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My Favorite Penn State Season: 1986

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As we head into the last throes of the offseason, BSD has decided to get nostalgic, coming up with our favorite Penn State football-related memories. This week, we take a look back at our favorite seasons and today, Ben reviews the 1986 National Championship.

Trey Bauer - certified lunatic
Trey Bauer - certified lunatic
fanbase.com

Penn State finished the 1985 regular season undefeated at 11-0, ranked #1 in the nation.  As an Independent, our Lions could choose any Bowl invitation they pleased.  And in typical Joe Paterno fashion, they chose the hardest matchup - the Orange Bowl, a Penn State favorite among the Bowls, against Barry Switzer's #3 Oklahoma.

Penn State lost the National Championship to the Sooners, 25-10.  Quarterback John Shaffer finished 10 of 22 for 74 yards, with three interceptions.  He was pulled for backup Matt Knizner, who threw a fourth pick.  Penn State also lost a fumble on a punt return, finishing a dreadful minus 3 in turnover margin (thanks to our defense forcing two fumbles).  That the score was only 25-10 was testimony for the Penn State defense, which had held OU's normally potent wishbone offense, led by freshman phenom Jamelle Holieway, to just 31 yards rushing in the first half.

The disappointment of that night led 17 fourth-year players to return for a fifth year, and another shot at a National Championship.  Duffy Cobbs, Shane Conlan, Don Graham, Bob White, Keith Radecic, Dan Morgan, Eric Hamilton, Brian Siverling, David Clark - you get the idea.  Penn State would also have 17 more 4th year seniors heading into 1986, including All-Americans Chris Conlin and DJ Dozier - 34 seniors.  Thirty-four.

Pre-Season AP Poll

While PennLive held a vote to pick Joe's starting quarterback that August (which Matt Knizner won over John Shaffer), the Oklahoma Sooners returned 18 of 22 starters from their 1985 National Championship squad, and sat atop the pre-season AP poll.  Seven teams, including PSU, received first place votes.

Rank Team Points
1 Oklahoma (44) 1171
2 Michigan (6) 1016
3 Miami (1) 976
4 UCLA (3) 972
5 Alabama 911
6 Penn State (3) 892
7 Texas A&M (1) 871
8 Nebraska (1) 826
9 Ohio State 673
10 Tennessee 578

Week 1 - September 9th, 1986

After the first week of the season, it looked like the Sooners' trophy to lose.  Oklahoma boat raced #4 UCLA by 5 touchdowns in Norman.  That was enough for all but four voters to switch to the Sooners.  Penn State started with a yawner, 45-15, over hapless Temple.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Oklahoma (55) 1175 W 38-3 vs. #4 UCLA
2 Miami (1) 1050 W 25-13 at #13 Florida
3 Michigan (1) 1026 DNP
4 Alabama 986 W 16-10 vs. #9 Ohio St
5 Penn State (1) 952 W 45-15 vs. Temple
6 Nebraska (1) 896 W 34-17 vs. #11 Florida St
7 Texas A&M 868 DNP
8 Tennessee 713 W 35-21 vs. New Mexico
9 Auburn 509 W 42-14 vs. Chattanooga
10 Ohio State 502 L 10-16 vs. #5 Alabama

Week 2 - September 16th, 1986

In week 2, Penn State and OU sat idle while Ohio State traveled to Seattle, and got destroyed by U-Dub, 40-7.  An 0-2 start for the Buckeyes (but still alive for the Rose Bowl WOOOOOOO!!!!!) dropped them from the polls completely.   Michigan squeaked out a 1-point win over an unranked Notre Dame in the Big House.  They lost their one first place vote for that.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Oklahoma (55) 1175 DNP
2 Miami (1) 1099 W 61-11 vs. Texas Tech
3 Michigan 1000 W 24-23 vs. Notre Dame
4 Alabama (1) 992 W 31-17 vs. Southern Miss
5 Penn State (1) 938 DNP
6 Nebraska (1) 924 DNP
7 Washington (1) 751 W 40-7 vs. #10 Ohio St
8 LSU 747 W 35-17 vs. #7 Texas A&M
9 Baylor 629 W 38-7 vs. La Tech
10 Auburn 615 DNP

Week 3 - September 23rd, 1986

Penn State traveled to Boston College and played a night game at Sullivan Stadium.  BC night games are tough.  They won ugly, 26-14.  That dropped them in the polls to 7th, though they hung on to their lone first place vote.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Oklahoma (55) 1175 W 63-0 vs. Minnesota
2 Miami (1) 1104 DNP
3 Alabama 1020 W 21-7 at #13 Florida
4 Nebraska (1) 954 W 59-14 at Illinois
5 Michigan 946 W 31-12 vs. Oregon St
6 Washington (1) 903 W 52-21 vs. #11 BYU
7 Penn State (1) 878 W 26-14 at Boston College
8 Auburn 722 W 45-0 vs East Carolina
9 Arkansas 639 W 34-17 vs Tulsa
10 Arizona 583 W 41-17 at Oregon

Week 4 - September 30th, 1986

Then everything changed.  The Miami Hurricanes hosted Oklahoma and beat them convincingly, 28-16, in the Orange Bowl.  Miami's first place vote count went from 1 to 56.  Alabama climbed to #2.  Don James' Huskies lost.  And Penn State inched up to #5, after trouncing East Carolina in a game that, almost assuredly, was not broadcast on television outside of Centre County.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (56) 1156 W 28-16 vs. #1 Oklahoma
2 Alabama (1) 1058 DNP
3 Nebraska 1020 W 48-14 vs. Oregon
4 Michigan 953 W 20-18 vs. #20 Florida St
5 Penn State (1) 908 W 42-17 vs. East Carolina
6 Oklahoma 891 L 16-28 at #2 Miami
7 Auburn 819 W 34-8 vs. Tennessee
8 Arkansas 716 W 42-11 vs. New Mexico St
9 USC 707 W 20-10 vs. #6 Washington
10 Arizona 629 W 24-21 vs. Colorado

Week 5 - October 7th, 1986

Another week, another set of beatings.  Big Ten Powerhouse Rutgers got destroyed 31-6 by Penn State.  Alabama took out Notre Dame, and made it look a whole lot easier than Michigan had done two weeks earlier.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (55) 1155 W 34-0 vs Northern Illinois
2 Alabama (2) 1084 W 28-10 vs Notre Dame
3 Nebraska 988 W 27-24 vs South Carolina
4 Michigan 959 W 34-17 vs Wisconsin
5 Penn State (1) 937 W 31-6 vs Rutgers
6 Oklahoma 867 W 56-10 vs Kansas State
7 Auburn 828 W 55-6 vs Western Carolina
8 Arkansas 726 W 34-17 vs TCU
9 USC 709 W 35-21 vs Oregon
10 Iowa 614 W 24-21 at #17 Michigan State

Week 6 - October 14th, 1986

For week 6, Penn State hosted Cincinnati, and had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a hard fought 23-17 win.  The voters saw the box score, and were unimpressed, dropping the Lions to 6th place, one spot behind the 1-loss Sooners.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (56) 1175 W 58-14 vs West Virginia
2 Alabama (2) 1099 W 37-0 vs Memphis
3 Nebraska 1088 W 30-10 vs Oklahoma St
4 Michigan 986 W 27-6 vs Michigan St
5 Oklahoma 946 W 47-12 vs Texas
6 Penn State (1) 892 W 23-17 vs Cincinnati
7 Auburn 861 W 31-9 at Vanderbilt
8 Iowa 752 W 17-6 vs Wisconsin
9 Washington 676 W 24-14 at #18 Stanford
10 Arizona State 619 W 37-17 at Oregon

Week 7 - October 21st, 1986

One week later, the Canes traveled to Cincinnati and stomped the Bearcats, who were still getting over the Penn State flu.  Asked before the January 2nd Fiesta Bowl about both teams, the Cincinnati head coach thought Penn State would win.  More people should have listened to him.

This also feels like the point that Penn State started to hit their stride.  They mercilessly drubbed a good Syracuse team 42-3 (the Orange would finish 11-0-1 in 1987, by the way).  Joe always had a special hate for the 'Cuse.  But that beating still left PSU 6th, behind the 1-loss Sooners.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (55) 1174 W 45-13 at Cincinnati
2 Alabama (3) 1111 W 56-28 at Tennessee
3 Nebraska 1024 W 48-17 vs Missouri
4 Michigan 997 W 20-17 vs #8 Iowa
5 Oklahoma 937 W 19-0 vs Oklahoma St
6 Penn State (1) 902 W 42-3 vs Syracuse
7 Auburn 861 W 31-10 vs Georgia Tech
8 Washington 704 W 48-0 vs Bowling Green
9 Arizona State 695 W 49-0 vs Cal
10 Texas A&M 606 W 31-30 vs #20 Baylor

Week 8 - October 28th, 1986

Week 8.  This was the week that Penn State's National Championship took flight.  The Lions traveled south to Tuscaloosa for its annual rivalry with then #2 Alabama.  It was a massacre, 23-3.  The defense forced 5 turnovers, knocked out 12 teeth, and took 2 or 3 unsportsmanlike penalties.  Bama got a few 15-yard flags themselves.  But John Shaffer played brilliantly, as did a "good, young back" named Blair Thomas.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (55) 1193 DNP
2 Penn State (4) 1107 W 23-3 at #2 Alabama
3 Michigan (1) 1081 W 38-14 at Indiana
4 Oklahoma 1017 W 38-0 at Iowa State
5 Auburn 986 W 35-6 at Mississippi St
6 Washington 818 W 38-3 vs Oregon
7 Arizona State 798 W 52-7 vs Utah
8 Alabama 792 L 3-23 vs #6 Penn State
9 Nebraska 684 L 10-20 at Colorado
10 Texas A&M 679 W 45-10 vs Rice

Week 9 - November 4th, 1986

Just when the offense looked like it may have turned the corner......back to the grind.  I think the 1986 team preferred it that way, actually.  They'd rather punch and fight than roll up the score.

If the Bama and Miami games from this season are the evidence, then the '86 Lions actually preferred when the other team punched back.  It's as if they were bored by teams that curled in a ball, and got energized by an opponent who attempted to fight back.  Sort of an, "oh, you punched back?  YES! That's terrific, because now I'm really gonna **** you up" attitude.

It's hard to describe.  But however you attempt to define it, that trait remains the distinguishing feature to this team thirty years after they last suited up.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (53) 1153 W 41-23 vs #20 Florida St
2 Penn State (4) 1076 W 19-0 vs West Virginia
3 Michigan (1) 1053 W 69-13 vs Illinois
4 Oklahoma 953 W 64-3 vs Kansas
5 Arizona State 921 W 34-21 vs #6 Washington
6 Alabama (1) 861 W 38-3 at #19 Mississippi St
7 Nebraska 793 W 38-0 at Kansas State
8 Texas A&M 740 W 39-35 at SMU
9 Auburn 660 L 17-18 at Florida
10 Arkansas 639 W 45-14 vs Rice

Week 10 - November 11th, 1986

But first, before we crown them, we come to stupid Maryland.  The Turtles, pre-season #20, visited Beaver Stadium and went for a 2-point conversion to tie the game with less than 2 minutes to play.  A Penn State defensive back knocked the pass attempt away, preserving the win.  Penn State lost three first-place votes, and fell to 3rd in the polls behind Michigan.  An undefeated Auburn squad with Brent Fullwood running wild had climbed to 8th - three spots behind John Cooper's once-tied Arizona State team.  (Exactly how the polls work today).

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (57) 1195 W 37-10 at Pitt
2 Michigan (1) 1102 W 31-7 at Purdue
3 Penn State (1) 1075 W 17-15 vs Maryland
4 Oklahoma 1041 W 77-0 vs Missouri
5 Arizona State (1) 973 W 49-0 vs Cal
6 Nebraska (1) 878 W 35-14 at Iowa State
7 Texas A&M 830 DNP
8 Auburn 782 W 52-7 vs Cincinnati
9 Ohio State 711 W 31-10 at #11 Iowa
10 Washington 606 W 28-12 at Oregon State

Week 11 - November 18th, 1986

Penn State traveled to South Bend and beat Lou Holtz, climbing back to #2 in the polls after Michigan crapped the bed against a Minnesota Gophers team that the Sooners had beaten 63-0 earlier in the season.  Suck it, Domers and M-Club.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (56) 1196 W 23-10 vs Tulsa
2 Penn State (3) 1119 W 24-19 at Notre Dame
3 Oklahoma 1083 W 28-0 at Colorado
4 Arizona State (1) 1025 W 52-6 vs Wichita State
5 Nebraska 964 W 70-0 vs Kansas
6 Michigan 856 L 17-20 vs Minnesota
7 Ohio State 842 W 30-17 at Wisconsin
8 LSU 730 W 14-10 at #6 Alabama
9 Alabama 707 L 10-14 vs #8 LSU
10 USC 641 W 28-3 vs Cal

Week 12 - November 25th, 1986

Ahhh...end of season rivalry games.  The best time of the year.  We used to have one of these, by the way.

Penn State stomped the life out of Pitt, 34-14.  Barry Switzer beat Tom Osbourne (again).  Michigan pulled one out against Chris Carter and Ohio State.  Bama lost to Auburn, and Arizona State lost to Arizona (proving that John Cooper stunk at rivalry games).  And, after Thanksgiving, Texas A&M put the nail in Texas' coffin.

Only three of those six rivalry games are played today.  Hooray, conference expansion.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (54) 1156 DNP
2 Penn State (4) 1090 W 34-14 vs Pitt
3 Oklahoma 1056 W 20-17 at #5 Nebraska
4 Michigan 878 W 26-24 at #7 Ohio State
5 LSU 862 W 21-19 vs Notre Dame
6 Nebraska 834 L 17-20 vs #3 Oklahoma
7 Alabama 763 L 17-21 vs #14 Auburn
8 Arizona State 723 L 17-34 at #14 Arizona
9 Arkansas 670 W 41-0 at SMU
10 Texas A&M 625 W 74-10 vs TCU

Week 13 - December 2nd, 1986

The regular season was over for almost everyone.  Miami beat up on East Carolina, but not as badly as Penn State had back in week four.  Maybe the Canes were not invincible after all?  (HINT: they were not).  At least five voters saw it that way, giving Penn State its most first place votes of the season.

Penn State and Miami were the only unbeaten teams in the land.

Rank Team Points Result
1 Miami (53) 1155 W 36-10 vs East Carolina
2 Penn State (5) 1092 DNP
3 Oklahoma 1053 DNP
4 Michigan 984 W 27-10 at Hawaii
5 LSU 877 W 37-17 vs Tulane
6 Nebraska 861 DNP
7 Alabama 777 DNP
8 Arizona State 710 DNP
9 Arkansas 692 DNP
10 Texas A&M 631 W 16-3 at Texas

Final Poll

We all know how this season ended - with the greatest college football game ever played.  That's how.  The Lions, a 4-point underdog, squeezed the life out of the Canes on defense, and did just enough on offense to secure the National Championship for those 34 seniors.  (Thirty-four!!!)

Even then, though, Penn State's 2nd official National Championship wasn't unanimous.  No, friends.  In a final show of stupidity, three pollsters voted Barry Switzer first.  And that is a microcosm of the larger poll system, and why all football polls must die: because pollsters are dumb.

But that 1986 squad......what a bunch of fighters, huh?

Rank Team Record Points Result Bowl
1 Penn State (54) 12-0 1137 W 14-10 vs #1 Miami Fiesta
2 Miami 11-1 1064 L 10-14 vs. #2 Penn State Fiesta
3 Oklahoma (3) 11-1 1045 W 42-8 vs. #9 Arkansas Orange
4 Arizona State 10-1-1 938 W 22-15 vs. #4 Michigan Rose
5 Nebraska 10-2 937 W 30-15 vs. #5 LSU Sugar
6 Auburn 10-2 791 W 16-7 vs. USC Citrus
7 Ohio State 10-3 762 W 28-12 vs #8 Texas A&M Cotton
8 Michigan 11-2 758 L 15-22 vs. #7 Arizona State Rose
9 Alabama 10-3 680 W 28-6 vs. #12 Washington Sun
10 LSU 9-3 526 L 15-30 vs. #5 Nebraska Sugar