Evan Royster (22) gains a few yards in first quarter action against Big Ten rival Michigan State on Saturday. He led the PSU ground game with 79 yards on 12 carries.Pete g. wilcox/the times leader
Abe Koroma (95) of Penn State heads off the field with a couple token roses after the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten’s berth to the Rose Bowl with their 49-18 rout of Michigan State.Pete g. wilcox/the times leader
STATE COLLEGE — Perched atop his makeshift throne, Daryll Clark snagged the flower that was handed to him and led the charge.
Standing on a frozen metal bleacher on the sideline, Clark extracted the rose from between his teeth for just long enough to address the throng behind him.
The audience once again belonged to the junior quarterback, who put his arm around tailback Stephfon Green as he gave the old “We are...” setup to the fans.
After three weeks of injury and depression, Clark and a small army of seniors threw a fitting party for the first conference title ever won in Beaver Stadium.
This 49-18 slaughter of Michigan State was arguably one of the most significant wins to take place in Happy Valley. Not just because it gave the Nittany Lions (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) their third Big Ten title in school history and a guaranteed ticket to at least the Rose Bowl, but because of what it represented for the program.
The 17 seniors who played their final game on that snow-dusted grass came to Penn State in the midst of an abysmal 7-16 stretch from 2003-04.
They walked off Saturday with 40 wins in four years and, more notably, two Big Ten championships – the first class since the Lions joined the league in 1993 to accomplish that feat.
“I’ve been proud of them for four years,” said Joe Paterno, who reiterated Saturday that he fully expects to return as Penn State’s coach for 2009. “It’s just been so satisfying to see those guys stick together.”
But it was Clark who stole the show.
He had suffered a concussion late in the game against Ohio State Oct. 25 and followed it up with uneven performances against Iowa and Indiana.
There was nothing uneven about this performance.
Clark accounted for five total touchdowns, with four coming through the air. He finished 16-of-26 for a career-high 341 yards – the sixth best single-game performance in school history.
He connected for touchdowns with Graham Zug (5 yards), Derrick Williams (32) and twice with Deon Butler (4, 70) while adding a 1-yard score on the ground. Clark helped stake the No. 8 Lions to a 28-7 halftime lead and exited the game at the end of the third quarter with a 42-7 advantage.
“I woke up today and said, ‘This is gonna be a big day for us,’” said Clark, who looked particularly exuberant after a few of his touchdowns as a weight was removed from his psyche. “Just letting loose and having fun. And I wasn’t gonna be the one to mess anything up for these seniors.”
Pat Devlin added 74 yards and a score – a 59-yard bomb to Butler – and senior Paul Cianciolo completed a 4-yard pass to give the Lions 419 yards through the air – the highest total ever for a Penn State team.
Little went wrong for the Lions on an emotional Senior Day.
Williams and Butler (3 catches, 133 yards, 3 TDs) both scored, while Jordan Norwood set a career-high with 127 yards.
Even fullback Dan Lawlor got in on the action, scoring from 4 yards out in the second quarter.
On defense, Anthony Scirrotto and Lydell Sargeant each had an interception. Linebacker Tyrell Sales helped hold Spartans All-America tailback Javon Ringer to his worst performance of the season at 42 yards. He had come into the day ranked second in the nation with 1,548 yards and first with 20 touchdowns.
The No. 15 Spartans (9-3, 6-2) managed only a 1-yard score from Ringer just before halftime to go with 11 points in garbage time with backups on the field on both sides.
Ohio State (10-2, 7-1) clinched a share of the Big Ten title with a 42-7 win over Michigan earlier in the day. But the Lions earned the league’s automatic bid to the Rose Bowl by virtue of their 13-6 win over the Buckeyes in October.
Barring a highly unlikely collapse by the seven teams atop the polls that would land Penn State in the national title game, the Lions will next play on Jan. 1, most likely against either USC or possibly a rematch with Oregon State.
But the Lions aren’t worrying about that just yet.
Williams was one of four seniors who dragged a 3-foot tall styrofoam number with him into the interview room after the game. He grabbed the “2” from the “2008” that will eventually join itself on the stadium’s facade up with the program’s other landmark seasons.
“Everything that I’ve dreamed and hoped for has come true,” he said. “We’ve accomplished so much.”
additional photos, visit www.times