ORLANDO, Florida (Ticker) -- After a two-year absence, Penn State is back in the bowl picture thanks to Larry Johnson.
The 10th-ranked Nittany Lions make their 31st bowl appearance in 37 years under Joe Paterno when they take on No. 22 Auburn in the Capital One Bowl.
Penn State (9-3) entered 2002 after enduring consecutive losing seasons under Paterno for the first time, raising suspicion that the game may have passed the 75-year-old by.
But Paterno silenced the critics and got the program back on track. Led by the spectacular running of Heisman Trophy finalist Johnson, the Nittany Lions closed the season with four straight victories and have a chance to reach 10 wins for the 19th time under Paterno.
Johnson became just the ninth player in NCAA history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a single season and set a record by averaging 9.0 yards per carry. Johnson led the nation in rushing, averaging 167.9 yards per game.
He went over the 2,000-yard mark by rushing for 279 yards and four touchdowns in the first half of Penn State's 61-7 drubbing of Michigan State on November 23. A week earlier, Johnson set a Penn State record by running for 327 yards in a 58-25 victory over Indiana.
The senior from State College, Pennsylvania finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. But he cleaned up in some other major honors, winning the Maxwell and Walter Camp Player of the Year Awards and the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back.
Zack Mills completed 180-of-309 passes for 2,350 yards with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions for the Nittany Lions. Bryant Johnson was Penn State's top receiver, catching 48 passes for 917 yards and four scores.
Auburn (8-4) endured a frustrating season, losing three of its games by a combined 17 points. While the Tigers were routed by Arkansas, 38-17, its other losses came to Southern California (24-17), Florida (30-23 in overtime) and Georgia (24-21). All three of those defeats came in the final 90 seconds.
Last year's leading rusher, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, suffered a broken left fibula against Florida on October 23 that ended his season, but Ronnie Brown picked up the slack, rushing for 647 of his team-high 824 yards and nine touchdowns after replacing Williams.
That helped Auburn win four of its last five games, including a season-ending 17-7 victory over Alabama.
Jason Campbell and Daniel Cobb, a sixth-year senior, each passed for more than 1,000 yards for the Tigers.
Auburn will be without offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, who took the job at Louisville, where he will replace John L. Smith.
Penn State is 23-11-2 all-time in the postseason and its .667 winning percentage is tops among all Division I-A schools. The Nittany Lions are 20-9-1 under Paterno, the active leader in bowl wins and appearances.
Auburn is 14-12-2, including a 43-14 loss to Penn State in the 1996 Outback Bowl in the only previous meeting between the teams.