One of the most important Penn State games of this century turned out to be the goal-line stand 22-18 victory at Indiana in 2004. No one could have understood the true significance at the time, but that win served as a huge springboard for the Nittany Lions.
Could last Saturday’s win at Michigan do the same thing for Penn State? And just like the Indiana game 16 years ago had the famous goal-line stand, the victory against the Wolverines featured a huge touchdown drive late that sealed the deal.
The Lions were up 20-17 at Michigan with 13:12 remaining, and the Wolverines had just closed the gap to three with a touchdown drive. On second-and-10 from the PSU 25, Keyvone Lee took off for 7 yards, then on third-and-7, Sean Clifford hit Jahan Dotson for 12 yards and an enormous first down.
Just think about it: If PSU had gone three and out there and given the ball right back to Michigan, the Lions would have sent a tired defense right back onto the field up only 3 points. The Wolverines had some offensive confidence at that point, and it’s easy to think they would have gone right back down the field to tie or take the lead.
Instead, two plays after getting the first down on Clifford’s pass to Dotson, Lee was bottled up in the backfield, showed good patience and bounced it out to the right for a 24-yard gain to the Michigan 27.
You can make the case that two of the biggest plays of the season occurred right there — Clifford’s first-down pass to Dotson, then Lee’s run that got PSU into scoring position and seemed to totally deflate the Wolverines.
Lee went for 8 yards two plays later, down to the 15. And in perhaps the biggest play of the season, Clifford converted a third-and-7 from the 12 when he connected with Dotson for 9 yards.
Will Levis scored two plays later for a 27-17 lead with 8:12 to go. That TD drive — sparked by some huge plays — gave Penn State its first victory after a dreadful 0-5 start.
PSU is a double-digit favorite this week at Rutgers. Then will be favored next week at home against Michigan State. It’s possible, if things go well, the Lions could be looking for a four-game winning streak come the Big Ten’s week nine.
If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because it closely resembles what happened at the end of 2004 and the start of 2005.
The Lions held on and beat Indiana in 2004, when PSU entered the game 2-7 and was on the verge of another embarrassing loss as the Hoosiers had first-and-goal at the 1 in the closing seconds.
Penn State’s defense held in what has become one of the program’s most famous goal-line stands. The Lions clobbered Michigan State the following week, took some sliver of confidence into the offseason and came back the following the year to finish No. 3 in the country and win the Orange Bowl.
Here’s a look back at part of a story I did years ago for the Altoona Mirror with some reaction to what the 2004 Indiana victory did for Penn State.
Many former Penn State players have singled out one game they believe started the program’s resurgence. It was a 22-18 win at Indiana in the next-to-last game of 2004, a victory that snapped a six-game losing skid.
“I remember the goal-line stand that our defense had )in the closing minutes),” Mark Rubin said. “That game just taught us how to win close games.
“We were struggling. We lost more games than we wanted to that year, and that game specifically just showed us that we could win and how to go about winning. It just showed us that we needed to make big plays in big situations, and we were able to do that.”
The momentum carried over to the final week of the season, a 37-13 win over Michigan State, and the program hasn’t looked back since.
“It’s definitely a great thing to be able to look back on and just to be proud of what we were able to do,” Rubin said.
“We all knew where we were (in 2004),” Joe Paterno said. “It was just a question until we could get that thing straight. Maybe it took a year longer than I thought it would have. That was all there was to it. A bunch of good kids. I never doubted we’d end up with a good football team.”
Penn State did end up with a good team in 2005, and the seeds had been planted with that victory at Indiana.
Will last week’s win at Michigan end up being a similar type of turnaround victory? Only time will tell.
But with a schedule that looks to have some more wins coming up, providing further opportunities to build confidence, what happened in Ann Arbror very well could be a turning point for the program.