Friday, October 26, 2012

The greatest play in Penn State-Ohio State football annals

In 1994, Penn State played a near-perfect first half in routing Ohio State 63-14, and in 2005 the Lions notched a program-altering 17-10 win over the Buckeyes thanks in part to a late-game sack-fumble by Tamba Hali, but our vote for best PSU-OSU play ever goes to The Fumble in 2008.

Penn State football history is chock full of fantastic moments, incredible plays and amazing achievements.

Four years ago, on Oct. 25, 2008 at Ohio State, "The Fumble" claimed a place alongside the very best moments in Nittany Lions folklore.

It's on the top shelf, it's that good, thanks to the spectacular effort of the three players most responsible for making it happen.

The setting: Unbeaten, 8-0 Penn State playing in Columbus at once-beaten Ohio State.

It was a year with several truly great teams. Eventual national champion Florida, Oklahoma and USC all were exceptional, as were Texas and Alabama, foretelling their title showdown the following season.

Penn State was right there with them all, ranked No. 3 and crushing everyone it played.

The Lions' closest win in their first eight games of 2008 was 14 points. They won 48-7 at Wisconsin and 45-14 over Oregon State, which finished '08 ranked No. 18 and handed USC its only loss.

PSU covered the spread in 7 of its first 8 games. The Lions were steamrolling everyone.

(The 2008 incarnation of the Nittany Lions was, in my opinion, the second-best PSU team of the post-1986 national title era. The Top 4 in order would be 1994, 2008, 2005 and 1991. The '08 squad handed half of the teams it played their worst defeat of the season. It was awesome.)

Ohio State was playing very well coming in, too. The Buckeyes had played for the National Title the year before (losing to LSU 38-24) and had a whopping 19 returning starters.

OSU swiftly recuperated from a 35-3 whipping at USC early in '08 - star RB Beanie Wells did not play that game, true frosh Terrelle Pryor was just getting up to speed and '08 was USC's last truly great team - to win at ranked Wisconsin and then, the week before playing PSU, routed 6-1 Michigan State 45-7 in East Lansing to catapult back into the Top 10 and national contention.

Behind phenom QB Pryor, the Western Pennsylvania native who had snubbed PSU for the Buckeyes after a long, high-profile recruitment, OSU was on top of its game. The Buckeyes' defense, led by seniors James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, was excellent and peaking.

This game essentially was for the Big Ten title and automatic BCS berth for both teams. (As it turned out, both earned BCS bids).

For PSU, though, more was at stake: A shot at the national championship game.

Penn State was playing so well it was a 2-point favorite in Columbus.

The crowd of 105,713 was an Ohio Stadium record.

This. Was. Huge.

The defenses seized control from the outset. And both offenses kept it tight to the vest, too, so there were no splash turnover plays or anything to shake the game up a bit.

Incredibly, PSU didn't commit a penalty or turnover all night. Through three quarters OSU didn't have a turnover, either.

The Lions D, led by Aaron Maybin, NaVorro Bowman, Jared Odrick and Josh Hull - missing was Sean Lee, who was injured for the entire 2008 season - blunted the OSU running game, bottled up Pryor and forced him to pass.

Wells finished with 55 yards on 22 carries. Pryor had 6 rushing yards on 9 attempts (which included a 9-yard loss on a sack, by Maybin).

But PSU couldn't sustain any offense, either.

It was a clean, crisp, pure defensive struggle. Each team refused to take a step back, and couldn't manage more than a few steps forward.

It was destined to be determined by one big play.

Ohio State took a 6-3 lead late in the third quarter on a 36-yard field goal. The three-point advantage seemed borderline insurmountable this evening.

Shortly after that, PSU's Big Ten Player of the Year QB Darryl Clark took a blow to the head that would take him out of the game, and the Lions missed a tying 45-yard FG attempt.

Penn State was getting desperate.

With just under 11 minutes to go, Ohio State had the ball right at midfield and faced 3rd-and-1. The Buckeyes were moving in for the kill. Pryor - a gifted runner who was exceedingly hard to tackle - took the snap and tried to run up the middle, where it was clogged, just as it had been all night.

So he bounced it outside, to his right. Strong safety Mark Rubin - a 5th-year senior and former wide receiver in his only season as a starter, who would be one of a remarkable four Lions named first-team Academic All-American - stepped up, had excellent position, went in for the tackle, trying to hold Pryor to no gain ...

... and dislodged the ball, knocking it backward onto the Ohio Stadium turf.

Time froze: Oh my God, there's the ball!

A wild scramble ensued, during which PSU linebacker Tyrell Sales made two subtle and sensational plays.

Sales - another 5th year senior who'd had a decent but undistinguished career - was trailing Beanie Wells in pursuit of the ball.

As Wells was about to pounce on it and make a sliding recovery, Sales sideswiped Wells and knocked him past the ball.

Then, while lying on his chest on the ground, Sales flailed his right arm back toward the ball and flicked it away just in time from a leaping Pryor who was a nanosecond from making the recovery with Bowman on his back.

Sales' instincts and reactions were remarkable during those 2-3 seconds. Twice he had cleanly denied OSU the recovery at the final instant.

OSU receiver Brian Robiskie came flying in and got both hands on the ball - but couldn't hold on. The ball bounded around, with several players from both teams in hot pursuit - and the game essentially in the balance. It ended up in the vice grip of Bowman, which was fitting.

Bowman, a redshirt sophomore, was going to be a backup that season until Lee was injured. Bowman stepped in and emerged as a star and the heart of the defense. He was in the process of becoming the beast he is today for the San Francisco 49ers.

This was a fumble recovery for beasts. Bowman outfought about 14 other players for the ball, hanging onto it while the refs unclogged the pile.

The game suddenly changed icomplexion. It was PSU ball at the OSU 38. There was 10:38 remaining. Momentum had flipped.

Backup Pat Devlin, a former primo recruit who had lost the QB competition to Clark, came on.

As someone said at the time, "Devlin entered a hyper-intense game in the 4th quarter and made no mistakes and took care of the ball. ... He trotted out there like he owned the place and kept his cool."

Devlin wouldn't throw a single pass. He didn't have to. The Lions ran it seven straight times.

The PSU line, which was generally exceptional at run-blocking that season, found its mojo. Evan Royster (19 carries, 77 yards) began to pound away toward the goal line. Devlin eventually took it in on a sneak.

And PSU led 10-6 with 6:25 to go.

The Lions tagged on a FG with a minute to go to make it 13-6, and then survived a long pass to the goal line by Pryor in the waning seconds that was picked off by Lydell Sargent to finish it off.

"One turnover was the ballgame,'' Joe Paterno said right after the game. "We played the game we had to play.''

Said Rubin, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles, one more than Bowman: "I just didn't want to let him get the first down. I tried to square up and push him back. I'm not going to lie: I just happened to get my hand on the ball and was able to bounce it out.''

What likely keeps The Fumble from the top spot in PSU football lore, in the eyes of most fans, is what happened in the next game: The Lions inexplicably lost on a last-play FG at Iowa, destroying the dream season and the chance to play for the national title.

But in the moment, it's a play that compares against any, ever. And it is the best in PSU-OSU history, nosing out the end of the seminal 2005 game, when Tamba Hali sacked OSU star QB Troy Smith, forcing a fumble that Scott Paxson recovered to clinch the 17-10 win.

The Fumble, 2008 version, had it all: Huge game, huge moment, and an incredible, game-altering play.

What it meant, what it accomplished, how it happened, what actually transpired on the play - all were extraordinary.

Four years ago this week, Rubin, Sales, Bowman and their teammates shared one of the most amazing moments in Penn State football history.

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