Michigan was not looking great in the first half of 2005. In fact, "once-in-a-generation bad" was totally on the table; after a 23-20 loss at home to Minnesota, Michigan was 3-3 (1-2), and the Wolverines hadn't recorded three losses in their first six games since 1990—and before that, 1967.
It wasn't even supposed to be a "down" year, either; Chad Henne was a returning starter, Mike Hart was in the backfield and the Wolverine WR corps of Steve Breaston, Jason Avant and true freshman Mario Manningham was among the best in the Big Ten. Combine that with a loaded defense, and everyone was high on the Wolverines, who were ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation after Week 1.
Hart suffered a knee injury early in the season, though, and Michigan dropped close games to Notre Dame and Wisconsin with Hart hobbled. Throw in the loss to Minnesota, and what looked like a promising season was an utter disaster in the making.
Penn State, meanwhile, had come out of nowhere and was ripping up the Big Ten. Michael Robinson had grown into a leader at quarterback, and a 17-10 win against Ohio State had pushed the Nittany Lions to 6-0 (3-0) and No. 8 in the nation. If they could get this win at Michigan, they'd not only equal the win total of their last two seasons combined, they'd potentially have an inside track on going undefeated.
Here's a link to the entire game on YouTube, if you've got three hours; ostensibly, you do not. The first half was utterly unremarkable, ending at 3-0 and capped by a Michigan two-minute drill getting botched in the red zone.
Michigan got on track in the second half and took a 10-3 lead into the fourth quarter, but after a 61-yard Tony Hunt rush helped guide the Nittany Lions downfield for a tying touchdown, Alan Zemaitis stripped Chad Henne on the next play from scrimmage and took the ball back for a 35-yard touchdown. Penn State botched the snap on the extra point, but kicker Kevin Kelly took the ball into the end zone in the ensuing melee, and all of a sudden the Nittany Lions were up 18-10 in the fourth.
The Wolverines retook the lead late in the fourth quarter, and Robinson responded with a 13-play drive that included a fourth-down conversion, a pass interference penalty on third down and a four-yard keeper for the touchdown to put Penn State up 25-21 with just 42 seconds left.
With that, let's watch the final drive, complete with the play-by-play Dread Level for Penn State fans.
0:53, 4th quarter: Penn State kicks off.
Dread Level 1.8: Feelin' good. Feelin' sexy. Forty-two seconds until the party.
0:42, 4th quarter: Steve Breaston returns kick 40 yards to Michigan 46.
Dread Level 6.7: Waking up without the alarm going off.
0:37, 4th quarter: Henne finds Avant on the sideline for 16 yards, ball at Penn State 36.
Dread Level 8.1: Senator's phone ringing at three in the morning.
0:30, 4th quarter: Michigan burns one of two timeouts after Tabb tackled inbounds for four-yard gain.
Dread Level 7.7: Swearing at a "keep calm and carry on" poster.
0:26, 4th quarter: Henne throws to TE Tyler Ecker for five yards; 3rd-and-1.
Dread Level 7.9: Jury just deliberated for 25 minutes in your client's murder trial.
0:18, 4th quarter: Mike Hart takes draw, gets first down, avoids tacklers, cuts inside, gets hit, manages to get out of bounds at 16-yard line anyway.
Dread Level 9.0: Light at the end of the tunnel is making suspicious choo-choo noises.
0:12, 4th quarter: Incomplete pass.
Dread Level 8.2: Your baby just learned how to take off his diaper while you're not looking.
0:06, 4th quarter: Mario Manningham six-yard catch to the 10-yard line, gets out of bounds.
Dread Level 9.4: Walking into a dark, unfamiliar room and hearing the voice of that one guy from the Saw movies.
0:01, 4th quarter: Henne pass incomplete to Breaston on hitch route at 4-yard line.
Dread Level 9.8: WHY DO THEY HAVE ANOTHER CHANCE? WHY ISN'T THE GAME OVER? WHY DIDN'T YOU LET HIM CATCH THE BALL AND JUST TACKLE HIM? WHO'S RUNNING THE CLOCK HERE? THE GHOST OF BO SCHEMBECHLER? HEART ATTACK ALERT, HNNNNNNGGGGGHH...
0:00, 4th quarter: Henne throws deep slant to Manningham in back of the end zone, touchdown; Michigan wins 27-25.
Dread Level 10.0: Blackout, loss of bowels, temporary and violent insanity, all major symptoms of rabies, high risk of arson .
Making matters worse is the fact that Penn State did, in fact, win out after the Michigan game; the only serious Big Ten competition left was Wisconsin, and the Nittany Lions throttled them 35-14 in front of a delirious Beaver Stadium crowd.
It's extremely unlikely that with only three games against teams with fewer than five losses, Penn State would have passed Texas for a spot in the BCS Championship Game against USC. And really, those two teams deserved that game; it was and remains the best BCS Championship Game ever played.
But who knows? The last undefeated team (Alabama) dropped out of the race with a loss in Week 12, so if Penn State had stayed undefeated, maybe one of the two teams would have choked if it felt the pressure of another undefeated team in the mix late in the year. Maybe. What if, eh?