Here is part 2 of my tenth annual installment of the PSU football season story, written out of my Delorean in January 2014. Here's part 1 if you missed it. We made it through the first two Big Ten games undefeated but lost in a close one to UCF. Now, it's on to Columbus!
Penn State needed the bye week to rest up. Only 17 “week one” starters finished the Michigan game (and a few others were pretty banged up). The team headed into Columbus against the #10 Buckeyes (6-1) plenty loose, as no one gave Penn State much of a chance. Sticking with the script the past few years, the Lions came out roaring. Hackenberg’s steady diet of screens and tight end dumps got PSU a 17-13 halftime lead. The PSU D contained QB Braxton Miller much better in the second half in 2013 than they did in Happy Valley a year earlier, but they simply couldn’t get a third-down stop. The Buckeyes scored on their first three possessions of the 3rd quarter to take a 29-24 lead into the final stanza. PSU was poised to re-take the lead until a redzone interception by CB Armani Reeves. Miller again marched OSU down the field and put the game out of reach with a 7-yard TD pass to RB Carlos Hyde. Pundits wrote off the outcome as a foregone conclusion, but in reality, it was only a freshman QB mistake that sealed the outcome.
#25 PSU 24, #9 OSU 36
Key Stats: Zwinak 23 carries, 78 yards, 1 TD, 1 fumble; DE Noah Spence 4 tkls, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble.
Facing 4 top-25 teams in your first seven games is not the way to remedy a 2-10 season. Yet, that’s what Illinois had to do in 2013 when almost-top-25 Penn State came to town. The 2-5 Illini had a glimmer of hope early establishing a 10-7 lead after the first quarter. Then, Zack Zwinak broke a 28-yard TD. And Jesse James ran a short pass in from 31 yards. And Alex Kenney scored from 19 yards out. By halftime, the thin hopes were gone as PSU led 31-13. QB Nathan Scheelhasse did give his defense some time to rest though with reckless running and a few scrambling passes. The fact that Illinois’ tattered defense held PSU to three fourth quarter field goals instead of touchdowns was something for them to be proud of.
PSU 47, Illinois 20
Key Stats: Eugene Lewis 4 rec., 90 yards, 1 TD; Evan Schwan 6 tkls, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Minnesota—the team that fired the most successful coach they had in the past four decades because he only went 8-4 every year—sat at 5-4 when Penn State traveled to Minneapolis on November 9th, just one little game away from bowl eligibility in back-to-back years. That’s the good news. The bad news? Three top-30 teams closed out their season. Minnesota played the Lions like they were playing for a bowl game though, stopping Penn State narrowly on defense and gaining first downs by just inches (which was hard to discern on the snowy, wind-swept field). A 16-13 Gopher lead was lost and then regained before Penn State started a drive with 3:06 left in the game that ended with a 22-yard Sam Ficken field goal to send the game into overtime. Jesse James stretched for an 8-yard TD in the first overtime, but the Gophers’ freshman scatback Berkley Edwards answered with a 16-yard jaunt. Deion Barnes knocked the icy ball from QB Philip Nelson’s hands in the second OT, and all Zack Zwinak needed was one first down to put the Lions in position to hit the game winner, a 29-yard field goal off the goal post for Sam Ficken.
PSU 33, Minnesota 30
Key Stats: Sam Ficken 4-4 field goals, long 40, 3 PATs; Zack Zwinak 26 carries, 150 yards, 1 TD.
Purdue had the extreme disadvantage of catching Penn State at its peak. The 4-5 Boilermakers had a tough schedule to start, but all-Big Ten candidate Akeem Hunt kept them in most games. He had a strong second half against Penn State as well, but PSU’s first half blitzkrieg made it irrelevant. Hackenberg went 12-16 for 201 yards in the first half alone and Zwinak also tallied over 100 yards in the opening two quarters. A 28-7 halftime lead only grew in the 3rd quarter as Purdue’s receivers couldn’t hold on to the ball on 3rd downs. The second string defense let Purdue into the end zone twice in the 4th quarter, but the PSU starters put together their most complete game of the season against a decent Purdue team.
Purdue 21, PSU 42
Key Stats: Hackenberg 19-27, 287 yards, 3 TD, 1 int.; Carson 13 tackles, 1 sack, 1 int.
No. 19 Nebraska came to Happy Valley as a team on the ropes. Bo Pelini had yet to put together a true national title run in his six years in Lincoln—something that Huskers fans crave more than most fan bases—and the 2013 season started off with much promise. With a 7-0 record heading into November, the No. 6 Huskers jumped to No. 4 after a 51-45 shootout win over Northwestern. They left the Big House as big losers the next week (32-24 loss), and then in a bit of a hangover game, they stumbled again against Michigan State in Memorial Stadium the next week. A third-straight loss might spell tailspin for the Huskers, and Senior Day in State College was the worst possible battleground for Pelini’s squad. The embattled Husker D gave up scores to the Lions on the first four possessions of the game as Penn State jumped to a 20-7 lead. By halftime, Zwinak, Lynch, and Belton had all run for touchdowns, and PSU had a commanding 34-17 lead. Pelini must have coached like his job depended on it at halftime (and it probably did) because Martinez was set loose in the 3rd quarter. RB Abdullah finished off drives that were mainly fueled by Martinez’s impeccable scrambling ability, as Nebraska pulled within 7 (41-34) to start the fourth quarter. Hackenberg played his best quarter of ball of the season though (even with offensive linemen dropping all around him), protecting the ball and moving PSU into field goal position on two occasions in the 4th. Leading 47-44 with under 3 minutes remaining, Zwinak ground down the Huskers’ D. The Lions sapped the clock and a 23-yard field goal with :22 remaining put the icing on the cake for a jubilant Beaver Stadium on Senior Day.
#19 Nebraska 44, #25 PSU 50
Key Stats: Zwinak 22 carries, 177 yards, 3 TDs, 0 fumbles; Martinez 18-30, 256 yards, 2 TDs, 2 int., 11 carries, 101 yards, 1 TD.
Wisconsin continued their winning ways under new coach Gary Andersen, but not before some early season hiccups. Road trips to Arizona St. and Ohio St. didn’t go well, and then Northwestern outlasted them in an overtime thriller. Wisconsin rebounded though with five straight wins and sought revenge for the cold (literally) welcome they got in Happy Valley the year before. And revenge they did. PSU’s lack of depth finally caught up with them in the season finale. Missing three starters on each side of the ball meant that PSU was no match for the Wisconsin powerball machine. The Lions kept it within striking distance early (true freshman Adam Breneman rumbled for his first TD of the season, a 17-yard catch-and-run), but the 10-20 halftime deficit grew in the 3rd. Gordon and White both trotted for easy touchdowns in front of the wild Camp Randall crowd, and only a late Matt Zanellato TD catch made the final score respectable.
#20 PSU 23, #24 Wisconsin 41
Key Stats: Alex Butterworth 5 punts, 32.7 yards each, 1 blocked; Wisconsin RBs 43 carries, 298 yards, 4 TDs.
Penn State’s 9-3 season 2013 made one thing crystal clear to the sporting world: Penn State football will not go away. Coach O’Brien handled a potential job offer from the Detroit Lions in mid-January much better than the rumors a year before—he interviewed with the team suddenly on a Monday, then held a press conference at Penn State on a Wednesday announcing his intention to stay at PSU. And that was that. While depth really can’t improve over the next few seasons, at least the losses on defense (1 DL, 1 LB, and 1 DB) won’t be devastating for 2014. The OL will need to reload (with 3 starters graduating), but the majority of the other key pieces—most notably the emerging star quarterback—remain. Zwinak's 1,598 yards in 2013 give him a good shot at challenging Evan Royster's rushing record with a healthy senior season. Even though the Big Ten seems to be rebuilding itself slowly, Penn State shouldn’t be left in the dust any time soon.
10-2 Ohio State won the league championship over 10-2 Michigan State, but lost in the Rose Bowl to Oregon. Michigan State scored a second BCS bid for the conference but lost in the Fiesta Bowl against Texas. Michigan didn’t make any major leaps forward (7-4 in their first 11 games) but finished strong (beating OSU in the Big House and winning the Gator Bowl over Auburn). Wisconsin and Nebraska (with an interim coach) won bowl games to finish 10-3 each, while Iowa and Northwestern both lost bowl games to finish with 7-6 records. And in case you were wondering who won the final BCS national title, Florida kept the SEC’s streak alive with a 21-14 win over Stanford.
Ryan Murphy is author of Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, which is available in paperback and digital versions.