TAMPA, Fla. — It's called Scoop and Score. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley drops balls onto the grass and players practice picking them up and returning them for touchdowns.
Bradley decided to run the Scoop and Score drill last Saturday during Penn State's final practice leading up to the Outback Bowl. Cornerback Tony Davis reacted the way he always does. I was laughing, he said. I was like, 'This isn't going to happen.'
Replied Bradley: Let's do it anyway.
Score one for the assistant coach.
With Tennessee poised to take the lead in the fourth quarter, Davis picked up a Tennessee fumble and sprinted 88 yards for the decisive touchdown as Penn State defeated the No. 17 Volunteers, 20-10, Monday afternoon.
Davis alertly grabbed the ball after Dan Connor and Sean Lee poked it away from Tennessee tailback Arian Foster just before Foster's knee hit the turf. After a moment of hesitation, Davis turned upfield.
I saw their quarterback. He looked at me, Davis said. He knew that the whistle hadn't blown, and I knew it hadn't either. So I just started running. I saw the sideline and it was all grass.
Davis' play completely changed the complexion of the Outback Bowl, and it may have changed the way people look back on the Nittany Lions' 2006 season.
The Volunteers were on the verge of breaking a 10-10 tie just before Davis' fumble recovery. Taking advantage of a mix-up in Penn State's secondary, Chris Brown gained 53 yards on a catch-and-run to give Tennessee first-and-10 at the Lions' 14. With the both defenses shining and the soggy field conditions deteriorating, a score — any score — looked potentially decisive.
But when Davis picked up Foster's second fumble of the afternoon, the momentum shifted 180 degrees in a matter of seconds. Capitalizing on Tony Hunt's strong running, the Lions drove to the Tennessee 1-yard line on their next possession to set up a 22-yard Kevin Kelly field goal. With Penn State ahead by two scores, the game was all but over.
Penn State's victory capped a 9-4 season. It was the team's first win over a nationally ranked opponent this season. As such, it will likely boost players' self-esteem in the off-season. Said Davis, We definitely needed this. This was big-time. It was huge for us.
In dropping Tennessee to 9-4, the Lions got fine performances from Hunt and Anthony Morelli.
Hunt rushed for 158 yards on 31 carries, carrying the Lions as they gradually wore down Tennessee's defense. Playing his final college game, the senior tailback won most valuable player honors as well as plaudits from Joe Paterno.
Hunt had a heck of a game, said the coach. He made a lot of tough yards against a good football team.
Morelli had a strong game as well. After a difficult month in which he came under fire for criticizing his former high school coach, the junior quarterback put the controversy behind him by completing 14 of 25 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown.
I'm definitely relieved, Morelli said. We went out and proved everybody wrong as far as the offense goes, I think. People were [thinking], 'The offense can't move the ball.' I thought we moved the ball well today against a ranked team that is very talented and fast. We got it done.
Paterno was as impressed with Morelli as anyone.
I thought he grew up today in a lot of ways, he said. He's had a tough road, and I think today he really showed people what kind of quarterback he is. And he's going to get better.
Paterno watched the game from the press box, as he did the team's season finale against Michigan State. He said he thought about going down onto the field, but was worried about how well he would be able to get around on his surgically repaired left leg.
He didn't enjoy the view.
I have to yell once in a while so people think I'm earning my money, he said. I don't like it up there. It's not much fun.
Both teams struggled on offense early in the game. Tennessee moved the ball in fits and starts but couldn't establish much momentum. A first-quarter drive set the tone: After reaching the Penn State 27, the Vols couldn't convert a third-and-2 and had to settle for a 44-yard field goal to open the scoring.
Things got worse for Tennessee in the second quarter when Foster bobbled the handoff on a reverse and Penn State defensive tackle Jim Shaw flopped on top of the loose ball at the Vols' 24-yard line.
But the Lions weren't faring much better on offense and couldn't take full advantage. They managed one first down — on a 10-yard catch by Derrick Williams — then watched their drive stall at the 14. They settled for a 32-yard field goal by Kevin Kelly that tied the score, 3-3.
Penn State looked more impressive later in the second quarter. Starting on their own 8, the Lions began to open some holes up front and Hunt took advantage, romping 41 yards on five carries as Penn State moved to the Tennessee 34. On second-and-6, Deon Butler got past cornerback Antwan Stewart and made an over-the-shoulder catch at the 2. Two plays later, Morelli found tight end Andrew Quarless in the back of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown and a 10-3 lead. The 92-yard drive was the Lions' longest of the season.
But Tennessee struck back just before halftime. Taking advantage of Penn State's three-man rush, the Vols converted a third-and-23 as Erik Ainge threw to Brad Cottam for a 25-yard gain and an unlikely first down. Two plays later, LaMarcus Coker slipped out of Lee's grasp at the line of scrimmage and raced 42 yards to the end zone, tying the score, 10-10, with 1:15 left in the half. It was the longest scoring play against Penn State this season.
Both offenses bogged down in the second half, producing only three points between them. It was a day for the defenses, and the Lions were a little bit better in that department. Led by Connor and safety Anthony Scirrotto — who had an interception and a spectacular pass break-up — Penn State clamped down, holding the Volunteers 19 points under their season average.
After the game, Morelli, Hunt and senior linebacker Paul Posluszny trotted along the edge of the grandstand, exchanging high-fives with fan after fan. They headed into the tunnel to the cheering of thousands of Nittany Lion supporters.
This was definitely the right step, the step we needed, Morelli said. We have momentum going into next season now after beating a ranked team, a very good SEC team. We just have to go into winter workouts, work hard and keep things rolling.