Penn State Football

Looking back at the 5 most memorable Penn State-SEC bowl games

Penn State’s Gregg Garrity Sr. (19) catches a 47-yard pass to score a touchdown against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1983 in New Orleans. Penn State won the game and the national championship with a score of 27-23.
Penn State’s Gregg Garrity Sr. (19) catches a 47-yard pass to score a touchdown against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1983 in New Orleans. Penn State won the game and the national championship with a score of 27-23. Associated Press, File

The No. 12 Penn State Nittany Lions will play the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats at 1 p.m. Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. But this certainly won’t be the first Penn State-SEC bowl matchup.

By our count, there’s been a total of 16 Penn State-SEC bowl games — with the Nittany Lions holding the 9-7 edge. So, ahead of the Citrus Bowl, we thought now would be the perfect time to look closer at the five most memorable Penn State-SEC bowl games.

Who knows? Maybe Penn State-Kentucky will join these legendary games in the future. Take a look.

1. 1983 Sugar Bowl: Penn State 27, Georgia 23

Well, duh. This was Penn State’s first consensus national championship, and it’d be nonsensical to put another matchup ahead of this one. Few Penn State teams were better.

Before the game, the Nittany Lions had already coined their defense the “Magic Defense” — as in “now you see it, now you don’t,” per Sports Illustrated — and used constant shifts and alignments to throw Georgia RB Herschel Walker off his game. “We nailed him and nailed him until he said, ‘I’m tired of being Herschel Walker’ and wanted to quit,” PSU linebacker Scott Radecic said at the time.

Walker finished with just 107 yards on 28 carries, his second-worst output since his freshman season. Penn State never trailed in the contest — although it became hairy in the third quarter when the Bulldogs cut the deficit to 20-17. That’s when QB Todd Blackledge stepped up and launched a 47-yard fourth-quarter touchdown right into the outstretched arms of a diving Gregg Garrity. It was a scene that made SI’s cover and cemented the national title.

“I want to tell you how little I really had to do with this team getting a win,” Joe Paterno told The Associated Press, praising his players instead. “It’s their national championship, not mine. They are a bunch of people who were committed and a bunch of people who made up their minds they were going to have a magnificent season.”

2. 1979 Sugar Bowl: Alabama 14, Penn State 7

For Penn State fans, this one is memorable for all the wrong reasons. For fans of Bama? It’s historic.

The win gave the Crimson Tide’s Bear Bryant his fifth consensus national championship and prevented JoePa from getting his first. But it’s how the result came about that made this one unforgettable. Midway through the final quarter, Alabama led 14-7 when it fumbled at its own 22. After a nice run by Matt Suhey, then-No. 1 Penn State found itself at first-and-goal from the 8-yard line.

The next four plays would write history for both programs: First down. Two-yard run. Second down. Five-yard pass, with the wideout knocked out at the 1. Third down. Suhey dives but is met in the air and comes down at about the 1-foot line. Fourth down. A hit so hard at the goal-line the defender was knocked unconscious — but the ballcarrier was stopped short. “It was one of the hardest hits I ever made,” Bama All-American LB Barry Krause said.

A lot went wrong in this game for Penn State. With 90 seconds left in the first half, QB Chuck Fusina was sacked on third down and Penn State was knocked out of field-goal range. When Bama got the ball, Paterno decided to call a timeout to get the ball back — but it backfired. Bama went on to score a quick TD to go up 7-0. And PSU couldn’t take advantage of a shanked Bama punt in the fourth. The offense struggled.

“We messed up. We blew it. It hurts real bad,” Penn State All-American OT Keith Dorney told the AP at the time. “At this point I’m not sure whether to cry or laugh. I’ve done plenty of the former, now it’s time to forget it.”

3. 1959 Liberty Bowl: Penn State 7, Alabama 0

This was a matchup stacked with legends. Hall of Fame coach Bear Bryant was in his second season with Bama, and this was his first bowl game with the team. Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno was a 32-year-old assistant to Hall of Fame coach Rip Engle. And Hall of Fame QB Richie Lucas was under center, while football legend (and Hall of Fame RB) Red Grange was calling the action from the NBC booth.

But this game was also meaningful for a host of other reasons. This marked Penn State’s first top-15 ranking and first bowl game since 1947-48, and it turned out to be the Nittany Lions’ first-ever bowl win. (The previous one, the 1948 Cotton Bowl, was a tie.) It also started a four-year run of bowl games and top-20 finishes. Engle said the season might’ve been his greatest coaching performance. For Alabama, this was the start of Bryant’s 24 straight bowl appearances and 10 consecutive ranked seasons.

In other words, this was the start of something special for both programs.

Interestingly enough, the only points in this game came on a fake field goal before halftime. Backup QB Galen Hall flipped a screen pass to speedster RB Roger Kochman, who went 17 yards down the sideline for the TD. Unsurprisingly, however, Engle said it was the defense that made the difference: “Our hard hitting and line play won the game.”

Bryant didn’t mince words, either.

“They out-played us in every respect,” he told The Tuscaloosa News. “They out-tackled us, out-blocked us and out-coached us — just anything you mention. We’re fortunate that we weren’t beaten by four or five touchdowns.”

4. 2010 Capital One Bowl: Penn State 19, LSU 17

You didn’t think we’d actually forget the “Mud Bowl,” did you?

This was an exciting game played on incredibly poor field conditions. So poor, in fact, that it was the last time teams played on grass in the Capital One/Citrus Bowl. Turf was installed several months after this game.

Some background: Eight high school championship games were played on the field during the winter, then the grass was replaced. Another bowl played on it Dec. 19, badly damaging the “fixed” field, and a steady rain further deteriorated the conditions for the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. Puddles started forming all over the field in pockets of mud.

“That was by far the worst field conditions I’ve ever seen in my life,” LSU WR Brandon LaFell said. Added Penn State RB Evan Royster: “When you would try to make a play, you’d be slipping and stumbling all over the place.”

Of course, mud wasn’t the only memorable thing about this game. Penn State’s fourth-quarter comeback was pretty hard to forget, too.

LSU took the lead late in the game, and Penn State trailed 17-16 with a little under seven minutes left. That’s when the Nittany Lions broke out some incredible ball-control football. QB Daryll Clark led Penn State on a 12-play, 65-yard drive that ate up nearly six minutes of clock and converted two key third downs. In his final collegiate game, Clark took PSU to the LSU 4-yard line, where Collin Wagner hit the game-winning 21-yard field goal with less than a minute to go.

It was Penn State’s first win over a ranked team that season. And it helped cement Clark’s legacy.

“He went out there and showed what he’s about,“ Penn State WR Derek Moye told The Times-Picayune. “He quieted some of the people out there saying he can’t win the big game. This was a big win for us and a big win for him.”

Added LB Sean Lee: “I knew Daryll was going to take them down the field and get a touchdown or field goal.”

5. 1962 Gator Bowl: Florida 17, Penn State 7

Much like the 1979 Sugar Bowl, this is one performance Penn State would rather forget. But, for Florida, it’s an indelible part of their history. And, boy, was it memorable.

Sharon Flores, who was a Florida cheerleader on the sideline, recently recalled it as “one of the biggest things that had ever happened to the Gator program.” And author Mike Bynum included the bowl in his book, “The Greatest Moments of Florida Gators Football.”

It was a David-vs.-Goliath affair, where the Nittany Lions stood in as the giant. Penn State was 9-1 and had beaten four top-10 teams on the season. Most expected a better bowl for the blue-and-white, especially after winning the Lambert Trophy as the best team in the East. Florida, on the other hand, was 6-4 and accepted an invitation to the Gator Bowl only after Georgia Tech and Duke declined.

In the words of Gainesville Sun sports editor Joe Halberstein, in his game story, thousands thought Florida had as much business competing against Penn State “as Khrushchev did putting missiles in Cuba.” Florida didn’t even have its defensive coordinator, who left to become Vanderbilt’s head coach. Assistant Gene Ellenson took over — and may have won Florida the game.

He installed a new defense with an eight-man front and essentially a spy at linebacker for Penn State QB Pete Liske. The new scheme, dubbed “The Monster,” worked to perfection and frustrated the Nittany Lions’ sixth-rated offense. Florida took a 3-0 first-quarter lead and never trailed.

Florida’s defense held Penn State to just eight first downs, 89 rushing yards and 50 passing yards. It also forced five turnovers to stun the Nittany Lions.

“Florida worked harder for it during the game than we did,” Penn State coach Rip Engle said, according to a retrospective on FloridaGators.com. “They deserved to win.”

Added Florida DC Ellenson, during a postgame dinner reception: “We have had so many bad days in our profession that when we have a good one, pardon us if we seem just a bit snotty. ... We are!”

And Florida guard Wade Enzminger added a zinger himself: “All I want to know is when do we get the Lambert Trophy?”

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