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One Step Away: An Excerpt (by Ryan Jones)

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The oral history of the 1985 Penn State Nittany Lions.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday, The Football Letter published an oral history of the 1985 Penn State football team. We thought it would be cool to see if the piece's author – Ryan Jones, who has written some stuff around these parts before – would let us run an excerpt, and he said yes, on two conditions: 1) We had to link to the original piece, which we're willing to do because it's awesome and 2) We had to link to The Football Letter's Twitter account, which you can (and should) follow right here. Thanks again to Ryan for letting us run this, and remember, read the entire thing, because it's great.

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It’s hard to imagine now, but Maryland entered the 1985 season looking like a national title contender. Fresh off an ACC championship, the Terps were ranked 7th in the preseason AP poll and received a handful of No. 1 votes. Maryland was favored at home in its opener against Penn State, a reflection of the program’s recent fortunes and not the series history, in which the Lions had won 27 of 28 meetings.

For many reasons, that early September afternoon in College Park was a memorable one. You can start with the weather: the high in College Park that day registered 96 degrees, and at field level in Byrd Stadium, it felt much, much hotter. "It was like 105," [John] Shaffer says. "I remember Trey throwing up on the field. It was just really, really hot." For his part, Bauer remembers fire trucks being brought in to spray down the crowd, and video of the game shows the referees wearing… shorts.

Perhaps the only sight more shocking? [Trey] Bauer insists that it was one of only two games in Paterno’s career that he didn’t wear a tie on the sideline. (The other being the 1983 Aloha Bowl.)

Then there was the shared border—and the Maryland roots of many Nittany Lions—that gave this game the feel of a "rivalry" despite Penn State’s dominance of the series. "My high school was three miles away from Byrd Stadium," says [Rogers] Alexander, one of many Lions recruited by Maryland, and one of many who had family in the stadium that day. And even the Lions without a Maryland connection could appreciate the role reversal; finding themselves in the rare position of underdogs against the Terps, they embraced it. "We were hungry," Bauer says. "We felt like we had a lot to prove."

They didn’t have to wait long. On the Terps’ second play of the game, [Michael] Zordich picked off a Stan Gelbaugh pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. "That was the ice breaker—’Ok, we came to play,'" says Bauer. "I think that was a real boost for us, a sign that we came to play not just that day, but for the whole season."

Not that it was easy. The Lions led 17-0 before the Terps rallied to take an 18-17 lead. But [Massimo] Manca drilled a 46-yard field goal late in the third to put Penn State back in front, and the Lions held on for a 20-18 win.

Temple was the opponent a week later for the Lions’ home opener, and a theme began to emerge: Penn State won, just barely, 27-25. Up 24-10 at halftime, the Lions struggled in the second half after junior tailback DJ Dozier went down with an injury. Still without Dozier over the next two weeks, Penn State posted narrow, 17-10 wins over East Carolina and Rutgers. Unbeaten and up to No. 8 in the rankings, but still largely unproven, the Lions had a week off before returning to action against No. 10 Alabama.

This one was a slow-burning classic, a defensive battle between two great programs that Manca remembers as "the loudest I’d ever heard" Beaver Stadium. Alexander remembers another detail: "The groundskeeper got lost for a couple weeks before that one, and the grass didn’t get cut," he says with a laugh. The result? Slightly overgrown turf—and so much for SEC speed. "I know they complained about that," Alexander remembers.

Leading 12-10 early in the fourth quarter, thanks to that stalwart defense, Dozier’s return to the lineup, and Manca’s four field goals, the Lions appeared ready to settle for a fifth. On second down inside the Bama 20, Shaffer was hit from behind and forced out of the game. In came [Matt] Knizner, barely used up to that point, with a third-and-short play call that nobody in crimson and white was expecting: A bootleg.

"I would’ve been happy with the field goal," Paterno said afterward, "but I decided, Let’s let it all hang out."

Faking the handoff to Dozier, the backup QB rolled right and found tight end Brian Siverling ’86, ’88g wide-open for the touchdown. A late Alabama touchdown was mere consolation in a 19-17 Penn State victory. Looking back now, Shaffer says, "I think that was when we started to really believe."

On the road a week later, they edged Syracuse, 24-20 before returning home for the first blowout of the ’85 season: a 27-0 Homecoming romp over West Virginia. That was followed by another close one, 16-10 over Boston College, before a trip west to face Cincinnati, where they dispatched the Bearcats, 31-10. It was now the second week of November, and Penn State stood 9-0—and the No. 1 team in the country. It had rarely been pretty, but to the Lions, that hardly mattered.

"When I think back on that year," Alexander says, "Joe didn’t give us the chance to look back. He was so on us all the time, screaming and yelling about the next opponent and only the next opponent. That kept us focused. You never had the chance to reflect and realize, ‘Hey, we’re 6-0, we’re 7-0.’ We couldn’t really look back and get distracted."

Adds Manca, "We had a lot of nail-biters, but we had such strong leadership. That’s what really pulled us through."

They couldn’t know it at the time, but the last of the nail-biters was behind them.