Hidden Gems: Penn State-Louisville 1997

Curtis Enis was so confident in Aaron Harris' ability he simply took a knee and watched the action unfold.

Hidden Gems: Penn State-Louisville 1997. Louisville scored first. Then Penn State took over. And for a quarter there, they truly looked like the best team in the country.

On August 25, 1997, the annual Sports Illustrated college football preview hit the newsstands. On the cover was Penn State star wideout Joe Jurevicius, and the accompanying headline was as simple and plain as the blue and white uniform Jurevicius wore in the photo : "PENN STATE IS NO. 1."

Now, one might think that, among the Penn State faithful, this would have been seen as a fairly big deal. But looking back, and from what I recall, it really wasn't.

And that's very telling. Especially in contrast to where we stand today.

See, while Penn State fans at the time were certainly pleased to see the Lions ranked No. 1, the simple fact of the matter is that, around that time, those fans were pretty well spoiled, and pretty well accustomed to life at or near the top of the rankings. Just three years removed from the spectacular and ultimately wronged 1994 squad, and coming off a 1996 season that had been capped by a thorough beatdown of Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, the Penn State football machine circa August 1997 was running at near peak performance--on the field, on the recruiting trail, everywhere. It was a football powerhouse--a program widely believed to be not only the best program in the Big Ten, but also one of the best four or five in the entire nation.

Just how good were things back then? Well, for context, understand this: Most everyone around the Penn State program knew that '97 team wasn't nearly as good as the '94 squad was.

And yet, most everyone around the Penn State program also knew there was no reason why that '97 team couldn't go on to win the national championship.

That's how good things were back then: Even in a comparatively 'down' year--a year in which the team would enter the season with big question marks on both offense and defense—there was a belief both inside and outside of Happy Valley Penn State was still capable of playing for it all.

***

Of course, we know now that the 1997 Nittany Lions really weren't capable of playing for it all. Because for all of their talent--Aaron Harris and Curtis Enis in the backfield, Jurevicius and Chafie Fields on the flank, Brandon Short and Aaron Collins at linebacker, freaking LaVar Arrington relegated to special teams duty--the '97 Lions were most certainly a flawed team: The defensive line was far too small (Matt Fornadel, anyone?) and far too thin. The offensive line wasn't nearly capable of playing with the big boys, hence the early-season struggles to get the ground game moving. The linebackers and the defensive backs were probably overrated. And, it must be said, the coaching--from game-planning to in-game adjustments--was already starting to get a bit stale.

All of those flaws should have been apparent by the time Minnesota pushed Penn State to the very limit in late October. The Nittany Lions escaped that day with a 16-15 win, but it was, it must be said, a gift; Minnesota caught the wrong end of an awful officiating decision that ultimately turned the tide and even Joe Paterno would admit afterward that Glen Mason's bunch deserved to win. They did, too.

But even still, Lions fans ignored the bad signs; instead, they chose (understandably, I suppose) to focus on what happened a week earlier, when Enis and Harris carried the Lions to a mind-bogglingly thrilling 31-27 win over Ohio State that, in my mind, should probably go down as the single greatest game ever played in Beaver Stadium. Yeah, the Gophers nearly pulled the upset. But hey, we thought, it was just the hangover effect from Ohio State. The national title was still there for the taking.

And then? Well, then came 'Judgment Day.'

Michigan rolled into Happy Valley, dominated from the opening kick, and walked off with a 34-8 win that, by ending the Nits' national championship hopes, also seemed to extinguish their fire. The air went out of the balloon that day, and one couldn't help but sense that things weren't going to end nearly as well as we hoped. The Lions rallied to beat Purdue and Wisconsin in successive weeks, yes, but with a chance to secure a Sugar Bowl bid in their season-ending trip to East Lansing, the Nittany Lions failed to even show up; they allowed two average Spartan tailbacks to turn in 200-yard rushing days and fell 42-14 to a team that would end its season by getting hammered by Washington in the Aloha Bowl.

By the time the season officially wound down, with a hideously boring 21-7 loss to Florida in a Citrus Bowl for which neither Enis nor Jurevicius were eligible, it was as clear as ever just how overrated that '97 team really was. The offense lacked speed on the flank and strength up front. The defense was far more porous than it should have been. And when times got really tough, it has to be said, there was only one guy on that team who seemed to keep playing his best. That guy was Enis.

The fact that his career at Penn State ended so badly is, I think, a real shame. He remains one of the most underappreciated players to ever wear the uniform.

***

So, yeah, it ended badly.

But it must be said: It started so well.

The season opener against Pitt wasn't exactly a dominating performance--in fact, there were signs even then that this team wasn't No. 1 material--but the Week 2 domination of Temple (back when Temple was in the Big East, for the first time) allowed everyone to dismiss those ups and downs against the Panthers.

And then came the trip to Louisville, which is supposed to be point of this piece, anyway. So here goes.

Let’s start with this: Louisville, at the time, was awful.

I mean, awful.

This was not the Louisville you know today. This was Louisville before John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino came along and, somehow and some way, turned Louisville the kind of program that could actually one day gain entry to the ACC. This was Louisville before they played in the current home, Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and back when they still played in a rather uninspiring place called just plain-old Cardinal Stadium. As home to Louisville football and minor-league baseball and pretty much anything else that happened in Louisville at the time, Cardinal Stadium managed to convey all of the worst qualities of a second-division Scottish soccer stadium, a low-level NASCAR track and oversized high school stadium in Texas.

It was, in other words, a mess. It was old and it was musty and it had that old-school artificial turf that had all of the give and comfort of solid concrete. The 1997 season was the last year that the Cardinals would play there, and the way the place looked, well, you could tell they were happy to be leaving. (Interesting side note: Cardinal Stadium was recently found to be woefully dangerous, so the State of Kentucky is tearing it down; do not a shed a tear for Cardinal Stadium).

In other words, nothing about Louisville football in 1997 could be defined as "good." The thoroughly underwhelming Ron Cooper was the coach at the time, and though Howard Schnellenberger had hinted at the potential for mild success during his 10-year run from 1985-1994, there was no sense at all that this program would ever be even a minor player in the national college football scene. Louisville football was basically a college football backwater.

Which meant, of course, that it was quite a big deal for the folks down there to have a No. 1 team coming in. The pressbox was pretty darn full that day, and probably because they knew this was on the one time all season that anyone would be watching or caring about Louisville football, everyone in Cards Nation was ready--I mean, ready--for the Nittany Lions. The fans were fired up and the players were fired up, and for a brief while there, they played some fired-up football, too.

Just three minutes into the game, the Cards stunned just about everybody--including, perhaps themselves--by jumping out to a 7-0 lead, courtesy of a 65-yard touchdown strike from Chris Redman (remember him?) to Arnold Jackson. With that, the crumbling mess that was Cardinal Stadium erupted; the media assembled up the press box looked up from their grits (yes, they served grits that day, and they were good) and thought, just for a moment, that they might actually have a story here. Penn State had a fight on their hands, it seemed. They were going to be tested. This was going to be good.

And then basically Penn State took over. The Nittany Lions scored 36 points in the second quarter, took a 50-14 lead into halftime, and left Louisville with a 57-21 win that made everyone believe--naively, it turns out--that they were for real.

It wasn't an entertaining game, really. It wasn't a particularly well-played game.

But to me, it remains a memorable game, and for two reasons: first, I was there; second, it stands out as one of the last times I saw Penn State play in a way that really made them look like a legitimate No. 1 team.

We know now, of course, that the '97 Lions weren't a No. 1 team. They weren't even close. But on that day in Louisville, in that blitzkrieg of a second quarter, they certainly thought they were. We all thought they were, too. Because, yeah, they looked the part.

You see, college football is and always been, in part, a confidence game; if you can get a team to believe they're great, they can deliver greatness. That's what the Nittany Lions did that day.

After that initial shock--after seeing the Cardinals get on the scoreboard and get their hopes up--Penn State absolutely dominated, in most every way a football team can dominate. Their first touchdown of the day came on their first play from scrimmage, a 57-yard touchdown pass from Mike McQueary to Jurevicius that was a thing of beauty. The Penn State passing game wasn't exactly sophisticated back then, but Jurevicius was tall and strong and faster than everyone thought, and on that play, the talent differential between the two teams was clear. Louisville didn't belong on the same field as Jurevicius, who would score twice more before the first half ended. Neither did they belong on the same field as Enis, who scored three times on the day, or even Chris Eberly, who terrorized the Cards on special teams.

Penn State played with a swagger and confidence that we simply haven't seen much—haven’t seen enough, really—in recent years: Yes, there were glimpses in 2008 (Oregon State), and in 1999 (Arizona, Ohio State), and of course in 2005 (Wisconsin, Minnesota). But the simple fact of the matter is that Penn State doesn't occupy the same space it did back in the 1990s, back when we had all the talent in the world--and had, too, the belief that a national title was always within reach.

No, Penn State-Louisville will never make anyone's list of the greatest games in Penn State history. It was neither thrilling nor brutal nor beautiful. It was, really, nothing more than blowout win over an awful opponent that would finish the year with just a single win.

But Penn State-Louisville 1997 is, I think, important. It's important because it represents a time and place in which Penn State football really was competing at the highest levels of the game--and was expected to compete at the highest levels of the game.

We aren't there now, of course. And we won't be there for some time.

But the fact that we once were? The fact that the second quarter of Penn State-Louisville 1997 did happen?

Well, that simply proves one thing: We can get there again.


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