STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - It was NoPa.
Then a redshirt freshman, who wasn't even born when Penn State coach Joe Paterno won his 150th game in 1981, led the 74-year-old coach to his historic 324th victory - 29-27 over Ohio State - yesterday before a crowd of 108,327 in Beaver Stadium.
And now the rejuvenated JoePa is the winningest coach in Division I-A history, going one ahead of the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.
The Nittany Lions' triumph, courtesy in large part to an Ohio State team that surrendered an 18-point, second-half lead, not only had historic implications but must also be numbered among the more exciting comebacks during Paterno's 52-year coaching career at Penn State, 36 as the head coach.
“I wish I could think of something brilliant to say, but I am really just pretty emotional,” Paterno said. “You never think it's going to be this big of a deal until it happens like it did and you see so many people. It's just hard to describe.”
Zack Mills, who didn't start, came off the bench to replace Matt Senneca on Penn State's second series of the game. Mills finished with a school-record total of 418 yards, including a touchdown run of 69 yards and two touchdown passes. He rushed for a total of 138 yards and passed for 280, completing 17-of-32 with three interceptions.
Mills' yardage total was more than that of Ohio State as a team, which finished with 412 yards in dropping to 4-3, 2-2 Big Ten. It also surpasses the previous record of 370 yards set by Mike McQueary against Pittsburgh in 1997.
It used to be that Paterno shunned freshmen as starters and had a standing rule that the media couldn't interview them.
Another freshman, kicker Robbie Gould, also played a prominent role in this improbable victory. He kicked three field goals, two of which were career-high 46-yarders.
Now freshmen are allowed to talk the talk after they walk the walk.
“We didn't want to let coach down,” said Mills, who led the last of five comebacks last week in Penn State's 38-35 victory at Northwestern. “It was a big game for us and a big game for him. He said I was going to play today. I was surprised how early.”
It was the second consecutive Big Ten encounter in which the Buckeyes couldn't put the opponent away and eventually got shelved themselves. OSU blew a 17-point lead and lost 20-17 to Wisconsin two weeks ago.
After scoring two touchdowns in the first 2:44 of the second half, the first on a 65-yard run by tailback Jonathan Wells and the other on a 45-yard interception return by cornerback Derek Ross, the Buckeyes led 27-9.
Warm up the bus? Not with this team and its recent history of lethargy when leading. It was also the second consecutive Big Ten game in which the Buckeyes gave up 20 unanswered points to their opponent.
“I think any time you play a game you feel like you could have won, that in itself is what bothers you the most,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
As for being on the opposite side of this historic event, Tressel said, “There's 323 others who have been here. It doesn't feel very good, but it doesn't change the respect I personally have for Joe and we as a profession have for him. He's been a guy who has always done it by the book and has been good for the game.”
The long of it was a 66-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steve Bellisari to split-end Michael Jenkins on OSU's first play of the game. And there was a 68-yarder to Jenkins that carried to the Penn State 1 late in the second quarter. The short of it was that Ohio State couldn't score a touchdown. Mike Nugent's 19-yard field goal gave OSU a 13-9 halftime lead.
After the Buckeyes jumped ahead 27-9 at the start of the third quarter, Mills raced 69 yards for a touchdown - with center Joe Iorio from St. Francis de Sales throwing a key downfield block - that gave the Nittany Lions renewed hope. Mills then threw a 26-yard scoring pass to wide-receiver Tony Johnson to make it 27-22, and hope turned to conviction.
After the Lions had moved ahead 29-27 on a 14-yard TD strike from Mills to tailback Eric McCoo 13 seconds into the final quarter, Ohio State missed what could have been the winning field goal with 2:55 to play. Nugent's low kick was blocked by Bryan Scott.
The Buckeyes had a first down at the Penn State 21, but Bellisari was sacked, losing nine yards. Two runs by Wells gained 13 yards and set up the missed field goal.
“We've got to protect the lead,” said Ohio State cornerback Cie Grant, who had one of the Buckeyes' three interceptions. “To let this slip away and then be part of the record books, we don't want those kind of records.
“If we play football for 60 minutes we can play with anyone. When we play only 30 or 45 minutes, stuff like this happens.”
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