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Penn State football: Best wins over 2023 opponents – Northwestern

Before its magical run in 2005, Penn State football faced a season derailing loss at Northwestern. Relive the Lions’ stunning road comeback.



Penn State Football, Northwestern
Oct 29, 2005; State College, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno argues with officials during the second quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at Beaver Stadium. Penn State quarterback coach Mike McQueary looks on. Mandatory Credit: Craig Melvin/USA TODAY Sports Copyright (c) 2005 by Craig Melvin

Today, our series of the best Penn State football wins over 2023 opponents rolls on with the Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern has been considered an afterthought for most of its Big Ten football existence. It was not until the mid-1990s under head coach Gary Barnett that the Wildcats started to win consistently. This continued through the Randy Walker era and the Pat Fitzgerald era of today.

Penn State and Northwestern only started to play one another when the Nittany Lions joined the conference in 1993. The series is tilted heavily in favor of Penn State. The Nittany Lions hold a 14-5 edge.

Despite the one-sided nature, there have been a few exciting moments in the series. One notable game occurred in 2010. The Wildcats jumped off to a 21-0 lead before Penn State stormed back to score the final 35 points and secure Joe Paterno’s 400th victory as head coach.

But for Penn State’s best, and arguably most important, win against Northwestern, we have to go back to the 2005 season.

Penn State football gets off to a bad start

Penn State entered the 2005 season with many questions. After losing seasons in four of the last five years, fans were anxious but hopeful. Much of this hope rested on outstanding true freshmen Derrick Williams and Justin King.

Michael Robinson, who had played every position from quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in previous seasons, had finally been given the reigns to start under center. The defense was returning a lot of talent from a unit that had not let a single opponent score more than 21 points a season ago.

The season started with three victories over South Florida, Cincinnati, and Central Michigan. Next up was a conference opening date at Northwestern.

The first half started off poorly. Robinson threw an interception on the Lions’ first drive. He would throw two more in the first half and fumbled once inside the Northwestern 10-yard line. Despite the first-half mistakes, the Lions somehow only found themselves down 23-14 at halftime.

4th and 15 lifts Lions past Northwestern

Penn State played better in the second half, finally taking its first lead with less than nine minutes to play in the game. But a Northwestern field goal put the Wildcats up 29-27 with just over two minutes left.

Penn State’s responding drive started like many of its sloppy first-half possessions. An incomplete pass, a sack-fumble that nearly ended the game, and a two-yard loss put Penn State well behind the chains. The Nittany Lions found themselves with a 4th and 15 and their backs against the wall.

But then, Robinson found tight end Isaac Smolko for 20 yards. A few plays later, with a man in his face, Robinson hit Williams, who ducked under a Wildcat defender and raced into the end zone for the game-winning score.

Penn State had completed a marvelous comeback. If the Nittany Lions had lost in Evanston, who knows what would have happened during the 2005 season. Instead, it kick-started a magical run.

A few weeks later, in Beaver Stadium, Penn State upset Ohio State in a primetime White Out. A last-second loss at Michigan a week later would be the Lions’ only blemish on the season. Penn State football went on to win its first Big Ten championship since 1994 and secure a thrilling triple-overtime victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl. None of this would have been possible without the win at Northwestern that season.

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Shane has been a Penn State fan since he attended his first game in Beaver Stadium when he was 8 years old. A Class of 2005 alum, he has been a contributing writer for Victory Bell Rings, Saturday Blitz and now Basic Blues Nation. He also hosts The Nittany and Badger: A Big Ten Football Podcast. Shane lives near Pittsburgh with his wife and son.


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