We all know we saw something special on Saturday night. The question now turns to—how special was it?
My book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives tells the stories of the best games—home, away, and bowl—of Penn State’s past four decades. The chapters are set up chronologically, but at the end, I do my best to rank the twenty-two games.
What were my criteria? To name a few: the stakes of the game, the hype of the pre-game, the quality of the Nittany Lion team, the quality of our opponent, and the drama on the field.
Wait and See
It’s difficult to know exactly where this Penn State victory will land all time. What if Michigan ends up being a 7-5 team? What if Penn State loses its next six games by 1 point each? Or by 35 points each? That would change our opinion of Saturday’s four-overtime heart-stopper.
In retrospect, the 2002 Nebraska game in Beaver Stadium—the one where the Nittany Lions were hungry to erase the memory of two losing seasons against a historic foe fresh off a national title game appearance—doesn’t have as much luster. At the time, the 40-7 annihilation had Lions fans salivating for a national title. The Huskers however went 6-6, and Penn State could never quite finish off other quality teams on their way to an underwhelming 9-4 mark.
The Flip Side
What if Michigan wins out? What if we finish 2013 with six more wins? Every different scenario will affect the way we view the 43-40 win over the Wolverines on homecoming.
Think about Northwestern 2005. As Penn State struggled and trailed the lowly Wildcats, PSU fans figured we were looking at another losing season like we’d seen in 2003 and 2004. Mike Robinson’s two clutch passes to put the Lions ahead were thrilling, for sure, but we didn’t know until Kevin Kelly finished off Florida State in the Orange Bowl and cemented a No. 3 ranking just how monumental that road win in Evanston was.
Where does it fall?
If you held a gun to my head and made me place October 12th in my top 22, I’d slot it at No. 5—right behind 1981 Pittsburgh and right ahead of 1994 Illinois. Crushing your No. 1-ranked rival on their home field 48-14 is hard to beat. I’m keeping that one at No. 4.
However, I’m fine with usurping Kerry Collins’ drive with Christian Hackenberg’s simply because Illinois doesn’t have the name cache of Michigan and the Illinois game didn’t have as many ups and downs overall.
If No. 5 is my ceiling, I can’t see the game moving below No. 9 all-time (No. 8 is the Rose Bowl win over Oregon and No. 9 currently is 1992’s Fiesta Bowl over top-10 Tennessee). The Rose Bowl game obviously capped off an undefeated season, so its significance far outgains last week’s. Even so, the drama and excitement of a win over ranked and undefeated Michigan felt far greater than January 1, 1995.
Whatever the case, we witnessed history last weekend. The White Out. The freshman quarterback. The 80-yard drive. Devin Gardner’s guts. C.J. Olaniyan’s heroics. Kyle Baublitz’s block. Brendan Gibbons’s failures. Bill Belton on 4th and 1.
And I feel like I’m leaving a lot out
But I can tell you this: I won’t be leaving this game out of my next volume of the greatest games in Penn State history.