Joe Paterno and Penn State Come To Washington D.C.

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*I was in attendance the last time the legendary Joe Paterno brought a Penn State football team to the Maryland suburbs. It was October 3, 1993 in College Park. The final game the Nittany Lions and the Maryland Terrapins played. PSU won handily that day, 70-7. That was about the score I was expecting today when I settled into my 50-yard seats at Fed Ex Field in Landover just before noon. After all, the Indiana Hoosiers were a lot like those University of Maryland match-ups. One-sided laughters in the Nittany Lions’ favor. Penn State has beaten Indiana University fourteen straight times; PSU held a lopsided record of 35-1-1 against Maryland. A week ago, the University of Wisconsin embarrased IU, 83-20. Remarkably, the Badgers scored on all thirteen offensive possessions. The Indiana defense is as leaky as BP’s underwater plumbing in the Gulf. And when Penn State scored on its first two possessions and jumped out to a 14-0 lead, I was expecting a replay of the massacre in Madison. But the Hoosiers rallied back and were tied 24-24 midway through the third quarter.

The game was supposed to be a Hoosier home game. The university sold the rights to Skins’ owner Dan Snyder for $3,000,000. But Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia is Penn State territory. It is the centerpiece of their recruiting base. Over 42,000 PSU alumni call it home. I’m one of them. And while the stadium today was only half filled (91,000 capactiy), two-thirds of those in attendance were Penn State fans. Snyder made back his investment in $8 beers and $5 bottles of water.

Reserve safety Andrew Daley blocked a punt that James Van Fleet scooped up and returned 21 yards for the go-ahead score late in the third quarter. It was the turning point in the contest. A subsequent Hoosier interception led to three more Penn State points and a seemingly-comfortable ten-point lead. But every Nittany Lion fan in attendance was still nervous. PSU simply could not stop Indiana’s two-quarterback attack. Hoosier receivers were wide open all day long. There is more defensive contact and better tackling in intramural games outside the White Building at University Park. Coaches were bewildered. I sat twenty yards behind the bench as defensive players got reamed out by Paterno, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., etc.  At one point, I thought one of the water boys was going to jump in and curse them out.

PSU tacked on a 1-yard touchdown run by their next-great-tailback Silas Redd (9 carries for 50 yards) late in the contest. He certainly resembles a smaller version of legendary running back Curt Warner. He has a bright future but I honestly didn’t think he’d play today. He was cited for urinating in public earlier this week. As was defensive end Sean Stanley out of nearby Gaithersburg. Don’t that have indoor facilities in Happy Valley anymore?

The game marked a homecoming for Evan Royster (16 carries for 48 yards), who shattered Warner’s all-time PSU rushing mark earlier this season. Royster played his high school ball at Westfield High School in neighboring Chantilly, VA. I’m hoping the Skins draft him this April. Clinton Portis is in the twilight of his career, back-up Ryan Torain is as durable as peanut brittle and Keiland Williams is a serviceable third-string tailback. Royster would be a perfect fit in Mike Shanahan’s offense.

The best story on the Penn State team in recent weeks has been the play of quarterback Matt McGloin, a fellow Lacakawanna County native. A third-string sophomore signalcaller who walked on to the team rather than accept offers to play at Ivy League institutions, he came off the bench when highly-touted true freshman Robert Bolden got hurt at Minnesota. McGloin played impressively in the road win. Then proceeded to outshine Heisman candidate Denard Robinson of Michigan in a stirring 41-31 victory in front of the home folk  the week after. Bolden was back the next week when Northwestern came to State College. But when the frosh struggled early and Penn State fell behind 14-0, it was McGloin who came off the bench and rallied the offense and inspired  the defense (who shutout the Wildcats in the second half), giving Paterno his historic 400th win. He played brillantly in the first half at hated Ohio State and had the Lions up 14-3.

The second half didn’t go as well. Two costly pick sixs helped fuel an eventual  Buckeye runaway. That was as demoralizing a  loss as I’ve seen in recent years. It would have deflated a young man  of  lesser character. But not McGloin. He was nicknamed the “Scranton Slinger“ by former Nittany Lion star quarterback Todd Blackedge. He rallied back today with a combination of grit, determination and willpower. He put up numbers on that field today that Redskin fans have been longing for their own Donovan McNabb to produce: 22 of 31 for 315 yards with two TD passes/no interceptions. McGloin’s swagger and fiery personality has elevated the Penn State offense to new levels and helped to overshadow some glaring defensive shortcomings.

The 41-24 final score will give most sports fans watching the ticker the impression this game was a laugher. Win #401 for soon-to-be 84-year old Joe Paterno was anything but. It was a surprisingly-close, extremely exciting game on a glorious, sun-splashed November afternoon in your nation’s capitol. The final time Penn State will ever appear in the D.C. area during Paterno’s historic reign.

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