Game Summary - January 1, 2007
Penn State 20, Tennessee 10
By TONY FABRIZIO, The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA - Monday's Outback Bowl matched Penn State's strong running game and defense against Tennessee's supposedly superior athleticism.
Not only did the strong running game and defense win out, but unranked Penn State also proved every bit as athletic as the No. 17 Volunteers in a 20-10 upset under a gray New Year's Day sky at Raymond James Stadium.
Tony Hunt - you'll watch him on Sundays next year - ran 31 times for 158 yards, and the Nittany Lions (9-4) forced three turnovers, including a fumble by Arian Foster that cornerback Tony Davis returned 88 yards for a touchdown with 10:01 remaining.
The return gave Penn State a 17-10 lead, and Tennessee got no closer than the Penn State 35 on two final possessions.
"This is huge for us to finally beat a ranked opponent," said Paul Posluszny, Penn State's two-time All-American linebacker. "Everyone talks about how strong the SEC is as a conference, and Tennessee was a great team from that conference. I think this was a huge stepping point for us just to say we beat a good team like this."
Penn State's victory was an impressive showing for the Big Ten, which will send undefeated conference champion Ohio State against SEC champion Florida in next Monday's national title game.
The Big Ten also won Monday's other head-to-head clash, with No. 6 Wisconsin beating No. 12 Arkansas 17-14 in Orlando's Capital One Bowl.
For Tennessee (9-4), the loss was a disappointing end to a season in which the Volunteers lost to No. 2 Florida and No. 4 LSU by a combined five points.
"When you play against [Coach] Joe Paterno's football teams, they're going to be tough, they're going to be disciplined, and they're going to be able to run the football," Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer said. "I knew that having been there before. I learned some great lessons from him the last time [a 31-13 Penn State victory in the 1994 Florida Citrus Bowl]."
"[Still], if we take care of the football better, it's at least a more interesting game at the end."
Davis' return marked a reversal of fortunes both for the teams and for Penn State outside linebacker Sean Lee, who joined with Dan Connor in forcing the fumble.
It came one play after Tennessee's Erik Ainge and receiver Chris Brown hooked up on a 53-yard pass to the Penn State 33. Tennessee, a strong fourth-quarter team all year, was threatening to take the lead one instant and trailing by a touchdown the next.
Lee had missed a tackle in the second quarter during a 42-yard touchdown run by LaMarcus Coker that tied the game at 10. Coker took a handoff on a draw. Lee came in from the left side with a shot at dropping Coker for a loss, but Coker brushed him aside with a stiff-arm and bolted into the open.
"I didn't want to let our seniors down, and I felt like I was letting the whole team down playing like that," said Lee, a sophomore. "I knew I had to come out in the second half and make a big play. I had to make up for that play."
Davis said Penn State practices the "scoop and score" play in team drills.
"It was great awareness on his part," Posluszny said. "He picked it up, and when he took off, I knew no one would catch him. He can fly."
The play also inspired the Penn State defense, which held Tennessee to three-and-out on its next possession. A short punt and 20-yard return by Derrick Williams then gave Penn State the ball at the Tennessee 45.
With a light rain falling, Penn State turned to the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Hunt, who carried seven straight times and gained 42 yards. That set up a 22-yard field goal by Kevin Kelly, putting the Nittany Lions up 20-10 with 3:29 left.
"Everyone talked so much about [Tennessee's] speed, and nobody really said anything about how physical they were, so we wanted to come out and see if they could handle us if we ran right at them," said Hunt, the game's most valuable player. "They kind of struggled with that, so we stuck to it, got a big defensive play and just ran the ball down their throat."
Foster, though he led Tennessee's running attack with 65 yards on 12 carries, also fumbled in the second quarter while pitching on a reverse to Jayson Swain. Penn State's Jim Shaw recovered at the Tennessee 24.
The turnover led to a 34-yard field goal by Kelly, which tied the game at 3.
Safety Anthony Scirrotto had two of Penn State's other big defensive plays. He intercepted Ainge in the third quarter to stop a Tennessee advance at midfield, and prevented a long pass to Swain with a vicious collision.
"That's the hardest hit I've ever given and taken," Scirrotto said. "Ainge made a great throw. I whipped around, and I knew I was going to make a play on the ball, so I just focused on running through the receiver and breaking it up."
Ainge completed 25 of 37 passes for 267 yards. Counterpart Anthony Morelli completed 14 of 25 passes for 197 yards and a 2-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless in the second.