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Football: Penn State beats top-10 team for 1st time since '99

Sunday, September 15, 2002

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They're back.

The Penn State Nittany Lions craved a game in the national spotlight to regain their national stature after two embarrassing seasons of more losses than victories.

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Last night, the unranked Lions came through with a decisive 40-7 victory against No. 8 Nebraska before a record crowd of 110,753 in raucous Beaver Stadium.

It was Penn State's first victory against a top-10 team in almost three years.

"We've been saying all week that this was a statement game," said quarterback Zack Mills. "This was going to put Penn State back where it's supposed to be. Hopefully, we're on our way to doing that."

The Lions used a diversified offense, with Mills throwing and running for big plays, and a big-play defense to turn back the Huskers.

Penn State had 476 yards offense. Mills was 19 for 31 for 259 yards and rushed for 32 yards. Tailback Larry Johnson had his first 100-yard rushing game of his career with 123 yards on 19 carries. And wide receiver Bryant Johnson had eight receptions for 147 yards.

Penn State's Larry Johnson is brought down by Nebraska's Barrett Ruud (38), but the Nittany Lions dominated the game, winning 40-7. (Associated Press)

"We came out with a big win as an underdog," Larry Johnson said. "People were saying we couldn't do this, we couldn't do that. Now we are back. We have that swagger back. We like to prove people wrong."

Johnson ran for two touchdowns, backup quarterback Michael Robinson also ran for two scores and Robbie Gould kicked two field goals for the offense. Defensive back Richard Gardner, a former walk-on, intercepted a Jammal Lord pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown as the defense rose up and limited the Huskers to their lowest point total since 1996, when they were shut out by Arizona State.

Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley's unit held the Huskers to 328 yards.

"Defensively, we played really well," Coach Joe Paterno said. "They may have been the best we've tackled in a long time. I thought Tommy did a great job of calling the game. That's the best we've played for a while."

If Nebraska thought it was going to get smash-mouth football from the Lions, they were badly mistaken. Mills was 15 for 25 for 205 yards in the first half and passed the Lions to a 13-7 halftime lead.

Mills said he thought the play-calling in the first half duped the Huskers, who were talking all week about the challenge of facing a power team.

"I think maybe we did," Mills said. "We knew that's what we were going to have to do to win the game. We were going to have to open up the passing game to open up the running game, and we took advantage of it for the most part."

Last night was the coming out party for Robinson, a gifted athlete who ran reverses and misdirection plays out of the backfield as if he has been doing it his whole career.

"I'm not a very smart guy, but I'm smart enough to know when you got a guy like Robinson that you find ways to get him in the game," Paterno said.

Penn State (2-0) scored three touchdowns in the first 12:45 of the third quarter to break open a close game.

After taking a 13-7 lead into halftime, Penn State drove 80 yards in 16 plays and took almost seven minutes off the clock to open the third quarter. Robinson capped the drive with an 8-yard run off a reverse on third-and-goal for a 19-7 lead. The two-point conversion pass failed.

The Lions converted four third downs on the drive. Bryant Johnson had three receptions for 48 yards on the drive.

Nebraska (3-1) took over on the 20. After one first down, the Huskers faced a second-and-7, and Lord overthrew Ben Cornelsen in the flat. Gardner intercepted and raced 42 yards for a 26-7 lead.

The Penn State defense forced a punt after three plays. Then Larry Johnson ripped off a 35-yard run on first down to the Nebraska 20. Robinson lined up in the backfield with Mills in the shotgun. On first down, Mills handed off to Robinson on a misdirection play for 9 yards. On second down, they ran the same play, and Robinson found the end zone.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Penn State drove 54 yards without attempting a pass. Larry Johnson scored on a 2-yard run for a 40-7 lead with 6:19 left.

After a scoreless first quarter, the points came fast and furious in the second.

Penn State scored first on its third offensive series. The Lions drove 80 yards in eight plays on the strength of Mills' left arm. Mills was 5 for 6 on the drive. He completed a 19-yard pass to Tony Johnson on third-and-5 and a 24-yard pass to Bryant Johnson, who made a nice adjustment on the throw, to the Nebraska 29. After Larry Johnson caught a 21-yard dump-off from Mills, he took a pitch from Mills on the option and scored behind a Paul Jefferson block for a 7-0 lead.

Lord passed the Cornhuskers down field on their only score. He completed 5 of 8 passes for 55 yards in the first half and led the team in rushing with 64 yards on nine carries, 27 of those yards coming on one big chunk in the touchdown drive capped by a Judd Davies 2-yard run.

Penn State dominated the rest of the half, but the Lions had to settle for two field goals after stalling inside the Nebraska 20 on both drives.

On the first field-goal drive, Penn State had first-and-goal at the 1, but an illegal procedure penalty made it second-and-goal from the 6. The Lions gained three yards in the next two plays, and Gould came on to boot a 20-yarder with 5:56 remaining.

The Penn State defense forced a three-and-out, and the offense took over on their own 34. Breaking with form, Mills ran keepers and option plays down the field this time. Once again, the drive stalled at the 16, and Gould kicked 33-yard field goal with 1:05 left.

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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