Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Joe Paterno knew the country didn't think much of this Penn State team.
Before the season, the Nittany Lions' easy nonconference schedule dominated discussion. Then, it was the team's struggles against Iowa, which worsened after a Sept. 26 loss to the Hawkeyes. Even after three convincing wins, Penn State players came here hearing all about their Big House losing streak, homer clock operators and Michigan's dominance in the series.
So on Friday night at the team hotel, Paterno provided a pick-me-up to his players.
"He said, 'I've been telling you guys how good I think you are. It's time you tell me how good you are, and go out and play that way,'" Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. "It was a great moment [Friday] night. When they left the snack last night, they were all pumped up."
The younger Paterno walked up to senior quarterback Daryll Clark after the meeting.
"He goes, 'Damn, I'm ready now,'" Jay said.
An energized Clark took the field Saturday and led No. 13 Penn State to a 35-10 victory against Michigan. The senior quarterback dissected the Wolverines' secondary for 230 passing yards and tied his career high with four touchdown strikes, while Penn State's defense held Michigan to season lows in both points and yards (250).
The Lions gave Paterno his first win at Michigan Stadium since 1996. But they gave themselves a much more significant reward: the belief that they can still do some special things this season.
"They needed it maybe more than I needed it," Paterno said. "I kept telling them, 'You're pretty good, you're pretty good. You've got to go out there and play a big, tough game.'"
For a group that had never won here, the players needed to hear that they could.
"[Paterno] thinks that we don't walk around with enough swagger," left guard Johnnie Troutman said. "He wanted to make sure we proved to him that we're good as everybody thinks we are."
Paterno continued to emphasize his point in the stadium tunnel moments before kickoff.
"Both teams come out of the same tunnel, and we were waiting for Michigan to go down [first]," Clark said. "They're going rah-rah and making a lot of noise, running down the tunnel. We looked over and Joe and he's jumping up and down, talking about, 'Yeah, yeah.'
"I'm looking at him and I'm like, 'OK, it's time to play some football.'"
Penn State's defense came out slow, as Michigan marched 70 yards to the end zone on the game's opening drive. The Lions hadn't allowed a first-half touchdown all year, and they struggled to stop several formations that they hadn't seen before.
But after Michigan's first surge, Penn State locked down, allowing just three points and 180 yards the rest of the game. The defense had put up impressive numbers against offenses ranked 79th nationally or worse, but Saturday it bottled up a unit that led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in scoring (37.3 ppg).
"We didn't come out like we usually come out, but we did adjust well," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "There were some big-league plays out there."
Penn State proved its a big-league team led by a big-league quarterback. Clark took heat after tossing three interceptions in the Iowa loss, but since then he has thrown for 926 yards and accounted for 12 touchdowns (8 pass, 4 rush) with just one interception.
"Fans were awfully tough on him after the Iowa game," Jay Paterno said. "And the morning of the Illinois game [a week later], I told him, 'Think about the first time you ever set foot on a field when you were eight years old. Why did you play the game?' And he said, 'Because I enjoyed it.'
"I said, 'That's what you've got to do.'"
Clark was all smiles in the fourth quarter, as he chatted with wideout Graham Zug, the recipient of three of his touchdown passes. When safety Drew Astorino intercepted Michigan's Tate Forcier in the final minute, Clark bounded over to his helmet and raised his fist as he ran back onto the field.
And when it was over, he sprinted over to the Penn State fans assembled near the southeast corner of the field.
For the legendary coach, the star quarterback and the loyal fans, it was worth the wait.
"We lost in 2007, a tough game, 14-9, the 2005 game was heartbreaking, we lose in the final two seconds and [Paterno] felt we got a little bit ripped off," linebacker Sean Lee said. "It's been really tough, and he was tired of that, and wanted to let us know, 'It's time for you guys to go out and make a statement.'"
That they did, and they even overcame a reminder of the past.
Michigan had no timeouts as it drove downfield late in the first half. After a Brandon Minor run on first-and-goal, the game clock locked on 36 seconds for what seemed like 10-12 ticks as Paterno went ballistic on the sideline. Michigan eventually kicked a field goal.
"I don't know who the clock operator is, but if he was the same guy who was here in 2005," Paterno said, before trailing off.
He might have been. But this time, Penn State wouldn't be denied.
"We lost in 2007, a tough game, 14-9, the 2005 game was heartbreaking, we lose in the final two seconds and he felt we got a little bit ripped off way back in 2001," linebacker Sean Lee said. "It's been really tough, and he was tired of that, and wanted to let us know, 'It's time for you guys to go out and make a statement.'"