Welcoming the newest Nittany Lions

The Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s Signing Day ceremony this week. The team’s three-hour live stream featured messages from notable alumni and an interview with CEO Paul Clifford, welcoming the signees to the Penn State family. (Image by Penn State Athletics)

Have you ever wanted to help Penn State in recruiting?

We’re guessing the answer is yes, and in many ways, alumni and fans have been doing that for years. Every time you attend a game, every time you rep Penn State gear or clothing, every time you shout “We Are” to a fellow Nittany Lion — whether in State College or across the country or someplace across the globe — you’re having an impact.

And people within the football program notice. People, for example, like Andy Frank. He’s the director of player personnel for Penn State football, which is to say he’s at the forefront of the team’s recruiting efforts, which have geographically expanded significantly since James Franklin and his staff arrived in Happy Valley.

This week’s Signing Day ceremony is a really good example of the power of the Penn State alumni network, which the team has always leveraged. Now, those efforts are increasing.

This year, the Penn State Alumni Association was the presenting sponsor for the football team’s National Signing Day, with a three-plus hour live stream celebrating the signees Wednesday morning. The live stream features an interview with Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford (1:37:20 mark) and a pre-recorded video from Alumni Association President Randy Houston (2:00:00 mark).

Additionally, notable alumni such as Keegan-Michael Key, Lara Spencer, John Colaneri, and Ken Frazier. It was a coordinated effort to emphasize that each signees’ decision to attend Penn State doesn’t end when they graduate. That connection lasts forever, and the Alumni Association’s role as a conduit motivated the meaning behind the partnership.

Penn State cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith knows all about the alumni network. Smith starred as a wideout with the Nittany Lions from 1988-91, and is in his seventh season on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff. Smith joined The Football Letter Live program this week to discuss the impact of alumni support in recruiting. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

“It’s really special to see how much people care about this place and what that means for people down the road, the connections, the job opportunities, just that fraternity of Penn State, and the parents gravitate to that because they understand,” Frank told reporters Wednesday, hours after the signees officially became Nittany Lions. “As a high school kid, you don’t know what it’s going to be like to be 40, you don’t know what it’s like to be 30 and looking for a job, but your parents do because they went through that.”

Frank called the Penn State Alumni Association “the largest and most powerful in the world,” which plays a role not only as players graduate, but also when they choose Penn State in the first place. “Kids that usually pick a place like Penn State, they’re looking at more than just the football field,” Frank added.

Lettermen also figured prominently in Wednesday’s ceremony, with Nittany Lions-turned NFL standouts such as Allen Robinson, KJ Hamler, Adrian Amos, and Jason Cabinda welcoming the signees. That message hits home, literally. Both Robinson and Hamler starred for the same Detroit-area high school in Michigan. They welcomed twin brothers and Penn State signees Kobe and Kalen King, who both also excelled at linebacker and defensive back, respectively, for a different prep school in Detroit.

“That’s something that we sell a lot. We talk about our alumni base, the power of our alumni base, not only in numbers but in the power of the individual as well … I know it was really special for some of our Michigan guys to have Allen Robinson and to have KJ Hamler (welcome them),” Franklin said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of resources here, and you’ve got to be willing to take advantage of them. On a year, today, where these guys were missing out on so many of their normal traditional recruiting experiences, we’re trying to be creative and think outside the box and have some fun with it. I thought it went well. I was happy to see the parents’ faces light up and the signees’ faces light up as we went through the process and tried to make it as special as we possibly could, again, under unusual circumstances.”

Alumni support will become even more critical in the future, with Frank mentioning today that the NCAA’s ruling on name, image, and likeness will impact recruiting moving forward. In short, the NCAA decided in April of this year that student-athletes can earn compensation for their name, image, and likeness, previously prohibited. You can find more info on the NCAA’s website, with the changes expected to happen no later than the 2021-22 academic year.

In short: The more powerful the connections that exist at a school, with lettermen, fans, and alumni, the more attractive that school will be for the highest-ranked recruits in the country. In some ways, that’s always been true, though the ruling brings each University’s alumni network sharper into focus.

For the Nittany Lion football program, that’s a good thing, to state it mildly. Most, if not all, Penn Staters want to help, want to give back, want to feel what they’re doing has an impact.

Now, they just need to be ready.

“In terms of our ability to recruit kids, we’ve got a great setup here for it, but at the same time, we can’t rest on our laurels (and think) just because we have this huge network, it’s just going to automatically work for us,” Frank said. “We’re going to be calling on the alumni to help us throughout this process and help us recruit kids.”

To hear more about the football team’s Signing Day event, the newest class, and the impact of alumni support in recruiting, visit the Alumni Association’s Facebook page to see this week’s episode of The Football Letter Live, which features an interview with cornerbacks coach, defensive recruiting coordinator, and Penn State alumnus Terry Smith.

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

Back to Penn State Football

Freshman tight end Brenton Strange finished with a career-best 45 receiving yards Saturday against Michigan State, Penn State’s third straight win. Simmons totaled career-highs of seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

There are any number of reasons for Penn State’s turnaround this season.

There’s the revamped running game, as the Nittany Lions have rushed for at least 245 yards in three of the last five games.

Another example is the successful rotating of both Sean Clifford and Will Levis into the offense, with Clifford finding targets like Parker Washington and Jahan Dotson, while Levis bulldozes defenses in short-yardage situations. In such instances, Levis essentially turns into a fullback, which should please a certain number of Penn State fans who have asked James Franklin when the team will recruit for such a position.

The Nittany Lions have also taken better care of the football and played lock-down defense in nice spurts, while also impacting the game through special teams.

Clifford summed it up nicely following the team’s latest win on Saturday.

“We’re just back to Penn State football,” he said. “It’s just that basic.”

He continued:

“Things haven’t gone our way all the time this year and we understand that. It’s been a weird year. No one’s going to deny that, it’s just been a very odd year, inside the facility, outside the facility. There’s a lot going on and the people just don’t understand. And I understand, we’ve got to win games, that’s just the fact of the matter but it’s nice to see that the team’s playing complete games.

When the offense needs help, the defense is stepping up. When the defense needs help, the offense is stepping up. Special teams are making plays, that’s Penn State football. That’s who we are, and that’s who we pride ourselves to be. I’m just happy for these guys, happy that I can be a part of it. We’ve just got to keep on grinding because we keep talking about how we want to get as many wins as we can this year, with next week and whatever happens after that, but we’re ready to catapult into the next season as well.”

Shane Simmons’ standout game against the Spartans helped the Nittany Lions’ defense clamp down in the second half Saturday. Simmons totaled career-high marks with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

After starting a season 0-5 for the first time in program history, Penn State has won its last three games, with the latest victory coming after the Nittany Lions trailed Michigan State 21-10 at halftime, with the Spartans scoring three touchdowns in the second quarter to momentarily surge ahead.

Such a half could have had the players and coaches thinking “Here we go again,” but instead, Penn State seized control in the second half and won by two scores, setting up a scenario where the Nittany Lions can avoid a losing season by beating struggling Illinois and closing out the season with a potential bowl victory.

After the team’s first win of the season against Michigan, Clifford brushed off the notion that he ever doubted himself. Watching the Nittany Lions for the last three weeks gives a good indication why he kept the faith, not just in himself but in the team.

In an era when players out opt and transfer if they don’t receive first-team reps every week, both he and Levis have made the two-quarterback system as seamless as could be hoped for.

When Levis comes into the game, everybody on the opposing sidelines knows there’s about a 90 percent he’ll take the snap and run for the first down. It doesn’t matter, because they still can’t stop him. Levis also has shown off his arm, at times, giving the Nittany Lions plenty of options no matter who’s in the game.

Seeing two guys who would be the starter at nearly every school in the Big Ten share snaps and help one another be successful is a good barometer for how the Nittany Lions have banded together during a time when so many other programs are falling apart.

“I think it all just comes down to the love that we have for each other,” Levis said in describing the team’s fight and resiliency. “There was no doubt about it, that we weren’t going to give up on each other, on the season, and we were going to approach every day just like we always have been: that it’s the most important day of the week and that game is the only game you’re focused on. We just made sure that we approached every day with the correct attitude and stuck to the process that we know has worked so long for this program. It’s great to see the wins start coming in now and that’s pretty much what it comes down to, just the love and the trust that we have for each other.”

The win over Michigan State ensured that one of the most beautiful and prestigious trophies in college football — the Land-Grant Trophy — would remain in Happy Valley. OK, so maybe we took a little bit of literacy license with that description.

Still, winning any game, and retaining any trophy, in a season that was scripted for The Twilight Zone, will look pretty good from any angle.

“The resilience that we have shown, again, I’m proud of them,” Franklin said. “It’s not something that we’ve experienced or been through, so to find a way to show that type of heart, to show that type of belief and brotherhood and stick together and stay together and battle through, I’m very proud of them. I’ve very proud of everybody. Again, it’s not easy to do. The last three weeks, we have found ways to win, which is really what we’ve done for seven years.”

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Penn State Preview: Michigan State

Penn State welcomes Michigan State to Beaver Stadium on Saturday for a noon kickoff (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: vs. Michigan State, noon kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 297-77.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 50 degrees, which would be the warmest day in Happy Valley in almost two weeks.

All-time series: Michigan State leads 17-16, dating back to 1914.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 28-7 in East Lansing on a rain-soaked day.

Last week: Penn State won its second straight with a 23-7 victory at Rutgers, while Michigan State got blown out at home against Ohio State, 52-12.

The lead: A few weeks ago, as both Sean Clifford and Will Levis shared snaps against Nebraska, James Franklin said that the team would need both quarterbacks this season. That’s proven to be true, and also beneficial for the Nittany Lions. Clifford’s been able to connect with his receivers while Levis has added a genuine threat to the running game, actually not even attempting a pass last week against Rutgers while rushing 17 times. When Levis comes into the game, opponents know he’ll rush, and they still can’t stop him. That’s as much a tribute to the offensive line as it is to Levis.

It’s only been two games, though it appears Penn State is on the verge of turning its season around and possibly finishing with a non-losing record. Michigan State, meanwhile, has largely struggled under first-year head coach Mel Tucker, even suffering a home loss to Rutgers to start the season.

This is a game that Penn State should win, and the Nittany Lions are favored by about two touchdowns. Getting their third win a row would create a lot of momentum heading into their last regular season game and then a possible bowl to get to 5-5.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions have another productive game from one of their running backs, such as Devyn Ford. Last week, the sophomore ran for 65 yards and a touchdown, and afterward, he shared the heartbreaking news that one of his brothers recently died; Ford had missed the game against Michigan the week before, and Ford’s bio on GoPSUSports says that he has four brothers and two sisters. After the win against Rutgers, Ford was mature and eloquent with his words, saying that he had received plenty of support from his teammates and coaches.

Michigan State wins if: the Spartans can produce some offense. This might sound like a low bar, though Michigan State ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, averaging 17 points per game. Worse, the Spartans have produced only 11.5 points per game in their four losses. Michigan State’s quarterback boasts an awesome name — Rocky Lombardi — and he’s produced respectable numbers so far. He’s completed 84-of-157 passes for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s also tossed nine interceptions. Getting a big-time game from him would go a long way for the Spartans.

Count on: the Nittany Lions continuing to work the ground game. Penn State rushed for 248 yards last week, the third time in four games that the Nittany Lions eclipsed 245 rushing yards.

Keep an eye on: The football team’s Unrivaled Pregame Show. The Alumni Association is sponsoring Senior Day and our CEO, Paul Clifford, will be on the show to talk about the importance of welcoming the graduating seniors into the Penn State alumni network.

Trivia tidbit: While Michigan State leads the overall series, Penn State leads 15-9 since joining the Big Ten.

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2016

Penn State celebrated winning the Big Ten championship at Lucas Oil Stadium after defeating Wisconsin 38-31 in 2016. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

As far as comebacks go, Penn State impressed. Both with the season and the game.

We’re talking about 2016, when the Nittany Lions earned the program’s fourth Big Ten Conference title. After the season’s first four games, Penn State sported a 2-2 record while preparing for a feisty Minnesota squad that was coming to Happy Valley the following Saturday.

That’s when the fate of Penn State’s 2016 season started to change.

A long touchdown pass to receiver Irvin Charles. A late scramble from Trace McSorley. And a 40-yard field goal from Tyler Davis with two seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime. That led to a game-winning dash from Saquon Barkley, which led to a blowout Homecoming win over Maryland, which led to the iconic win over No. 2 Ohio State, which led to, well, you know.

Penn State advanced to Indianapolis off of the strength of several comeback wins and strong second half play, including being tied with Purdue at halftime and trailing Indiana by 10 in the second half. The Nittany Lions won those games 62-24 and 45-31, respectively, setting up a memorable scene for the team’s regular season finale at Beaver Stadium.

Ohio State and Michigan played at noon, and their game was still ongoing as Penn State and Michigan State kicked at 3:30. Penn State needed a loss from the Wolverines, coupled with a win over the Spartans, to win the Big Ten’s East Division. In the first half, during a break between plays, the home crowd erupted, signaling that the Buckeyes had just upended the Wolverines in overtime.

Penn State then ran away from Michigan State, 45-12, which gave way to an on-field trophy presentation and James Franklin telling the packed crowd that “this is just the beginning.”

Franklin was right.

The following Saturday, Penn Staters converged on Indianapolis, where the Nittany Lions fell behind 28-7 late in the second quarter to Wisconsin.

McSorley and receiver Saeed Blacknall connected on two long touchdown strikes (40 yards, 70 yards), and Barkley added a score both on the ground and through the air. The latter on an oft-referenced wheel route against future first-round NFL draft pick TJ Watt.

A last-minute stop on fourth down sealed the win for Penn State, and the celebration, led by the entire Blue Band that traveled to the game, was on.

Black wrote:

“Running their winning streak to nine games in their now patented dramatic fashion, the No. 7 Nittany Lions, improbable winners of their first division title last week, fell behind No. 7 Wisconsin, winners of their division title for the fourth time in six years, 28–7, in the first 29 minutes of the sixth Big Ten Championship Game.

But that simply meant the Lions had the Badgers exactly where they wanted them—with a 210 to 104 yard margin in total offense, a 15:41 to 9:07 advantage in time of possession and a 21-­point lead in score.

Over the final 31 minutes of playing time, the never-­say-­die Lions outscored the Badgers, 31–3, to seal a 38–31 triumph and a trip to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, 2017.”

You can view photos from both the 2016 Big Ten championship and the 2017 Rose Bowl against USC on our Flickr page.

Alumni and fans can hear more about the 2016 team on tonight’s episode of The Football Letter Live, which features offensive lineman Paris Palmer. You can register online or tune in on Facebook at 8 p.m.

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

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Penn State Preview: Rutgers

Will Levis rushed for 108 yards in his first career start, as Penn State blew past Rutgers 27-6 last year at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions travel to New Jersey on Saturday, looking to improve upon their 28-2 all-time mark against the Scarlet Knights. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: at Rutgers, noon kickoff, broadcast on FS1.

Venue: SHI Stadium, previously High Point Solutions Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 49 degrees with rain, heavy at times; breezy in the afternoon; locals are also encouraged to be on the lookout for flooding.

All-time series: Penn State leads 28-2, dating back to 1918.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 27-6 at Beaver Stadium, where Will Levis rushed for 108 yards in his first career start. The Nittany Lions finished the regular season 10-2, marking the third time in four years that they won 10-plus games. They also won nine in 2018.

Last week: Penn State left Ann Arbor with its first win there since 2009, upending the Wolverines 27-17. Rutgers, meanwhile, beat Purdue 37-30.

The lead: Can Saturday’s win in Ann Arbor have a carryover effect for Penn State? Sure, the Nittany Lions just need to replicate the same conditions that led to that victory. Protect the football and find a reliable rusher beyond Sean Clifford and Will Levis. The former still leads Penn State in rushing this season, though Keyvone Lee is quickly becoming one of the biggest positives for the team this season. Lee tallied 134 yards against Michigan to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.

Last week, Clifford re-established himself as the starter, telling reporters after the game that he never doubted himself. Teammates shared a similar outlook, and the camaraderie between Clifford and Levis is one reason why the team hasn’t self-combusted this season. Even though players and coaches don’t want to look this far ahead, all of these signs are harbingers for a rebound year in 2021.  

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions once again don’t turn the ball over. This is an obvious one, but it’s also true. Penn State has more talent, even if Rutgers is improved. If the Scarlet Knights have to continually drive 70-plus yards to score, the Nittany Lions should pick up their second win of the season.

Rutgers wins if: the Scarlet Knights find a way to have their best defensive game of the season. That’s asking a lot, but that’s what it’ll take. Rutgers is last in the Big Ten, allowing nearly 36 points per game. They’re also near the bottom (11th) in sacks, so they’ll need to manufacture pressure somehow to slow down the Nittany Lions.

Count on: The youth movement continuing for Penn State. True freshmen accounted for 267 yards last week for the Nittany Lions, which was 64 percent of Penn State’s total offense.

Keep an eye on: Parker Washington. Fans are starting to hear more and more about Penn State’s emerging receiver, who set a program record last week with nine catches, the most ever by a true freshman for the Nittany Lions.

Trivia tidbit: Since its last win in the series in 1988, Rutgers has scored 20-plus points against Penn State only three times in 13 games.

Penn Staters At The Next Level: Week 10

It was another productive weekend for some former Penn State stars in the NFL, so let’s get to the highlights.

Adrian Amos, S, Green Bay Packers

Photo By Steve Manuel

Amos continues to shine in Green Bay’s secondary. In Sunday’s win over the Jaguars, it was the Green Bay defense, not it’s high powered offense, that had to carry the Packers for most of the game. 

With Jacksonville approaching midfield in the second quarter, Amos jumped in front of the intended receiver and snagged an interception — his first of the 2020 season. 

Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

It’s safe to say Tampa Bay was a little ticked off after its drubbing at the hands of the New Orleans Saints a week ago on Sunday Night Football. 

The Bucs offense was unstoppable in their bounceback win over Carolina in Week 10, racking up 46 points and 544 yards of total offense. 

Photo By Steve Manuel

Godwin was once again a focal point, with six receptions for 92 yards. 

Even with Antonio Brown in the lineup, the former Nittany Lion is sure to continue to receive a high-amount of targets from Tom Brady. 

Carl Nassib,  DL, Las Vegas Raiders

Photo By Steve Manuel

Hey, who doesn’t love when a defensive lineman gets an interception?

Nassib snagged his first career INT in Las Vegas’ 37-13 win over divisional rivals Denver on Sunday, catching Broncos QB Drew Lock completely by surprise as he dropped into coverage in the middle of the field.

Nasib and the Raiders will now host the Kansas City Chiefs for a huge matchup on Sunday Night Football in Week 11. 

DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Denver Broncos

It was a tough day at the office for the Denver offense, but Hamilton came up with another touchdown grab. 

That gives him two touchdowns in as many weeks.

Photo By Steve Manuel

He finished the game with three receptions for 33 yards and that score.

Nittany Lions In The NFL
Baltimore Ravens (1): Trace McSorley
Buffalo Bills (1): Ryan Bates
Carolina Panthers (2): Yetur Gross-Matos, Shareef Miller 
Chicago Bears (2): Jordan Lucas, Allen Robinson II
Dallas Cowboys (2): Sean Lee, Connor McGovern
Denver Broncos (2): DaeSean Hamilton, KJ Hamler 
Detroit Lions (3): Jason Cabinda, Jesse James, Amani Oruwariye
Green Bay Packers (1): Adrian Amos 
Houston Texans (1): John Reid 
Indianapolis Colts (1): Robert Windsor 
Las Vegas Raiders (2): Nick Bowers, Carl Nassib
Los Angeles Rams (1): Nick Scott
Miami Dolphins (1): Mike Gesicki
Minnesota Vikings (1): Dan Chisena 
New Orleans Saints (1): Blake Gillikin 
New York Giants (3): Saquon Barkley, Cam Brown, Austin Johnson
New York Jets (1): Sam Ficken, Chris Hogan, Ross Travis
Philadelphia Eagles (2): Miles Sanders, Trevor Williams, Shareef Miller
Pittsburgh Steelers (1): Marcus Allen
San Francisco 49ers (2): Kevin Givens, Robbie Gould 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3): Chris Godwin, A.Q. Shipley, Donovan Smith 
Tennessee Titans (2): Jack Crawford, DaQuan Jones
Washington Football Team (1): Troy Apke 

Nittany Lions On NFL Coaching Staffs
Matt Rhule – Carolina Panthers Head Coach
Tom Bradley – Pittsburgh Steelers DBs Coach
Bobby Engram – Baltimore Ravens TEs Coach
Al Golden – Cincinnati Bengals LBs Coach
D’Anton Lynn – Houston Texans Secondary Coach
Mike Munchak – Denver Broncos OL Coach
Jeff Nixon – Carolina Panthers Senior Offensive Assistant

Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2008

Daryll Clark powered toward the end zone during the 2009 Rose Bowl that capped another 10-plus win season for Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

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.

Mark Rubin’s forced fumble at Ohio State in 2008 led to a season-defining victory during Penn State’s Big Title-winning season. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

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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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams (2005)

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 2005 squad that won 11 games and ended the season with an Orange Bowl victory. In the video below, defensive back Calvin Lowry discussed the mindset of that team, his interception in the White Out game against Ohio State, and much more.

A lot can change in a year. Don’t believe that? Just ask the players and coaches on the 2005 Penn State football team.

After enduring an uncharacteristic down stretch, Penn State won 10-plus games in a season for the fifth straight decade under Joe Paterno, signaling a return to the top of the polls and coming within a whisper of playing for the national title.

The Nittany Lions closed out their 10-1 regular season with a 31-22 win at Michigan State, where defensive co-captain Alan Zemaitis picked of three passes — twice turning around the Spartans near the goal-line — and returning a third to set up a Penn State touchdown.

The Football Letter editor John Black was on the scene and included Zemaitis’ apt summary of what the 2005 season meant for he and his teammates.

“If you were a player on this team, you would understand that we went through hell,” Zemaitis said, as chronicled in that game’s edition of The Football Letter. “When we’d lose, people would point fingers, saying we brought Penn State down. Well, these same players brought Penn State black.”

You can hear more from Zemaitis this week, as he’s scheduled to appear on Thursday’s episode of The Football Letter Live. The show will air Thursday night at 8, and alumni and fans can register online or tune in on Facebook.

Zemaitis earned All-Big Ten honors three times and was a second-team All-American during his senior season of 2005. He also broke the Big Ten and Penn State single-season record with 207 interception yards in 2003. He’s currently coaching at Susquehanna, where even though the team’s season has been canceled because of COVID-19, he’s staying busy by spearheading a community service project. You can read more about his efforts on the blog.

The victory over the Spartans sent the Nittany Lions to the Orange Bowl, where they outlasted Florida State 26-23 in three overtimes. Penn State nearly played for the national title, though a controversial finish in Ann Arbor, where time was added to allow Michigan to run one more play, resulting in a walk-off touchdown for the Wolverines.

Black succinctly summed up the emotions after winning the Big Ten title, noting Penn State’s impressive ascent back into the national picture.

Here are the two lead paragraphs of The Football Letter following Penn State’s win in East Lansing to win the 2005 Big Ten title:

“Zipping from the ground floor to the penthouse in one season, the Nittany Lion gridironers finally got off their express elevator at the top of the Big Ten standings Saturday with a 31-22 triumph at Michigan State, completing the most dramatic win-loss turnaround in Penn State history.

A team doubted by so many believed in itself and came within a Michigan second of perfection in the regular season, while claiming Penn State’s second Big Ten title in 13 years, winnings its first Bowl Championship Series bid and climbing to No. 4 in the national polls.”

In addition to Zemaitis appearing on this week’s show, fellow defensive back Calvin Lowry also spoke with us recently to talk about the 2005 championship squad. Lowry is currently coaching at Tulsa, and you can check out the video at the top of this story for that interview.


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Penn State Preview: Maryland

Jayson Oweh and the Nittany Lions look for their first (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: vs. Maryland, 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on BTN.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State enjoys a 23-1 advantage over Maryland in the all-time series.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 71 degrees and sunny.

All-time series: Penn State leads 40-2-1.

Last meeting (2019): The Nittany Lions bulldozed the Terrapins 59-0 in College Park, where the school closed classes leading up to the Friday night game.

Throwback classic (2015): Penn State outlasted Maryland 31-30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. We looked back at the victory this week on the blog.

The lead: It’s fairly easy to imagine Penn State winning its six remaining games and qualifying for another attractive bowl. That journey begins Saturday against the Terrapins, who the Nittany Lions have outscored 163-6 over the last three years. Maryland upset Minnesota last week in College Park, though struggled mightily in losing 43-3 to Northwestern in the season opener.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions avoid mistakes that flip the field. It’s difficult to see Maryland keeping pace Saturday, so as long as Penn State forces the Terps to work for all their points, there’s a good chance this one will be locked up going into the fourth quarter.

Maryland wins if: the Terps’ quarterback, Taulia Tagovailoa, can find gaps in the Penn State secondary. Both Indiana and Ohio State scored 30-plus points against the Nittany Lions, though those are two ranked teams with explosive offenses. That doesn’t describe Maryland, though if the Terps can find way to gain chunk plays down the field, that gives them a shot.

Count on: Penn State running the ball plenty. Maryland is last in the Big Ten and is one of the worst teams nationally in rush defense, allowing nearly 300 yards per game. The Nittany Lions’ backfield is without some of its stars, though there’s still plenty of talent thanks to the impressive job that the staff has done in recruiting.

Keep an eye on: Jahan Dotson. The junior wide receiver has elevated his play early on, establishing himself as Sean Clifford’s top target for wideouts (both Dotson with 929 and standout tight end Pat Freiermuth with 981 are within reach of 1,000 career receiving yards). Through the season’s first two games, Dotson has tallied 238 receiving yards, the best two-game start for a Penn State receiver in six years. 

Trivia tidbit: Clifford is tied for the Big Ten lead with six passing touchdowns.

Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 1994

Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter sprints to a touchdown in Penn State’s opening drive at the 1995 Rose Bowl against Oregon. (Photo by Penn State)

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. Up next is the season when Penn State returned to the Rose Bowl after seven decades.

John Black asked a perfectly reasonable question. Unfortunately, nobody provided an answer.

For 100-plus years, Penn State football had competed as an independent, though that all changed when the University joined the Big Ten in the early 1990s and the football program began conference play in 1993.

A year later, the team bulldozed its way to a perfect record. After demolishing Michigan State 59-31 in the regular season finale, Joe Paterno and Co. accepted a bid to the Rose Bowl, perhaps the sport’s most prestigious game and one in which he had never previously coached.

In his biography of Paterno, Michael O’Brien wrote that the legendary coach (understandably) had ambition to play in the Rose Bowl, and that it was something he’d think about when he was alone, walking in the woods in back of his house. 

So, Penn State prepared to play in it is first Rose Bowl since 1923, meaning that for the first time in its illustrious history, The Football Letter headed to Pasadena — creator Ridge Riley started the publication in the late 1930s — where editor Black covered his first Rose Bowl. Black would return for two more trips, to cap off the 2008 and 2016 seasons.

Though as Black wrote in his lead to that game’s edition: “The first time is always the best.”

Penn State upended Oregon, with Ki-Jana Carter galloping for an 83-yard touchdown on the game’s opening play from scrimmage. The Nittany Lions collected a 38-20 victory for Paterno’s fifth unbeaten, untied season. And yet, as players, alumni, and fans painfully know, no national title. Not even a share.

Black wrote:

“As recently as 1991, undefeated Miami and undefeated Washington were declared co-champions. The year before, Georgia Tech and Colorado shared the title. Why is an undefeated, untied Penn State squad an outcast for the fourth time since 1968? What was possibly wrong with the performance of the 1968, 1969, 1973, and 1994 Penn State teams?

Coach Joe Paterno said the 1994 Nittany Lions ‘proved to everyone in the country that they are as worthy of a national championship as anyone else.’

With no opportunity for the teams to settle the issue on the gridiron, Nebraska, which was also undefeated and untied in 1994, deserves a share of the national title. Certainly Tom Osborne, one of the most respected coaches in college football, has long deserved a national championship ring.

But so do the 1994 Nittany Lions.”

He was right, of course. Though not receiving a share of the championship that they certainly deserved doesn’t make that team any less legendary.

The Penn Stater magazine editor Ryan Jones wrote an extensive oral history on the team, aptly titled, “Legends of ’94,” and you can also read that story on the blog.


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