It had to persevere through nearly a full 60 minutes of blustery, cold football today, but No. 2-ranked Penn State remained the only unbeaten team in the powerful Big Ten Conference, and bolstered its position in the national championship game picture. The Nittany Lions defeated 16th-ranked Purdue, 31-25, in a fight-to-the-end finish before a sellout crowd of 68,355 at Ross-Ade Stadium.
After Penn State place kicker Travis Forney missed a 46-yard field goal try with one minute left that would have clinched the game, Purdue's star quarterback Drew Brees brought the game down to four plays by leading his team 58 yards to a first down at the Penn State 12-yard line.
Brees's pass on first down was tipped at the line of scrimmage. On second down, a pass in the end zone sailed over wide receiver Randall Lane's head. Brees then had to throw the ball out of the end zone to avoid a sack. Faced with a fourth down and 18 seconds on the clock, Brees tried to find diving wide receiver Chris Daniels in the end zone, but that pass also went incomplete, and Penn State's bench erupted into a frenzy.
"They moved the ball pretty well the whole game," Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington said of the Boilermakers, who gained 444 yards--379 on 31-of-48 passing by Brees. "It came down to whether they wanted the ball more or we did, and we sucked it up and came through. No matter what happens, we always feel like we can get away with winning the game."
The Nittany Lions (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) benefited greatly from their defense, which produced two touchdowns--one on a fumble return in the second quarter by Arrington, who also blocked a field goal attempt just before halftime to preserve a 14-14 tie.
Penn State didn't look like anything approaching the nation's second-ranked team in the first half, looking hesitant on defense and even worse on offense. With with Purdue leading 7-0, Penn State evened the score when Arrington sacked Brees, forcing a fumble that he returned two yards for a touchdown.
Another turnover by Purdue helped the Nittany Lions tie the score at 14. Antoine Neal was attempting to return a punt when he mishandled the ball and Mac Morrison recovered for Penn State at the Purdue 41. Two plays later, quarterback Kevin Thompson threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Drummond.
"We asked those guys to be perfect, and we asked [Brees] to be perfect," said Purdue Coach Joe Tiller, whose team had 28 first downs to 11 for Penn State, and outgained the Nittany Lions by nearly 130 yards. "But that doesn't always happen, especially against a team like Penn State."
Penn State opened the second half looking as if it would run away with the game. On the half's first play from scrimmage, Thompson threw a 78-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chafie Fields to give the Nittany Lions a 21-14 advantage. Less than five minutes later defensive lineman Courtney Brown intercepted a pass by Brees and returned it for a touchdown and a 28-14 lead.
But the Boilermakers made it 28-17 on a field goal by Travis Dorsch with 6 1/2 minutes left in the third, then moved to 28-25 with 2:05 left in the quarter when Brees passed for a four-yard touchdown and the two-point conversion following a fumble by Rashard Casey.
Forney's 24-yard field goal with 8:01 left in the game made it 31-25, and Purdue's next promising-looking possession ended in a fumble by Brown at Penn State's 42.
"There were a lot of mistakes made by both sides--it was a sloppy game," Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said. "It was a very emotional game. . . . I told everybody that this was going to be our toughest game so far this season."
But things will get tougher for Penn State, which for the time being is more than a game ahead of everybody in the Big Ten except No. 17 Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions next week play Illinois, which upset No. 9 Michigan today, then finish the regular season with home games against No. 24 Minnesota and Michigan, and then a road game against No. 11 Michigan State.