Defining moments - Penn St. starts championship - not retirement

Party for Paterno

Party for Paterno

November 20, 2005|By RALPH D. RUSSO

EAST LANSING, Mich. - As the Penn State players bounced around the field, exchanging hugs and saluting the thousands of fans who came to see the Nittany Lions become champions again, Joe Paterno ducked and ran for cover.

After 40 seasons and 353 wins, the 78-year-old coach has been part of more celebrations than he can count.

But for his players, it's been a long hard road to the program's first appearance in the Bowl Championship Series.

JoePa and the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions locked up their first Big Ten title in 11 years and the BCS bid that goes with it by defeating Michigan State 31-22 Saturday.

Michael Robinson ran for 90 yards and a touchdown and passed for another score, and Alan Zemaitis had three interceptions for Penn State (10-1, 7-1).

Coming off a 4-7 season, its fourth losing year in the last five, Penn State tied Ohio State for the Big Ten lead but will get the league's automatic BCS bid because the Lions beat the Buckeyes in October.


"I've been around a lot of good football teams and I've been in a lot of locker rooms where we've felt pretty good about what we had done," Paterno said. "The kids are the ones that are all fired up and they should be, because they went though all that junk - the losing years, everyone doubting them and they got together and went to work. They're the guys that should be happy."

Michigan State (5-6, 2-6), which began the season 4-0, finished it with six losses in seven games to post consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1992.

When it was over, the Nittany Lions partied in Spartan Stadium but Paterno bolted to the tunnel with his head down, looking up just long enough to give the Penn State section a wave on the way out.

"He deserves it," said Robinson, had a 33-yard TD run in the second quarter. "He really does. He's worked so hard. He stayed with us. People told him to retire. Now look at him. Nobody's saying to retire and no more Joe must go Web sites. None of that. I'm just so happy for him."

Paterno wasn't too happy with his team earlier in the week, so he booted the whole bunch from practice on Tuesday.

"They took it," Paterno said. "Nobody pouted. The captains got them together and all's well that ends well."

Zemaitis' second pick came in third quarter, and he returned it 17 yards to the Michigan State 4. Robinson threw a 3-yard TD pass to Deon Butler moments later for a 24-7 lead.

Paterno, pant-cuffs rolled and kept warm on a cold, windy night by a long, dark winter coat, barely reacted to the score, turning away to resume pacing the sideline as his players and coaches jumped for joy.

The last time Penn State was Big Ten champs, Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter were piling up big numbers during the Nittany Lions' second season in the league.

Who would have believed then that Paterno's program would eventually drop to the Big Ten's second division?

That Penn State completed its return to the top against Michigan State provided a bit of symmetry to the revival. Penn State completed last season with a 37-13 victory over the Spartans in Happy Valley that injected some optimism into the program heading into 2005.

With a new, dynamic offense - directed by the versatile senior Robinson - and the best defense Penn State has had since LaVar Arrington was a Nittany Lion, Paterno has been vindicated.

He said throughout the 2004 season that he felt the team was close to being a winner again - and he was right.

"I feel wonderful," Zemaitis said. "It's something when you put your mind to it, battle all adversity and nobody giving us respect - when you get what you wanted at the end, it makes it that much better."

Michigan State looked as if it might be the surprise team in the Big Ten after beating Notre Dame in September, but coach John L. Smith's Spartans lost consecutive heartbreakers to Michigan and Ohio State in October and never recovered.

"We're not satisfied with this season," Spartans defensive end SirDarean Adams said. "We want to come back next year and really play ball."

The Spartans couldn't be accused of quitting in this one, even after trailing 17-0 at half.

Jason Teague had a 25-yard touchdown run and receiver Jerramy Scott ran 4 yards for a score on a direct snap to make it 24-14 after three quarters.

Michigan State was on the verge of making it even tighter, driving to the Penn State 11 at the start of the fourth quarter. But Drew Stanton was sacked by Jay Alford for a 13-yard loss and Michigan State botched the snap and hold on a 43-yard field goal attempt, never even getting a kick off.

Stanton finished 23-for-36 for 233 yards with four interceptions and a late TD pass.

The Lions took advantage of the special teams' gaffe as Tony Hunt capped a nice drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 31-14 with 4:58 left.

Smith dropped to 18-18 in three seasons in East Lansing, a mark that probably won't stop speculation about his job security, though athletic director Ron Mason said has given no indication that he'd fire Smith halfway through a six-year contract.

"I don't even worry about it," Smith said. "That's not my decision. My job is to go out and recruit young men."

Michigan State had been 9-1 against top-10 opponents since 1997, including 6-0 at home, but they couldn't play spoiler against Penn State.

Robinson was 10-for-20 passing for 105 yards and Hunt surpassed 1,000 yards rushing on the season with 89 in the game.

"People picked us to go sixth in the Big Ten," Robinson said. "People said we should be happy with six or seven wins. Now we're on top of the Big Ten right now."

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