This was supposed to be the year for Penn State.
For years, the Nittany Lions had been “next-level” contenders in the Big Ten conference, behind annual torch-bearers Ohio State and Michigan. They were always interesting, and sometimes dangerous, but in the end, they could never match up to their fellow Midwestern blue bloods.
The 2005 season was supposed to alter that history. Penn State ran out to a scorching 6-0 record to start the season, and the week before heading to Ann Arbor, had finally unseated the Buckeyes to gain the national attention of the college football world.
“The Nittany Lions arrive at the Big House touting one of the top defenses in the country,” wrote The Michigan Daily in the lead-up to the game. “They are allowing just 15.3 points per game and yielding 203 yards through the air.”
On the other hand, Michigan entered the game in the midst of a relatively disappointing season (3-3 overall, 1-2 Big Ten), despite having a talented roster — particularly on the offensive side.
Part of the reason that the season had been so disappointing up until that point was because the Wolverines were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation before losing a brutal game against Notre Dame.
The Wolverines touted a high-powered offense, led by sophomore quarterback Chad Henne, sophomore running back Mike Hart and freshman wide receiver Mario Manningham.
The game was far from exciting over the first three-plus quarters of action. The halftime score was 3-0 in favor of the home team, as Michigan fans were nothing less than disappointed, as they had been for much of the season.
A pivotal moment came in the fourth quarter with the score tied, 10-10. The Wolverines were driving down the field with a shot to take the lead, when Henne was stripped, and the Nittany Lions returned the fumble for a touchdown to take the lead.
From that point on, utter chaos ensued.
After Penn State converted a two-point conversion to take an eight-point lead following the defensive touchdown, Michigan answered with a statement. A five-play, 55-yard Wolverine drive ended with a touchdown from Henne to Manningham, followed by a successful two-point conversion attempt from Hart, to tie the game once again.
Nine minutes later, junior kicker Garrett Rivas converted on a 47-yard field goal to hand Michigan a three-point lead with just over three minutes to play.
But with just under a minute left, heartbreak seemed eminent for the Wolverines.
Senior quarterback — and team leader — Mitchell Robinson rushed for a four-yard touchdown with 53 seconds left to hand Penn State a four-point lead, meaning Michigan would need the drive of its season to score a game-winning touchdown, and alter the trajectory of the two programs.
The Wolverines started with great field position, as senior wide receiver Steve Breaston returned the kickoff to the 50-yard line to give the offense a boost.
Four plays later, the Wolverines found themselves on the 10-yard line of the Nittany Lions, when a third-down pass by Breaston was dropped, appearing to end the game. However, the officials added enough time back on the clock for one last play.
On fourth down from the 10-yard line, Henne found Manningham in the end zone for a miraculous touchdown to walk-off Penn State in one of the best games in the history of the rivalry.
The Nittany Lions would go on to finish strong in one of their best seasons ever. They won out for the rest of the regular season, earned an Orange Bowl berth and finished the season with a win over Florida State. It was one of the finest teams of Paterno’s career, but it’s impossible not to wonder what would have happened had Penn State had stopped Manningham on that final play and finished with an undefeated regular season.
As for Michigan, the Wolverines finished the season with an underwhelming 7-5 record, but the memory of defeating the Nittany Lions still endures.
“That’s the best game I’ve ever played in,” said defensive end Alan Branch after the game. “It was an unreal feeling.”