Counting Down the Most Memorable Penn State-Ohio State Games: 2001
In order to be excited about what is to come in the future, it is important to understand and appreciate the past. This coming Saturday marks the most anticipated contest to date in a new era of Penn State Football as the Nittany Lions take on the undefeated No. 9 Ohio State Buckeyes. But big games against Ohio State are nothing new.
This is the first installment of a five-part series that will take a look back at the most memorable Penn State-Ohio State games since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993. Hopefully this serves as both an informative and entertaining way to get you pumped up for Saturday’s matchup. Each day, we will provide a short recap of the selected game, and brief interviews with a few fans who were in attendance.
Today, we are taking a look back at the 2001 game, with Joshua Guiher (@collegiatestdms), Matt de Bear (@psumatt2005) and Russ Huff (@mcbgLions) recalling their memories.
This game played on October 27, 2001 is memorable for what happened on the field and for what the victory signified. The 1-4 Nittany Lions would rally to overcome a 27-9 deficit and the eventual victory gave Joe Paterno his 324th win, passing Alabama coach Bear Bryant and moving up to number one on the all-time list. The comeback started three minutes into the third quarter when freshman quarterback Zack Mills ran 69 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. The signal caller would then toss touchdown passes to receiver Tony Johnson and running back Eric McCoo.
McCoo’s score early in the fourth quarter gave the Blue and White a 29-27 lead. It proved to be enough but not without some frightening moments. The Buckeyes moved down the field to set up a 35-yard field goal attempt for future NFL first round pick Mike Nugent with three minutes remaining. Penn State defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy (another first round pick) was able to get a hand up and block the kick. The Buckeyes would not get another opportunity as running back Larry Johnson and Mills ran out the clock with big gains on the ground. What would become a familiar scene over the years unfolded minutes later, as Paterno and his wife Sue celebrated a milestone victory on the field with his players surrounding him.
Longtime Penn State fan Russ Huff has been to games at Beaver Stadium since the structure’s early years when capacity was nearly half of what it is now. A season ticket holder since 1978, he has seen plenty of football and remembers the special feeling from that day. Paterno was never able to defeat Bear Bryant when the two friends went head to head, but on the cold October day that featured a few snow flurries, “Joe Pa finally beat the Bear,” said Huff.
Joshua Guiher was a senior at the time and vividly remembers Mills’ momentum swinging run. “That play totally changed the game. They were still down by two scores, but people started to think that the deficit wasn’t insurmountable,” said Guiher.
Guiher, the current owner of the Fraser Street Deli, watched it unfold from the second row of the student section. Two people in the first row had an interesting time. “This one guy would always dress as Braveheart, and he was standing there in freezing weather wearing only a kilt and sandals,” recalled Guiher. The old stadium railing featured only two horizontal bars, and while Guiher remained in the stands, the student in the Braveheart costume and the person next to him took advantage and made it on the field. He only saw two people from his section make it down, but believes that is the last time security personnel were somewhat relaxed in that type of situation.
In contrast to Guiher, Matt de Bear was only a freshman, but that Saturday would go down as one of the best Penn State experiences for the Blue Band trumpet player. “The band was in Evanston the week before when Penn State got its first win of the season against Northwestern. It was nice to get one, but there was not much confidence heading into the Ohio State game,” said de Bear.
While fans were not too optimistic, the band was prepared if the Nittany Lions were able to pull off the upset win. “We had been practicing a 324 formation all week in rehearsal to do as part of our post game package, but it never really happened with the already big celebration for Joe,” said de Bear.
Before the Blue Band had its own building, members would get dressed on game day at the Bryce Jordan Center. After changing back into street clothes and meeting up with his parents who drove from Columbus, Ohio to visit him, that magical feeling of football on a college campus began to set in for the first semester freshman as he walked by several tailgates.
“Everyone was genuinely happy — happy for Joe, happy to beat Ohio State.” They had good reason to be. During the “Dark Years” from 2000 through 2004, fans were often starving for meaningful games and memorable moments, and he had no intentions of forgetting the first home victory that he witnessed as a student.
“I’ve had fantastic football and non-football experiences in State College, but that was the first time I really got a feel for what this place is like and how special it is,” said de Bear.