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Hidden Gems: 1997 Fiesta Bowl

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.

The 1996 season produced 11 wins, a top ten finish and a BCS (well, Bowl Coalition to be completely accurate) bowl victory against one of the most storied programs in college football. Yet, history seems to forget about this youthful squad who were somewhat sandwiched between one of the all-time great teams and a couple of "What could have been" teams.

The season began with a five-game winning streak that included wins against USC and Wisconsin, before being pounded into submission by Ohio State 38-7. That game was evidence that this talented young team was still a year away from being a true national title contender. The Nittany Lions suffered their second, and final, loss of the season two weeks later in a 21-20 upset loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes. Penn State would go on to finish the season like they started it by reeling off another five consecutive victories.

This hot finish had Penn State sitting in fantastic position on bowl selection day. The Nittany Lions were looking forward to playing another top ten team as a final challenge before heading into a very promising 1997 campaign. However, Penn State was paired with Texas- another young team who struggled for parts of the season, but ended the season on the highest of notes by crushing Nebraska's national title aspirations in a huge upset over the Cornhuskers in the Big 12 Championship Game.

Penn State came into the game as the favorite, but Texas was not going to just roll over. They had just defeated the best team in college football, and were confident they would do the same to the Nittany Lions. Texas quarterback James Brown had a career-defining performance against Nebraska, but that momentum could not be carried over against the always-stout Nittany Lions defense. Brown was picked off by Mark Tate on the first possession of the game, eventually leading to a four-yard touchdown reception by sophomore sensation Curtis Enis. However, the Nittany Lions offense would sputter for the remainder of the first half. Texas outgained Penn State 242 to 95 and ate up the clock with a few long drives on its way to a 12-7 halftime lead.

The young Nittany Lions team went into the locker room down, but far from defeated. Joe Paterno amassed a whopping 24 career bowl victories, thanks to his ability to use a full month of preparation time to pinpoint an opponents weaknesses. The countless hours of prep work paid off once again, as an seemingly entirely different Penn State team emerged from the tunnel for the second half.

Underutilized running back Kenny Watson opened up the second half with an electrifying 81-yard kickoff return that would set up a five-yard touchdown run by fullback/human battering ram Aaron Harris. Texas responded with its third field goal of the game, knotting it up at 15-15. It would be the final time Penn State would allow a score for the remainder of the evening.

The Nittany Lions would never look back, taking total control over the Longhorns for the rest of the contest. The defense would shut down the explosive Texas offense that featured future Heisman-winner Ricky Williams and NFL superstar Priest Holmes. Penn State's offense would move the ball with ease, as Curtis Enis found the end zone twice more. Anthony Cleary would also get in on the action with a one-yard touchdown run set up by an 84-yard by Chafie Fields, which would be the longest run in Fiesta Bowl history.

It was far from the most memorable games in Penn State history, but was certainly one of the most satisfying. A young team played to its potential, limited mistakes and clobbered a good team 38-15 with a stifling defense and dominating run game. Despite the big win, there was no taunting, no silly end zone dances and no clamoring in front of the camera. It was done in the style that made us all come to love Penn State football.

The future looked bright, but the 1997 team could not live up to the hype. After winning an instant classic against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions found themselves ranked number 1 in both polls. However, all national title hopes evaporated on a dreary Saturday afternoon in Beaver Stadium a few weeks later. The Nittany Lions were utterly dominated by Michigan, helpless against one of the best defenses in modern college football history. They would be further exposed by Michigan State the final game of the regular season, before ultimately falling to Florida in the Citrus Bowl as the suspended Curtis Enis and Joe Jurevicius watched from home.

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