant at WVU then)
  4. California
  5. Pitt
  6. Miami
  7. Boston College
  8. West Virginia
  9. Syracuse
  10. Maryland
  11. NC State
  12. Ohio
  13. Pitt
  14. Navy
  15. Kansas State
  16. West Virginia
  17. UCLA
  18. Boston College
  19. Army
  20. Miami
  21. Maryland
  22. Pitt
  23. Syracuse
  24. Kansas (in the Orange Bowl – JoePa’s first bowl win)
  25. Navy
  26. Colorado
  27. Kansas State
  28. West Virginia
  29. Syracuse
  30. Ohio
  31. Boston College

I think you can understand why PSU fans object to Bowden being labeled the winningest coach in D1 history.

And now you know the rest of the story.