1968 The Streak Continues
The seeds of Penn State's first perfect season were sewn in the winter of 1966 when Joe Paterno and his staff assembled one of their finest recruiting classes. And after they shouldered their way into the lineup early in the 1967, this group was primed to make a statement in 1968.
But no one expected it to put together a perfect season, not with a road trip to UCLA, and home games with Army, Kansas State, Miami and Syracuse.
In retrospect, the win over UCLA in Los Angeles was the pivotal game in the season, The Bruins were the last team to beat Penn State, which had risen to No. 3 in the polls by the time the teams met.
A defense led by Mike Reid, Denny Onkotz, Jack Ham, Steve Smear, Jim Kates, Neal Smith and John Ebersole stifled the Bruins, 21-6. The key play in the game was a blocked punt by Ham that was scooped up by linebacker Jim Kates and returned 36 yards for a touchdown that gave the Lions a 7-0 lead.
Later Chuck Burkhart connected with fullback Tom Cherry for a 76-yard touchdown, getting a huge downfield block from tight end Ted Kwalick that wiped out two defenders. Charlie Pittman scored on a I 0-yard run to seal the win. Back in State College fans, who had watched the game on television, swarmed onto College Ave. and began rocking cars and buses before marching to the on-campus house of University president Eric Walker. Nearly 3,000 students met the team when it arrived on campus at 5 a.m. Sunday morning.
In every season there is one game that hangs in the balance until good fortune decides who will win. For the 1968 Lions that game came against Army in Beaver Stadium. Paterno's Lions were still ranked No. 3 in the country when the Cadets showed up.
General William Westmoreland, who was the superintendent at West Point at the time, was a guest of Walker at the game. Because of the political climate at the time, Pennsylvania State Police had to escort Walker and Westmoreland to the stadium for the game.
The passing combination of Steve Lindell and Gary Steele gave the Lions fits and after Army scored with less than three minutes left in the game to make it 22-16, Penn State fans were unsettled.
On the ensuing onside kick, fate winked at Penn State. The ball squirted out of a pile at the Penn State 47 and Kwalick scooped it up and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown that allowed the Lions to survive, 28-24.
They closed the season with Syracuse on Dec. 7 in which halfback Bobby Campbell ran for 239 yards against the Orangemen in a 30-12 win that ended a perfect 10-0 season and ran the team's unbeaten streak to 18 games as it headed for an Orange Bowl date with Kansas.
30-0 and No. 2 Again
The Lions showed they were among the best in the country, if not the best. After rallying for a 15-14 decision over Syracuse in dingy Archbold Stadium in the fifth game of the season, they cruised to their second straight 10-0 record.
Then the Lions made a decision that would haunt them. In those days bowl bids were extended right after the final game of the season. Going into that game Penn State was ranked second behind Ohio State. The Buckeyes, prohibitive favorites to beat Michigan, were expected to go to the Rose Bowl, leaving Penn State no chance to settle the battle for No. 1 on the field.
Penn State had its choice of the Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls. Because they had enjoyed themselves so much in Miami the year before, and because they had no shot at No. 1, the players voted to return to South Florida to meet Big Eight champion, Missouri.
But the unexpected happened when Michigan upset the Buckeyes, 24-12, on Nov. 22 in Ann Arbor. Two weeks later, President Richard Nixon declared the winner of the Texas-Arkansas game the No. I team in the country, ignoring unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Penn State.
That miffed Joe Paterno so much that when Nixon offered a plaque recognizing the Lions for having the longest winning streak in the country, Paterno declined to accept. In fact, years later he admitted he talked to someone on the White House staff and asked that Nixon be told exactly what he could do with the plaque.
Penn State's decision to return to the Orange Bowl provided critics with plenty of ammunition. They accused Penn State of ducking Texas in the Cotton Bowl, choosing to ignore the situation that was in place when the decision was made.
The Lions could do nothing except beat Missouri and let the chips fall where they might. They shut down the Tigers, 10-3, with an incredible defensive performance that saw them intercept Missouri quarterback Terry McMillan seven times. A new defensive wrinkle designed to disguise Dennis Onkotz's responsibilities thoroughly confused the Tigers.
After the game, someone asked Onkotz how long the Lions could have held Missouri and his reply was classic. “Forever.”
State finished second in the polls for the second straight season and that still remains a sore point for Paterno. “The 1969 team was one of the great teams in college football,” he said many years later. “They beat a great team — Missouri — in the Orange Bowl and Missouri had beaten Michigan. This is probably the only regret I have, that they didn't get the credit they deserved.”
That Orange Bowl marked the final appearance for those sophomores who had debuted in 1967 on the very same field.
1973 Road to the Orange Bowl
Prior to the 1973 Sugar Bowl game against Oklahoma, New England Patriots owner Billy Sullivan had been pursuing Joe Paterno to become their new coach. At one point during the week before the game, Sullivan and Paterno met for a discussion at the Penn State team hotel.
In the days following the game, Paterno mulled over the offer and finally decided he would accept it. The total financial package was reported to be for $1.25 million over six years. For a coach with a wife and five children, it was enormously tempting. But after sleeping on the decision he decided to reverse it.
The news of his possible departure leaked out quickly and the Penn State fans were stunned. They mounted a “Don't Go, Joe,” postcard campaign that sent over 500 cards to his office in Recreation Building on campus.
With University President John Oswald by his side, Paterno called a news conference on Jan. 6, 1973, and informed everyone that he was staying at Penn State.
“I've always hoped to be able to work in an atmosphere where the approach by the administration towards athletics was such that I can be more than a coach,” he said in his announcement. “That's what Penn State has allowed me to be. The overriding factor in my decision was my realization that I enjoy working with young people and having an influence over their lives. I also feel there is still a challenge here for me...”
The challenge facing Paterno in 1973 was to find a quarterback to replace the record-setting John Hufnagel. The rest of the pieces were in place, led by returning tailback John Cappelletti on offense and defensive tackle Randy Crowder and linebacker Ed O'Neil on defense.
It turned out to be a season that exceeded expectations as the Lions went 12-0 and Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy.
Tom Shuman had seen some backup duty at quarterback the year before and as the Lions flew to Stanford for their season-opener, it was his team to run. He immediately established himself, completing 11 of 18 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinal.
No one really tested the Lions until the eighth game of the season when they went to Maryland and got caught in a 22-22 stalemate at halftime. But the Lions put up 20 points in the third quarter while the defense shut out the Terps for a 42-22 win.
There was more trouble looming the following Saturday when North Carolina State invaded Beaver Stadium and pushed the Lions to the limit before falling, 35-29. With :54 remaining in the game, Wolfpack quarterback Dave Buckey launched a desperation pass into the wind toward his twin brother, Don. It was an ill wind for the Wolfpack as it pushed the ball down, causing it to fall short of the receiver.
Cappelletti carried the ball for 220 yards and three touchdowns in that game — the second of a three-game stretch in which he gained more than 200 yards.
His timing was perfect. It was late in the season, no clear-cut Heisman candidate had yet emerged and he was the star on an undefeated team.
Once the celebration of the Heisman trophy died down the Lions got back to work preparing for their Orange Bowl date with LSU, They beat the tigers, 16-9, in a game highlighted not by Cappelletti's running but by Chuck Herd's one-handed catch of a Shuman pass near midfield that went for a 72-yard touchdown. Cappelletti, the chosen focus of the LSU defense, was held to 50 yards and a touchdown.
With the win, the Lions put a 12-0 record in the record books. They were the only team in the country with a 120 record. They finished fifth in The Associated Press poll. Notre Dame, which had knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, was voted No. 1, followed by Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama and the Lions. But the Lions were No. 1 in another poll.
“I just held the Paterno poll,” Paterno told the media in his postgame Orange Bowl press conference. “I did it in the locker room. Our players voted Penn State number one. It was unanimous. That is official.” “That was all that needed to be said,” Mark Markovich said. “It meant a lot. It took away the pain.”
Paterno later bought the squad “National Championship” rings to validate its standing in his poll. Ten players were drafted, including Cappelletti and O'Neil in the first round.
Road to the Desert
It was the 100th year of Penn State football and the school had celebrated its Century of Excellence with three different black tie dinners across the state of Pennsylvania. The Lions' magical season became reality as each successive autumn week passed.
But there were a couple of close calls. Penn State needed a game-saving pass breakup by defensive back Duffy Cobbs to prevent Maryland from forging a season-spoiling tie. And against Notre Dame, the Lions had to thwart a last-minute charge by the Irish to save a 24-19 win that punched their ticket to Phoenix.
With just more than a minute left in the game, the Irish were on the Penn State 6-yard line with four downs to destroy the Lions' dream. But the defense, led by end Bob White and linebacker Don Graham, sent the Irish reeling backward, leaving them with a fourth-and-goal from the 18. A fourth-down pass netted five yards. All that remained was a date with Pitt, which fell, 24-14.
“The Big Kerbang in the Desert” is what one newspaper columnist called the 1987 Fiesta Bowl showdown between Penn State and Miami. And ever since the pairing had been announced, after some wrangling with NBC to move the game from New Year's Day to Jan. 2, the college football world was anticipating the explosion.
It was a classic matchup. Two unbeaten teams. The No. 1 team vs. the No. 2 team. The guys in the camouflage utilities vs. guys in blazers and ties. Plus, it was obvious early on that these two teams just didn't like each other, which added to the hype.
It started at the Steak Fry early in the week. Both teams attended the event, which is supposed to promote sportsmanship and good feelings. But Miami, led by defensive tackle Jerome Brown, feigned indignation at a lighthearted Penn State skit and walked out of the function en masse. It came to light later that it had been preplanned.
This was going to be war.
Before they left the snow for the sunshine, the Lions had already decided they would concentrate their efforts not on Miami quarterback Vinny Testavercle but on his receivers. The price for every pass they caught would be a headache. Penn State's defensive backs were small but hit with magnum force. Miami only saw the small part. “They kept talking about how small our defensive backs were but they had never been hit by them,” said Shane Conlan, Penn State's All-American linebacker, who had two interceptions in the game. “After a while, they didn't want to catch the ball.”
The Hurricanes were so disrespectful they ran right through the circle of Penn State players who were stretching during pregame warmups.
“They were so cocky it was almost funny,” said Ray Isom, a 5-foot-9, I 87-pounder who was perhaps the best hitter in the secondary. “(Michael) Irvin and (Alonzo) Highsmith said some things to me before the game. Irvin came over to me and said, ‘Are you Isom?’ I said I was and he said, ‘We're gonna have a great game.’ I told him to keep believing that.”
That set the tone for the night. By the kickoff the air was electric, like it gets just before a summer thunderstorm in the hot Arizona desert.
The special defensive package that Penn State had out together not only savaged any Miami receiver who reached for the football. It also was designed to get into Testaverde's head.
“Our nickel package is sort of Polish,” said defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who happened to be Polish. “We went to an extra linebacker when most teams use an extra defensive back.”
Conlan's versatility gave them that luxury. He was capable of playing inside or outside, stopping the run or running deep with a receiver, Miami never knew for sure where he was or where he was going.
Twice he intercepted Testavercle, returning the second interception to the Miami 5-yard line, setting up tailback D.J. Dozier's touchdown run that proved to be the game-winner.
But it was Testavercle's fifth interception of the night that settled the score.
With 3:07 remaining, Miami got the ball back for the last time. Early on it looked as if the Lions would stop the ‘Canes right away, forcing them into a fourth-and-6 situation on their own 27. Bur Brian Blades got loose in the secondary and Testavercle found him for a 31-yard gain. After that, Testavercle hit five straight passes to move the ball to the Lion 9-yard line and send the tension needle off the chart.
Testavercle hit Irvin for a 5-yard gain on first down, but defensive tackle Tim Johnson sacked Testavercle for a 9 yard loss on the next snap and on third down Testavercle's pass fell incomplete.
That brought it down to this: Fourth down, 4 yards to go, 18 seconds left and the ball on the 13. Testaverde dropped back into the Arizona night one last time, looking for Brett Perriman.
“He ran a curl,” Testavercle told the Miami Herald. “But the linebacker dropped straight back into the curl as if he knew where I was going to throw.”
And still he threw it, right into the stomach of linebacker Pete Giftopoulos, who caught the ball and knelt just outside the goal line with :09 still on the clock. Penn State had won, 14-10.
The stands emptied of Penn State fans after Giftopoulos' interception but there were still nine seconds left to play. Once the crowd was herded away, the Lions ran out the clock and the real celebration began.
Miami finished the game with 93 offensive plays and had the ball for 33 minutes and 43 seconds. They gained 285 yards in the air and another 160 on the ground and managed to score only 10 points.
Penn State gained only 53 yards on the ground and 109 through the air.
But in the end, the Lions had won the national championship.
Run for the Roses
Penn State had assembled the pieces of one of the greatest offensive teams in the history of college football and now it was fire-hardened and ready to rewrite the record book. Five members of that offense eventually became No. 1 draft choices.
Ki-Jana Carter, who skipped his final year of eligibility, was the first player taken in the 1995 NFL draft, while Kerry Collins and tight end Kyle Brady were fifth and ninth, respectively.
Carter finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting while Collins was fourth.
Guard Jeff Hartings and tackle Andre Johnson would be first-round picks in the 1996 draft.
By the time the 1994 season was over, Penn State led the country in two offensive categories — total offense (520.2 yards per game) and scoring (47.8 points per game). Collins ranked first among quarterbacks in passing efficiency. Carter was second in scoring, fourth in rushing and fifth in all-purpose yards.
It was an offense that could beat you at any game you wanted to play, whether it was running inside with fullbacks Jon Wittman and Brian Milne, outside with Carter, throwing deep to Bobby Engrarn and Freddie Scott or short to Brady over the middle.
It could do it in a hurry. This was a team that had Southern Cal and Ohio State down, 35-0, at the half.
Or it could do it slowly, taking five minutes to go 96 yards in 14 plays to pull out a season-saving win at Illinois.
But it always did it.
In the first of the two games they had circled. The Lions went to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan in the fabled Big House. The loss to the Wolverines the year before still rankled them and they wanted to even the books.
They did it. In the gathering twilight, Collins found Engram slashing across the middle and hit him for a 16-yard touchdown that snapped a 24-24 tie in front of 106,832 fans, the third largest crowd in college football history. That win poll-vaulted the Lions to No. 1.
They stayed there for two weeks.
"What do you have to do to prove you're No. I ?” asked ABC commentator Dick Vermeil after watching the Lions destroy the Buckeyes. “ ... They just have so many weapons. Now that the passing game is like it is, they just take turns doing what they want to do.”
“ ... This is the best offensive team I've seen, in terms of execution and getting it done, since I've been doing college (football) broadcasting and that's since 1988.”
The Lions stayed ahead of Nebraska in the polls until the following week when, with reserves on the field, they allowed Indiana to score two meaningless last-minute touchdowns, making the final score 35-29. Indiana completed a pass for a two-point conversation on the final play of the game to set up the final score.
Pollsters across the country only looked at the final numbers and decided that Penn State did not deserve its No. I ranking. The Lions dropped behind the Cornhuskers and stayed there the rest of the year.
The next week, the Lions almost fell deeper into the Top 10 when they gave Illinois a 21-point lead in the first half thanks to a pair of turnovers and a short punt that gave the Illini great field position.
“As soon as the score got to 21-0 the game plan went out the window,” said offensive guard Marco Rivera. “After that we just had to take it one play at a time.”
It took a long time but finally, with a misty rain falling, the Lions began “The Drive.” They needed to go 96 yards, into the wind and rain, against the clock and an Illinois defense that was among the nation's best.
“When we got into the huddle (on the 4), Kerry (Collins) just said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it.’ And then we went,” said fullback Brian Milne, who capped the drive with a two-yard plunge. “We were determined to take it all the way down the field.”
It was a drive that had to be perfect in every way. There was no room for a dropped pass, a missed assignment or a foolish penalty. It was the kind of drive only an experienced, talented unit could make. It was the final test.
With the win the Lions clinched the Big Ten title and the 3ose Bowl berth that goes with it. But the Lions were still thinking about a national title.
“We have two more games to play, then we'll start thinking about the Rose Bowl,” Paterno said.
“It's certainly great,” Collins said of the Rose Bowl berth, “but we have bigger things on our mind. We still have a chance at a national championship.”
In reality, it proved to be a long shot. Because while the Lions were dispatching Northwestern and Michigan State to finish 11-0, Nebraska was also running the table.
And because the two teams were committed to different bowls as conference champions, the only way Penn State could hope to finish No. 1 was for Miami to beat the Huskers while the Lions took care of Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Nebraska rallied to score twice in the second half to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Eve, so when the Lions took the field in Pasadena they knew deep down the best they could hope for was No. 2.
Penn State got its first Rose Bowl win with a 38-20 victory over the Oregon Ducks.
They scored on their first play from scrimmage as Carter went 83 yards untouched. It was the first of three touchdowns he would score in the game. But it took a pair of interceptions by Chuck Penzenik, a free safety starting his first game, and a 72-yard kickoff return by backup tailback Ambrose Fletcher to hold off the pesky Ducks.
With the win, Penn State became the first Big Ten team to go undefeated, untied and win the Rose bowl since Ohio State did it in 1968. The Buckeyes got a national title for that season.
But the Lions didn’t get a national championship or even a split decision.
It was the third unbeaten team Paterno has coached that had to settle for second place in the voting.