November 19, 2005

Legend Paterno Leads Penn State Into BCS

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Welcome to the BCS, JoePa. Joe Paterno and No. 5 Penn State locked up their first Bowl Championship Series bid, defeating Michigan State 31-22 on Saturday to win the Big Ten for the first time in 11 years.

Michael Robinson ran for 90 yards and a touchdown and passed for another, and Alan Zemaitis had three interceptions for Penn State (10-1, 6-1).

Coming off a 4-7 season, Penn State tied Ohio State for the Big Ten lead but will get the league's automatic BCS bid because the Lions beat the Buckeyes in October.

Michigan State (5-6, 2-6), which began the season 4-0, finished it with six losses in seven games to post consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1991-92.

When it was over, the Nittany Lions celebrated on the field but Paterno just ducked his head and ran into the tunnel, giving the Penn State section a wave on the way out.

"He deserves it," Robinson said. "He really does. He's worked so hard. He stayed with us. People told him to retire. Now look at him. Nobody's saying to retire and no more Joe must go Web sites. None of that. I'm just so happy for him."

Zemaitis' second pick came in third quarter, and he returned it 17 yards to the Michigan State 4. Robinson threw a 3-yard TD pass to Deon Butler moments later for a 24-7 third-quarter lead.

Paterno, pant-cuffs rolled and kept warm on a cold, windy night by a long, dark winter coat, barely reacted to the score, turning away to resume pacing the sideline as his players and coaches jumped for joy.

Win No. 353 gave Paterno his first Big Ten title since 1994, when Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter were piling up big numbers during Penn State's second year in the league.

Who would have believed then that Paterno's program would eventually drop to the Big Ten's second division, with four losing seasons in the past five years?

That Penn State completed its return to the top of the conference against Michigan State provided a bit of symmetry to the Nittany Lions' revival. Penn State completed last season with a 37-13 victory over the Spartans in Happy Valley that injected some optimism into the program heading into 2005.

With a new, dynamic offense — directed by the versatile senior Robinson — and the best defense Penn State has had since LaVar Arrington was a Nittany Lion, Paterno has been vindicated.

He said throughout the 2004 season that he felt the team was close to being a winner again — and he was right.

"I feel wonderful," Zemaitis said. "It's something when you put your mind to it, battle all adversity and nobody giving us respect — when you get what you wanted at the end, it makes it that much better."

Michigan State looked as if it might be the surprise team in the Big Ten after beating Notre Dame in September, but coach John L. Smith's Spartans lost consecutive heartbreakers to Michigan and Ohio State in October and never recovered.

But the Spartans couldn't be accused of quitting in this one, even after trailing 17-0 at half.

Jason Teague had a 25-yard touchdown run and receiver Jerramy Scott ran 4 yards for a score on a direct snap to make it 24-14 after three quarters.

Michigan State was on the verge of making it even tighter, driving to the Penn State 11 at the start of the fourth quarter. But Drew Stanton was sacked by Jay Alford for a 13-yard loss and Michigan State botched the snap and hold on a 43-yard field goal attempt, never even getting a kick off.

Stanton finished 23-for-36 for 233 yards with four interceptions and a late TD pass.

The Lions immediately took advantage of the special teams' gaffe as Tony Hunt capped a nice drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 31-14 with 4:58 left.

Smith dropped to 18-18 in three seasons in East Lansing, a mark that probably won't stop speculation about his job security, though athletic director Ron Mason has given no indication that he'd fire Smith halfway through a six-year contract.

Penn State got into the end zone for the first time when Donnie Johnson blocked Brandon Fields' punt deep in Michigan State territory and Matt Hahn scooped up the ball near the goal line and fell across for a 10-0 lead in the second quarter.

Less than three minutes later, Robinson took a keeper up the middle, slipped through two tacklers and cut away from another on his way to a 33-yard touchdown. Robinson's 11th rushing TD of the season made it 17-0 with 4:13 left.

Johnson ended the half with another big play, picking off Stanton in the end zone with 3 seconds left on a second down from the 15.

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