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Penn State's Greatest Games Of The Big Ten Era: 2001 Ohio State

Joe Paterno passed Paul "Bear" Bryant against Ohio State in 2001.

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 tells an interesting tale about the hours before Joe Paterno's record-breaking 324th win.

Zack Mills is Penn State's all-time leading passer by almost 1,000 yards and holds a bunch of Nittany Lion passing records. He was also the man behind center for some of the worst Happy Valley football seasons ever. None of that, good or bad, however, defines his Penn State career quite like his first start against Ohio State on October 27, 2001.

Then a freshman, Mills had stepped in to to lead Penn State to a late 38-35 victory against Northwestern a week earlier, allowing Joe Paterno to tie Paul "Bear" Bryant for first all-time on the major college wins list at 323. That earned him the start against the Buckeyes and an opportunity to help Paterno stand alone in the record books.

Early on, Mills struggled to get Penn State into the end zone. Three first half drives fizzled and ended with field goals, and the Lions trailed 13-9 at the break.

The second half opened with a 64-yard touchdown run by Ohio State's Jonathan Wells to stake the Bucks to a 20-9 lead. On the ensuing Penn State drive, Mills was picked off by Derek Ross, who returned the interception 44 yards for another Ohio State score. A little more than a minute into the second half, Penn State trailed 27-9. 

On the next drive, though, Mills ran into the hearts of Penn State fans by counter-punching with a 69-yard touchdown scamper to pull the Lions within two possessions with plenty of time left for a further rally. Later in the third, Mills hit Tony Johnson for a 26-yard touchdown pass, and suddenly Penn State was right back in the game at 27-22.

After the defense forced a stop, Penn State got the ball back down five with 2:54 left in the third frame. Mills then orchestrated a long drive, finding pay dirt on the 10th play with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Eric McCoo. Penn State led for the first time at 29-27, but the Buckeyes weren't done, yet.

Wells and Ohio State quarterback Steve Bellisari keyed a late drive down to the Penn State 23. The Buckeyes lined up for a relatively easy field goal attempt, but Jimmy Kennedy blocked the kick with just over three minutes left to seal the Penn State win and Joe Paterno's place in history.

Madness ensured down on the field as Joe Paterno was drenched in Gatorade and carried around by his players in celebration. ESPN struggled to conduct a proper on-field interview as those at field level rushed to congratulate the coach. Then, in perhaps the touching moment of the day, Joe's wife Sue rushed to her husband's side and embraced him with a big smile on her face. It was a great moment for a great man, and it was all made possible by a true freshman quarterback's second half heroics.

Mills finished with 17-for-32 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. His three interceptions made things harder than they had to be, but he overcame adversity to help make a memory many Penn State fans will never forget. Though his college career never quite lived up to the electricity of that late October day in 2001, no one will ever be able to take the victory away from him, Joe Paterno, or the 100,000+ fans in attendance that day.

"You never think it's going to be a big deal until it happens like this, with so many people," Paterno said after the game. The man hasn't been wrong about much in his long football coaching career, but he was definitely wrong about that.

Lou Prato: What I remember most about this game is not the way Penn State overcame a 27-9 second half deficit to win late in the fourth quarter on a blocked field goal to give Joe Paterno his 324th win, and surpass Alabama’s Bear Bryant as the winningest coach in major college football. My lasting memory occurred before the game and there were just two other witnesses to what occurred. At the time I was the director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum, which had opened in February of that year. As anyone who has visited the museum at Beaver Stadium knows the facility is a tribute to Penn State’s glorious sports history and is loaded with memorabilia, including a football used to defeat Lafayette, 72-0, in 1894, and the national championship trophies from 1982 and 1986.

There is one memento in the football exhibit that is often overlooked. It is the playbook from the 1922 season and is located in a small display case attached to the wall in the early football section, near the locked doorway leading into the inner tunnel of the stadium. The playbook belonged to one of Penn State’s historic figures, Joe Bedenk. Joe was an All-American guard in the early 1920s and later became well known over the decades as an assistant football coach and Hall of Fame baseball coach. In fact, the current generation probably doesn’t realize Bedenk was the head football coach for one season, 1949, and because he wasn’t happy, he decided to go back to being an assistant and concentrate on baseball.

Because we could not allow museum visitors to touch the playbook, we had to select one page that had a drawing of a particular play and place that open page inside the display case. I picked a play by random and I really can’t remember what the play is. However, in the first half of the 20th Century, Penn State and most other teams used a single-wing offense, which is radically different from the modern formations and is based on a power running, smash-mouth philosophy. There is a noticeable similarity with today’s spread formation offense in that the back taking the snap from the center is located a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. About two hours before the kickoff of the 2001 Ohio State game I learned there was at least one other major connection between that now archaic offensive formation and the ones being used by Paterno.

Sometimes to avoid the crowds near the players’ tunnel at Beaver Stadium, a couple of assistant coaches would come through the museum entrance, since the museum was closed to the public. On this Saturday, quarterback coach Jay Paterno and offensive line coach Bill Kenney asked me if they could go through the museum to the inner tunnel. I led them into the museum exit on the first floor of the lobby, and as we were passing the Bedenk display case, they paused and looked at it for a few seconds, and were amazed by what they saw.

Now, the week before this Ohio State game, Paterno had tied Bryant’s record 323 wins when redshirt freshman quarterback Zack  Mills entered the game for the first time with 1:39 left and the Lions trailing, 35-22. Mills, who had not played much thus far in the season, and proceeded to lead the team downfield and throw the winning four-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds remaining. So, Paterno and Kenney stared at the Bedenk playbook, and Jay said in a excited voice, "Look, Bill, there’s the play we used last week to beat Northwestern."

"You’re right, Jay," said Kenney. "That’s the same play." Obviously, I couldn’t believe it, but Jay went on to point at the single-wing drawing and describe how an off-shoot of that play worked at Northwestern.

Once again, against Ohio  State, Zack Mills was the offensive play maker of the game, with an impromptu run of 69-yards down the sideline for one touchdown and throwing two touchdown passes to give Penn State the lead, 29-27, early in the fourth quarter. And it took defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy’s block of a Buckeye 34-yard field goal attempt with 3:31 left to win the game, and start an emotional post-game celebration on the field. But I still can’t help but think about that old, single-wing playbook and some of the other variation of plays in the book that may have been used to give Joe Paterno the new record. I guess some things in football never change.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.