Hidden Gems: Penn State-Maryland 1989

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It's not so hard to get worked up over starting to play the Terrapins again.

Every program has those games that live on forever in its lore and are forever fondly remembered and relived by its fanbase. Penn State fans are fortunate to have a long list of these games- 1981 vs. Pitt, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, 2005 vs. Ohio State- the list can go on and on. Hidden Gems will focus on games that may not have the same prestige as those games, but certainly were memorable in some way or another and are an important part of the overall composition of Penn State sports.

In this summer of 2013 series, we’ve had some memorable games. I’m here to tell you about a different sort of game—a tie, likely the last tie that fans of Penn State will ever see.

Why, Cari? Why’d you decide to write about a tie?

Well, as most of you know, I grew up a Penn State football fan, with alumni parents who’d had season tickets my entire life. I can’t tell you when I first watched or went to a Penn State football game, because I don’t remember.

My first in-game Penn State football memory? 1989, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, MD, versus the Maryland Terrapins. Apparently I was so disgusted with the outcome that I wandered the upper bleachers of the stadium for the second half, and that’s the last memory I have of this game.

On paper, this was a quintessential trap game. Only two weeks removed from a last-second loss to Alabama and the week after an underwhelming 10-point victory over West Virginia, no doubt the team was looking ahead to a showdown with Notre Dame at home the next week—in fact, after the game, receiver Terry Smith admitted, "We overlooked Maryland (looking toward Notre Dame on Saturday) and that's the main reason for what happened today."

But the Terrapins, coming off their third win over UNC, came to play, despite their paltry 3-6 record, and were looking to snap a 24 game losing streak to the Nittany Lions—and snap it they did, despite all the talent in the blue and white and despite the coaching aptitude of a staff only three seasons removed from a national championship.

Penn State was led on offense that day by tailback Blair Thomas and quarterback Tony Sacca. Sacca had secured the starting position after the second game of the season, a blowout win over Temple—this after a loss to UVA the week before (sounds somewhat familiar)—but his performance was so uninspiring that day that he was pulled out in the second quarter. Thomas, on the other hand, was in his final season in the blue and white before being drafted second overall by the New York Jets. He broke the century mark for the second straight year in this game in Baltimore, running for 125 yards on 26 carries.

On defense, there weren’t a lot of household names in 1989. Arguably the best remembered defender on the field for the Nittany Lions that day was linebacker Andre Collins, a Butkus finalist that year before being drafted by the Skins in the second round. Behind him, in the secondary, was future Steeler and current NFL coach Darren Perry, then a sophomore who started six of the games that season.

As was so typical for Paterno-coached teams, the defense that day in Baltimore wasn’t the big problem—it was putting the ball in the end zone. The first quarter was scoreless, helped by the fact that, in the first half, the Nittany Lions got to the redzone three times—and came away with three points. Total.

The defense was able to hold a surprisingly efficient Maryland offense to seventeen points, despite an out-of-the-blue performance from Terp QB Neil O’Donnell (18 of 24 for 219 yards, 1 TD), and after PSU kicker Ray Tarasi made his second attempt of the game, the Nittany Lions went into the locker room at the half down 7-3—and knowing that they were the ones who were losing the game, despite how Maryland might have played.

Penn State came out and surprisingly quickly racked up a TD in the third to take the lead, the only score of the third quarter. A few minutes into the fourth Maryland tied the game again, and shortly after the Nittany Lions were stalled at the 2-yard line—instead once again settling for a field goal with a little over five minutes to go in the game.

Then the Maryland offense got its rhythm back, drove down the field and had its shot at a game-winning TD. That attempt failed, though, and with under a minute to go, the Terps settled for a field goal, and a tie.

The coaches, team and fans were all supremely disappointed. Penn State would go on to lose at home to a Notre Dame team that hadn’t lost since 1987, scrape by Pitt in Pittsburgh, and ultimately end the season on a great high, finally finding their offense in the Holiday Bowl, dismantling BYU 50-39 in a game often rerun on basic cable.

As for me, I’m still stuck on the tie. Because a loss is bad, but a tie?...A tie is almost worse. And for your first memory of a football game of your lifelong favorite team, the alma mater of your parents, yourself and soon to be your younger brother? That’s not something you easily get over.

See you in 2014, Maryland. In some ways, it can’t come soon enough.


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