It’s funny. I’ve seen Penn State play in a lot of phenomenal football games since 1990. In fact, I’ve missed only four of the 244 games Penn State has played anywhere in the country since September of 1990.
There have been a lot of fantastic games in that time frame, many with national championship implications.
But when I am asked my favorite game of all time, I always say Penn State-Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1990.
It was a 9-0 win on three Craig Fayak field goals. This game had no national championship implications. In fact, when we played that game, neither team was ranked in the AP Top 25.For Alabama, 1990 was rebuilding year with Gene Stallings as the new Head Coach.
But prior to Penn State's win, Alabama had just returned from a trip to rival Tennessee where they had managed a remarkable 9-6 upset.
Penn State in 1990 had lost their first two games - to Texas at home and to USC at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. They had just achieved 4 wins in a row.
I had witnessed an 8-3 loss to Alabama in 1988 at Legion Field. And a stunning 17-16 defeat when Alabama “desperation blocked” a last-second field goal attempt at Beaver Stadium in 1989.
It was just pure fun, and pure satisfaction, to watch Penn State beat Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
This game was a shut out at Tuscaloosa, something that didn’t happen very often to the Crimson Tide. In fact, the last time it had happened was in 1955, more than 30 years earlier. So preventing the Crimson Tide from scoring on their home field was quite amazing. And it was Homecoming to boot!
Bryant-Denny Stadium at Alabama has an amazing fan atmosphere. It was so much better than meeting at Legion Field in Birmingham as we had done in 1988.
Everyone waved red and white pom-poms or sticks, everyone stood, and the fans were the loudest, the most enthusiastic, and the noisiest I had seen in the three years I had been following Penn State football.
Essentially, the stadium experience was top-notch, and to this day I list Bryant-Denny stadium at Tuscaloosa as #2 on my top ten list, just behind #1 Beaver Stadium and before any other Big Ten venue.
In comparison, in 1990 Beaver Stadium fan atmosphere at the time was very mild. Penn State wasn't quite the Nittany Nation (with the best student section in the country) we have been since 2005.
Offense Scores Points (Sometimes); Defense Wins Games
Note: for much of this game summary, I wish to thank John Black, author of the Penn State Alumni Association's Football Letter, for digging into his files in the basement of the Hintz Alumni Center at Penn State and finding me a copy of his October 29, 1990 Football Letter where he provides his recap of the game.
It was a classic defensive battle. Alabama’s QB Gary Hollingsworth completed only 19 of 45 pass attempts, his worst performance of the 1990 season. Penn State’s defense held Alabama’s offense to 141 total net yards, and forced six turnovers – 5 interceptions and one fumble. Alabama was held to a historically low 6 yards of rushing offense.
Penn State’s offense, led by QB Tony Sacca until the middle of the third quarter, wasn't much better. It was held to 201 total yards, 109 rushing and 92 passing. The first three points were gained in the first quarter on a pass intercepted by Darren Perry and run back by him to the 'Bama 29 yard line. Joe Paterno made the decision to pull Sacca and replace him with senior QB Tom Bill in the middle of the third quarter.
Bill was able to put Penn State in field goal range twice, but could not break through the Tide defense in the red zone. The offense fumbled the ball twice and Sacca threw one interception.
Penn State defensive players like Mark D'Onofrio, Tyoka Jackson, Keith Goganious and Darren Perry earned much deserved respect in that game and others that followed that season.
This was one of those games that was very tense and frustrating at the time, but incredibly satisfying at the end. It was an incredibly ugly loss for Alabama, and a pretty ugly win for Penn State.
It was also a game that underscored the importance of special teams. It was freshman Craig Fayak's first year as kicker.
Several years ago, I was introduced to Craig Fayak at a Penn State tailgate in Columbus Ohio. When I told him that Penn State-Alabama 9-0 was my favorite game, he seemed very pleased. He told me that it was a real challenge making those 9 points.
The Alabama fans in the end zone were waving red and white sticks and the goal posts seemed to moving back and forth. Craig told me he had a hard time focusing on where he needed to kick the ball.
But kick he did, and fortunately his kicks were accurate enough to win the game. Two were 34-yarders. One was a personal best at the time of 50 yards.
As reported in the book "Game of My Life: Memorable Stories from the Nittany Lions" by Jordan Hyman, the Alabama game was the defining moment for Craig Fayak, when he realized he "was indeed Penn State's first-string kicker and a calm, consistent specialist whom teammates could lean on and coaches could leave alone."
Essentially, that Alabama game was a huge confidence-builder for Fayak. Later in that season, he would kick the game-winning 34-yard field goal in the final minute at South Bend, Indiana, upsetting AP #1 Notre Dame. That too was fun to witness!
Penn State would go on to win all the rest of its regular season games that year, but lose to Florida State in a disappointing Blockbuster Bowl, ending up with a 9-3 record and a #11 AP ranking. The following year, Penn State would achieve an 11-2 record and a #3 AP ranking.
Fayak would lead Penn State in scoring for the next three years, and he went on to become Penn State's all-time scoring leader with 282 points, a record that would stand until 2007.
Finally, and this is the primary reason it remains my #1 favorite game: the Alabama fans displayed a great deal of class.
Alabama had just lost a frustrating battle, where their team hadn't scored a single point. To add to Tide fan frustration, as we were leaving the stadium, there were already T-shirt vendors selling shirts celebrating Penn State as the 9-0 winner.
But as we walked toward our bus, numerous Alabama fans came up to us, congratulated us, and told us how sorry they were that the series with Penn State was ending.
We were told on the short walk after the game how much they loved Joe Paterno and what he stood for.
Such graciousness after a resounding defeat was hard to grasp, but it was there and ever-present. It reinforced my good experience with Alabama fans at Legion Field in 1988 (click here for article) and the mutual respect that these two teams have had for each other over the years.
It made me a Crimson Tide fan forever, that game.
That is, as long as they aren’t playing the Nittany Lions, as they will be in less than two weeks!
So now, after a two-decade absence, Penn State will return to Tuscaloosa, Alabama on September 11, 2010.
It’s not quite the same. Alabama is the pre-season #1 defending national championship team and returning a lot of award-candidate starters on both offense and defense.
Penn State is rebuilding and the big question is which new quarterback will be the starter and how the reformulated offensive line will gel.
But I can’t help but look back at 1990 and think that if Penn State has any chance, it will be the defense and special teams that make the key differences in the game.
There too, Penn State is replacing starters, and there are question marks that probably won’t be answered very quickly as to how good the new linebackers and our new punter are.
I can’t help but dream of a game like 1990, where the defense manages to frustrate Alabama’s incredible offense, and we score enough points to barely squeak out a victory, perhaps through stunning and unexpected special teams play.
Heck, I can dream, can’t I? Okay, maybe it’s too much a fantasy…