STATE COLLEGE, PA – On a day first owned by Mother Nature, Penn State and senior cornerback A.J. Wallace put in a dominating performance of their own, shutting out Minnesota 20-0 on a rain- and snow-soaked Homecoming evening.
For some, the road of life features more twists and turns, rises or falls, than others.
Take A.J. Wallace, for example.
While Wallace has at times been a factor ever since his freshman year, one could easily argue that Saturday’s Penn State / Minnesota matchup was his official coming-out party.
And considering where Wallace stood amongst the coaching staff when the season began, this performance emerged as a very pleasant surprise.
Entering the 2009 season, Wallace made his home in Joe Paterno’s doghouse, staring a suspension in the face due to skipping classes, a major no-no in JoePa’s eyes.
“He does have ability and he’s bright,” Paterno said. “He just wasn’t working at it in the classroom or on the practice field.”
And that’s when Wallace finally began to turn things around.
Often mentioned as the headliner in a fairly inexperienced secondary when the 2009 season began, the Nittany Lions called upon Wallace to take on an even bigger task: covering the Big Ten’s leading receiver in Minnesota’s Eric Decker.
Decker entered Saturday’s matchup with Penn State averaging nearly seven receptions a game.
Because of his big-play ability, Penn State obviously needed a strategy in place to keep him in check.
“We felt that A.J. was one of the guys that could hang with Decker and jump balls,” said defensive coach Tom Bradley.
Coach Paterno mentioned the same point, adding that cornerback Knowledge Timmons didn’t have the height that Wallace has.
“What we had to do, what we felt we had to do, was to get pressure on the quarterback without sending a lot of people, where we would have to go one-on-one with Decker,” Paterno said.
Obviously, Wallace would have help on defense, but the challenge was there. This matchup started with him.
“I tell him, ‘you have to step up to the plate’,” said linebacker Navorro Bowman.
And step up to the plate he did.
Decker finished the day with just one catch for 42 yards, well below his season average.
“He [Decker] didn’t get too much,” said safety Drew Astorino. “He got one catch that was on me and Sukay, that was our fault, and A.J. played a great game.”
Wallace finished the day with four tackles, and that’s a solid day considering the fact that Minnesota ran only 40 offensive plays, the fewest by a Penn State opponent since 1977.
Most notable was the touchdown-saving tackle that Wallace made along with Bowman at the goal line late in the second half.
The play, a fourth-and-goal run by Minnesota’s Kevin Whaley, was a run to the outside, where both Bowman and Wallace showed determination and significant closing speed to keep the Golden Gopher back out of the end zone.
It just goes to show you that it’s never too late to turn things around.
Four tackles, an assist in a goal line stand, plus being a major piece in holding one of the nation’s best receivers to just one reception.
Now that’s a performance that can not only help a coaching staff forget how about past mishaps, but also build a lot of confidence for a player… and a football team, too.
And what does Wallace have to say about that?
“It gives you a boost of confidence but you can only do that for a 24-hour span,” he said. “You can’t hold onto it long. Come Monday, you’ve just got to forget about it and work on the next team.”
Watch out, Michigan. You’re next.