Deja Vu: Why Penn State Is On The Verge of Another 1997

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Deja Vu: Why Penn State Is On The Verge of Another 1997
(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Since joining the Big Ten conference in 1993, Penn State has started the season with five consecutive wins seven times. Of those seven times, Penn State has rallied to win the Big Ten championship on three occasions.

In 1994 Penn State finished the season unbeaten but No. 2 in the polls behind Nebraska, who was crowned the consensus national champions.

Plenty of things have gone awry for Penn State since it joined the Big Ten, but the fan base in Happy Valley, even with their blinders on, understand that high expectations can deflate rather quickly.

This year, Penn State received its first top 10 preseason ranking since 1999.

With high hopes and plenty of animosity expected to fuel big in-conference duels with Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan, the Nittany Lions expected their roar to be heard from coast to coast after being ranked No. 9 before the first snap was even taken in 2009.

After three weeks of play, Penn State finds itself ranked No. 5 nationally despite underwhelming performances against Syracuse and Temple.

Those with an understanding of the history of this game see a correlation between the 2009 Nittany Lions and those that played for Joe Paterno in 1997.

In 1997, Penn State was ranked No. 1 in the pre-season polls afer an impressive 11-2 season the year before.

With a soft non-conference schedule and Ohio State and Michigan coming to Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions were setting themselves up with a date with destiny. No one thought that they would go undefeated again and get snubbed from national championship honors like they were three years before.

Led by running back Curtis Enis, the Nittany Lions tumbled early against Pittsburgh in their season opener but still rolled with a 34-17 victory over quarterback Pete Gonzalez's Panthers.

The Nittany Lions had three more games on tap before taking on the Buckeyes at home.

In wins against Temple, Louisville, and Illinois, the average score was 50-12 in Penn State's favor.

The next three games would prove to be challenging as Penn State escaped with victories over Ohio State, Minnesota, and Northwestern. The average margin of those three wins was less than a field goal.

Penn State, now 7-0 and falling in the eyes of the polls, was ranked No. 2.

Their next game was on November 8 at home versus the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines.

The 1997 Wolverines were sparked by quarterback Brian Griese. He would lead "Big Blue" into Happy Valley and steal the show, paving a way for a 34-8 thumping of Penn State in front of one the largest crowds in Beaver Stadium history.

Joe Paterno's young squad, although disheartened, would fall to just No. 6 in the top 25. They would go on to take out their frustration at Purdue winning 45-17.

Penn State would follow up that win with another in Enis's last game at Beaver Stadium, rocking the Wisconsin Badgers 35-10.

Penn State had one game left on the schedule. Michigan was ranked No. 1, Nebraska No. 2, Tennessee No. 3 and the Nittany Lions were No. 4.

As the Nittany Lions walked into Michigan State, they realized they could not win a national championship since Michigan was undefeated and its regular season was complete.

Seemingly depressed about how the season turned out, Penn State was balled up by a Spartans team that would finish 1997 just 7-5.

Penn State would fall in the polls to No. 12, but they accepted an invite to play No. 8 Florida.

Florida head coach Steve Spurrier's Gators won a national championship the year before.

With quarterback Doug Johnson and running back Fred Taylor, the Gators, had they not slipped up at LSU and versus Georgia in Jacksonville, would most likely be playing for a second consecutive national championship since they had already beaten quarterback Peyton Manning's Tennessee Volunteers back in September.

The Citrus Bowl would prove to be defense-dominated as the Gators offense maintained the majority of the time of possession since Penn State struggled moving the ball on Florida's defense.

Florida won 21-6.

Penn State's dream season of 1997 quickly turned into a nightmare.

Penn State was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 from August through November 8. The only time they fell out of the top 10 was when they lost to Michigan State on the last game of the regular season.

Those that remember the lost season of 1997 are beginning to see deja vu.

Penn State entered the year a top 10 team and are currently No. 5 in the nation, while the schools ranked ahead of them have a much more difficult task of staying unbeaten.

Quarterback Daryll Clark, much like quarterback Mike McQueary in 1997, was supposed to deliver the national championship to Happy Valley.

Unfortunately for McQueary, the glass slipper didn't fit.

Clark hopes that the clock does not strike midnight in 2009.

Many comparisons can be drawn between the 1997 and 2009 Nittany Lions:

  • Soft non-conference schedule.
  • Top 10 ranking coupled with high expectations.
  • Ohio State had a new quarterback in Joe Germaine so expectations for the Buckeyes may have appeared to be inflated.
  • Michigan struggled late in 1996, losing three of their last four.
  • Penn State lost wide receivers Bobby Engram and others while in 2009 they will be without Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and company.
  • A strong rushing game led by Curtis Enis (1997) and Evan Royster (2009).

Before we sit down and start talking about Penn State's chances at a national championship—since Florida, Alabama, and Ole Miss could all eliminate themselves and Texas still has to take on Oklahoma—we must realize that history does indeed repeat itself.

As a matter of fact, history could repeat itself in 2009 with Penn State since the parallels between the two teams from two different decades are too great to ignore.

Penn State does have a chance to make a run at the national championship, and their schedule is a lot lighter than the four teams currently ranked ahead of them. But Penn State fans first must not get ahead of themselves.

Let Daryll Clark and crew take it one game at a time.

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