Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. This week, we spotlight the 2008 squad that won the Big Ten and played in the Rose Bowl for the third time in program history.
In an alternative universe, the 2009 Rose Bowl could’ve doubled as the national championship for the 2008 season, with Penn State and USC battling for the crown.
For the second time in four seasons, a single play knocked the Nittany Lions out of contention for the national title, as a last-second field goal at Kinnick Stadium downed Penn State by one against Iowa. The Trojans, meanwhile, somehow lost to a middling Oregon State team that Penn State dominated earlier in the season.
It was a somewhat unexplainable blemish for USC, which otherwise steamrolled its competition 450-93, as noted by editor John Black ’62 in the Rose Bowl edition of The Football Letter.
So, while Florida and Oklahoma — each of whom also lost a game in the regular season — played for the title in Miami, Florida, the Nittany Lions and Trojans clashed in Pasadena, where Joe Paterno coached for the second of his two appearances in the Rose Bowl.
USC earned a 38-24 victory, thanks largely to a second quarter when they outscored Penn State 24-0, and afterward, Paterno said, “It would take a heckuva football team to beat Southern Cal the way they played today.”
The same could also be said for Penn State, which easily dispatched non-conference opponents Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse and Temple by a combined score of 211-40. The conference record mostly featured more convincing wins, including a 46-17 home victory over Michigan, followed by an epic road victory in Columbus.
Paterno was coaching from the coaches’ box during the season, and ABC played a memorable pregame feature on the legendary coach. Penn State left The Horseshoe with a 13-6 victory, thanks to a late turnover and quarterback sneak by backup quarterback Pat Devlin, who subbed for injured starter Daryll Clark in the fourth quarter.
The road victory snapped a seven-game losing streak in Columbus and raised Penn State’s record to 9-0 and also showed off the versatility of that year’s group. Normally employing a spread HD offense, the team grinded out the one-possession victory by forcing a fumble from Pennsylvania recruit Terrelle Pryor, who chose to head out of state and compete for the Buckeyes.
As Black wrote:
“There were plenty of heroes in Saturday’s contest, starting with senior strong safety Mark Rubin and sophomore outside linebacker Navorro Bowman. Rubin had a career-high 11 tackles, as the Lions held Heisman Trophy candidate Beanie Wells to less than half his 123.8-yard pre game rushing average (10th highest in the nation), and thwarted the running of dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Pryor was attempting to convert a third-and-one situation at midfield on a quarterback sneak, but the Lions’ defensive line plugged every gap. Pryor bounced outside, but Rubin met him at the corner and punched the pigskin from the grasp.”
The Football Letter photographer Steve Manuel ’82, ’92g captured the sequence, which led to the touchdown drive captained by Devlin.
Following the upset loss to Iowa, Penn State finished the regular season by easily dismissing Indiana (34-7) and Michigan State (49-18), leading to the third Big Ten title in program history (1994, 2005).
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