There were some special guests in the house on Sept. 14, 2002, at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions made sure their predecessors didn’t leave disappointed.
Penn State entered the 2002 season in a somewhat perilous position. The Nittany Lions had just endured consecutive losing seasons, previously unthinkable for a program that had gone nearly a half-century without a single such occurrence. That record, perhaps more than any other, highlights the dominance that the Nittany Lions exerted throughout much of the 20th century.
Back to 2002.
Nebraska was ranked seventh. Penn State was searching for a signature win in the new century. A rare night home game (to that point) and a national TV audience provided the Nittany Lions with an opportunity to announce their re-emergence onto the scene, and that’s exactly what happened.
As editor John Black noted in The Football Letter:
“Spurred by the presence of nearly 50 members of the 1982 team that defeated the Cornhuskers, 27-24, the last time they came to State College, the 2002 Lions silenced the criticism that has surrounded them since Nov. 6, 1999, by playing a nearly flawless game to dominate the perennial gridiron power from the Great Plains.”
The 1982 team, of course, captured the program’s first national title, with the win in ’82 still standing as one of the more memorable wins for Penn State in its history. A last-second touchdown throw from Todd Blackledge to Kirk Bowman sealed the victory.
Twenty years later, Penn State didn’t need a last-minute scoring drive to upend Nebraska. The Nittany Lion led in overall yards and time of possession, outscoring the Cornhuskers 27-0 in the second half.
“The Penn State swagger is definitely back,” pre-season All-American Jimmy Kennedy said, as noted in The Football Letter. “It was electrifying out there tonight. I hope it’s like that every week.”
Kennedy starred at defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions, who played only their seventh night game in Beaver Stadium history.
Larry Johnson tallied his first career 100-yard rushing game and scored two touchdowns, launching his 2,000-yard season that ended with him finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Johnson finished with 2,087 yards, despite not playing in the second half of many games as Penn State was blowing out its opponents.
Zack Mills was a sophomore that season, quarterbacking the offense with 19 completions in 31 attempts. He passed for 259 yards and rushed for another 32.
Perhaps the most vivid memory of that night is the pick-6 that Rich Gardner returned about midway through the third quarter with the game still hanging in the balance. Gardner’s score extended the lead to 26-7, and the Nittany Lions won the contest 40-7, an incredible margin over a Top-10 team in primetime.
Gardner recently joined The Football Letter Live, and fans can view the archived episode online. Gardner begins talking about the Nebraska game shortly after the 35-minute mark.
For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.
Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.