In a series that started at Black Shoe Diaries, SB Nation Pittsburgh is chronicling 15 of Penn State's best games since joining the Big Ten in 1993. For more on the series, click here. Today, Lou Prato and I take a look back at Joe Paterno's 400th career victory this past November.
Penn State's 2010 football season won't be remembered for much. The Nittany Lions' 7-6 record and disappointing losses to almost every remotely-talented team they played left many fans unsettled coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and a stellar recruiting class.
It's likely, though, that years from now, those unpleasant memories will fade away. The vacuum of time will swallow the tooth-gnashing and handwringing that followed a campaign of quarterback controversies, recruiting fiascoes and potential staff defections, leaving us with a lasting memory of Joe Paterno's 400th career victory.
Make no mistake. There have been bigger and far more important wins in Paterno's career, and there's little difference, really, between 399, 400, and 401 once you're already the all-time record holder by as wide a margin as Paterno. The manner JoePa's Lions went about getting their coach to this otherwise ceremonial milestone, however, is something Penn State fans will remember fondly for a long time to come.
Following a 41-31 victory against Michigan in which former walk-on quarterback Matthew McGloin got the start in place of the concussed Robert Bolden, Penn State entered the game against Northwestern on November 6 without naming a starting quarterback. Though many expected Bolden's return, it wasn't until minutes before kickoff that it became apparent the true freshman would be the Lions' man to open the game.
With Bolden at the helm, Penn State struggled through its first couple of possessions and fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter. On a 3rd-and-11 play at Northwestern 30-yardline, Bolden fumbled and lost possession. He was benched, and McGloin replaced him on the next possession. It was the last meaningful snap Bolden would take all year.
McGloin, however, fared little better once he got into the game, as the offense was blanked for most of the second quarter. A couple Wildcat touchdowns later, the Lions trailed 21-0 with only seconds remaining in the half, and the prospects of No. 400 coming on this day remained bleak.
Then, something changed.
McGloin, assisted by a big 21-yard run from Stephfon Green, led a methodical drive from the Penn State 9-yard line with 50 ticks left in the half to get Penn State on the board on a seven-yard touchdown pass to Brett Brackett. The score pulled Penn State to within two possessions, and the Nittany Lions were due to receive the second half kickoff.
After halftime, the Lions kept the hammer down. Penn State's next four possessions ended in touchdowns, and Northwestern was shut out in the second half. With a touchdown nine seconds into the fourth quarter, the Lions had posted 35 unanswered points in just over 16 minutes of game time. It was about as perfect a 16 minutes as the Lions have ever played under Paterno, and it keyed Penn State's biggest-ever home comeback.
When the game ended a 35-21 triumph, media and photographers swarmed Paterno as he was hoisted on the backs of his players and paraded around the Beaver Stadium lawn. A scroll of his 400 victories played on the scoreboard as athletic director and president Graham Spanier (to boos) congratulated Paterno, with many of the over 100,000 in attendance still in their seats. Then, it was Paterno's time to speak.
Lou Prato: No matter what Matt McGloin does in the rest of his Penn State career, he will always be remembered for winning this game and giving Joe Paterno his 400th victory. It was like a tale from Hollywood - a cocky second-string former walk-on sophomore quarterback replaces the starter late in the first with his team behind by 14 points, sputters as the opponent makes it 21-0 just before the end of the first half, and then throws four touchdown passes to lead the team to one of the milestone victories in the legendary 45-year career of the winningest - and oldest - coach in major college football. As the saying goes, you just can’t make it up.
Once again, it was the Big Ten team Penn State fans always seem to underestimate that stunned the 100,000 plus inside Beaver stadium and thousands more watching on television. When Penn State took over the ball at its own 9-yard line with 51 seconds left in the half, many fans had already left their seats to get a head start on the concessions. They may not have known it but the Nittany Lions under Paterno had never been that far behind at Beaver Stadium. But they surely heard the crowd come alive, and maybe some of them ran back to their seats in time to see the running and passing that led to McGloin’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Brett Brackett in the back of the end zone with three seconds left.
When Penn State took the opening kickoff of the second half and went 84 yards to make the score, 21-14, the old stadium was once again shaking in the early-evening artificial lights. Northwestern was shell-shocked already and it was going to get worse. Two more touchdowns quickly followed and with nearly 12 minutes left in the final quarter, it was basically over another touchdown that made the final score 35-21. As always happens in a milestone game, most of the fans stayed to watch post-game ceremonies on the field with Joe Paterno, his players and family and others. I can still hear Paterno’s emotional words as the crowd stood and cheered loudly, "People ask me why I've stayed here so long," Paterno said. "You know what, look around ... Look around."