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Greatest Penn State Upsets #4 - 1990 Notre Dame


All of the buzz around Penn State prior to the 1990 season centered around the Lions joining the Big Ten in a few years. Of course, many people realized that this meant many traditional rivalries would have to be put on hold, and in 1990, Notre Dame was arguably the biggest rival on the schedule. The Irish and Lions had played every year since 1981. Penn State dominated the early part of the series winning two  National Championships along the way. But in the later part of the '80s it was the Irish who had turned dominant under Lou Holtz. The Irish claimed the national championship in 1988 and had won two in a row over Penn State.

The Irish appeared to be on their way to another National Championship in 1990. Despite a loss to Stanford, Notre Dame was ranked #1 in the nation when the Lions came to South Bend in late November. Lou Holtz's squad had impressive victores over Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, and Tennessee.

The expectations weren't very high for Penn State in 1990, but coming off a thrilling Holiday Bowl victory over BYU, Penn State found themselves ranked #21 in the preseason. The wind was quickly taken out of their sales with an opening day 13-17 loss to Texas. After dropping out of the rankings, the Lions fell in week two to #6 ranked USC by a score of 14-19. The National Championship was out of the question before the calendar flipped to October, but State rallied and won seven in a row to barely climb back into the national rankings. Notre Dame was heavily favored, but may have been looking ahead to the following week and their matchup with rival USC.


The Irish were loaded with offensive talent. Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks split the running back duties while quarterback Rick Mirer had the most lethal offensive weapon in the nation at his disposal with Raghib Ismail.  With all of that offensive firepower the Irish jumped out to an early lead with touchdown drives of 63, 59, and 92 yards. Only a 32-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tony Sacca to wide receiver Terry Smith kept the first half score a respectable 21-7. But Penn State got a major break in the first half when Ismail was sidelined with a deep thigh bruise that prematurely ended his day.

Paterno gave a passionate halftime speech that implored his team to get tough and make something happen. With the injury to Ismail and the challenge from Paterno, the defense came out energized in the second half. They shut down the Irish and did not let them cross midfield the rest of the game.

The momentum started to swing when linebacker Mark D'Onofrio intercepted Mirer at midfield and ran down the sideline to the 11-yard line. On third-and-10, Sacca hit tight end Ricky Sales in the corner of the endzone where he made a juggling catch just in bounds.

Midway through the fourth quarter State was still down 21-14. The defense was dominating, but the offense needed a spark. It was here where Tony Sacca cemented his reputation as one of the most clutch Penn State quarterbacks of all time. Starting from his own 42 yard line, Sacca hit Smith for 24 yards. Then he dumped a ball off to Leroy Thompson who took the it 20 yards down to the Irish 14. Then Sacca rolled right out of the pocket and hit Al Golden at the three yard line. Golden carried defenders into the endzone to tie the game.

After an exchange of possessions, time was running out, but the Irish had one more chance to pull off one of their patented miracle victories. Penn State had to punt on 4th-and-2 from their own 42 with 2:32 on the clock. At this point, Joe Paterno was just hoping to escape with a tie against the #1 team in the country. An excellent punt by Doug Helkowski forced the Irish to start at their own 7-yard line.

Notre Dame ran the first play for ten yards and a first down. Then they stalled. On third down Mirer overthrew his target over the middle. Safety Darren Perry picked it off at the 39 and ran it back to the 20 with just under a minute to go. Suddenly Paterno was playing with house money.

After two short runs to place the ball in the middle of the field, Penn State called timeout with :08 to go. Craig Fayak trotted out to the field, and Lou Holtz called a timeout in attempt to ice the true freshman kicker. But it turned out it was Fayak who had ice in his veins despite missing a 39-yard field goal earlier in the game. During the timeout, Fayak calmly told his holder Bill Spoor, "Hey, it's just like kicking in my backyard. I have a goal post there, and I've made this kick a million times."

The two teams jogged back onto the field as the South Bend crowd did their best to rattle the young kicker. Fayak stepped off his approach, set himself, nodded to Spoor, and then...