Will this be the year? Could our Nittany Lions break through against the Georgia Bulldogs, win that elusive National Championship, and secure its place among college football's blue bloods?
The Penn State faithful, and Coach Joe Paterno, have run right up to the edge several times in recent years. Undefeated seasons in 1968, 1969, and 1973 - but denied the top spot in the polls. Close but not quite seasons in 1971, 1972, 1974, and 1977. The heart-breaking loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl following a perfect 1978 season. And, of course, last year's (1981) campaign, where Penn State certainly looked like the best team in college football by the end of the season, but finished 3rd in the polls with a 10-2 mark.
Georgia, coincidentally, knows what we're feeling. The Dawgs lost the Sugar Bowl following the 1968 and 1976 seasons, but broke through by beating Notre Dame in 1980 for their first National Championship in the post-war era. Last year (1981), they won the SEC but dropped the Sugar Bowl to Pitt (who were trounced 48-14 by PSU), and finished 6th in the polls. Now they want a second title, and come into this game unblemished, with a perfect 11-0 record. Let's see what our Nittany Lions will be up against.
Kill The Lights
On defense, what the Dawgs lack in name recognition, they more than make up for with experience, depth, and cohesiveness. Coach Vince Dooley returned five of his starting front seven from last year's SEC championship squad to his base 5-2 defense, including two playmakers at DT - Freddie Gilbert and Tim Crowe - as well as both linebackers, Nate Taylor and Tommy Thurson. That front seven is supplemented by a tackling machine at Rover, junior safety-man Terry Hoage. The Dawgs are 10th nationally in total defense, allowing a paltry 13.3 points per game. The recent 44-0 drubbing of #20 Florida in Jacksonville at "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party" in early November certainly drove home the toughness of this squad on the defensive side.
However, the Dawgs are still young in the secondary, returning just one starter from last year's conference title team. And, as we all know, Georgia hasn't faced an offense that can throw the football like Penn State. Not that this is a criticism of their schedule, mind you. No one, frankly, has ever faced a passing offense like this 1982 PSU team. Why is that? Because, for the first time in collegiate football history, a national finalist (that's us) actually passes for more yards per game (215.4) than they rush (207.5). On the other hand, no one in college football history has ever won a national championship by passing for more yards than they rush. Perhaps this 1982 Penn State squad will become the first.
But enough of the Georgia defense. There's one man who moves these Dawgs, and we all know him very, very well by now. Herschel Walker. He's a phenom, a rarely seen combination of size, power, and speed. He's roughly the same size (6'2", 230) as our starting defensive tackle Dave Opfar (6'3", 239) - but Herschel is probably the fastest man on the field, while Dave is definitely not.
Walker burst onto the scene as a true freshman, and his 1,616 yards on the ground (5.9ypc) helped Georgia claim the national title. Now, as a true junior, he's amassed nearly 5,200 career rushing yards in just 31 games (168 ypg), and wants that second title after falling just short as a sophomore.
See the speed in the gif below. I-formation, off tackle, and it looks like he'll be stopped for a gain of 8 or so, no big deal. And then, poof - he gone.
So, yeah. Don't give him a crease to the outside. And by the way, don't give him anything inside, either. In fact, when you come to tackle Walker, you need to bring your big boy pads. Witness the power:
It, then, becomes absolutely critical that Penn State find a way to slow Walker down. The bad news, obviously, is that in three seasons no one's managed it yet. (Of course, everyone said the same thing about Marcus Allen last year in the Fiesta Bowl, and we all remember how that turned out). This season the Dawgs average 274.8 yards rushing per game. That's a lot, particularly in the SEC, where everyone whose anyone runs the dang ball, all of the dang time.
But the good news, Penn State fans, is this - if PSU can put the brakes on Walker (like PSU did to Marcus Allen in the Fiesta Bowl last year), the Dawgs could be in trouble. Georgia averages only 88.9 yards per game passing.
Fan favorites Lindsay Scott (WR) and Buck Belue (QB) graduated. First year starter John Lastinger only throws about 15 passes per game - and he completes about six of them to his own team (Lastinger's season stat line: 62 of 148 (41%) for 907 yards, 8TDs, 9INTs) . Lastinger's top target is tight end Clarence Kay, who has just 12 receptions on the year. And, Coach Dooley doesn't appear to have found a replacement at WR for Scott. The top wideout this season might be converted running back Melvin Simmons, who has caught only 9 passes for 118 yards, with zero TDs.
Hit The Lights
The key for Penn State seems abundantly clear. If this PSU offense is as good as we believe it to be, then it needs to put points on the scoreboard early. And if Penn State can make Georgia play from behind, then we're also taking the ball out of Walker's hands, and putting it into Lastinger's. Can Lastinger throw it? That 41% completion rate suggests he can't. But in reality, we don't truly know - he's never really had to throw it (even though the Dawgs have come from behind in 7 of 11 games this year). That, however, is a gamble we'd all take, because we - and the rest of planet Earth - know that Herschel Walker can run the dang ball.
Prepare for a great game, Nittany Lion faithful. And, perhaps, prepare yourselves for a "new future" of college football, where the forward pass becomes popular. If #2 Penn State can take down the top-ranked Dawgs with it's aerial attack, it'll turn 100 years of conventional football thinking on its head (and ease the pain of that 1979 Sugar Bowl loss, too).
Our guess? Film Room believes the forward pass is not just a fad or gimmick, exclusive to 3rd and long situations. In fact, we believe it is here to stay in college football. It's doubtful that many teams will ever be able to replicate Penn State's success through the air - it's unusual for college teams to feature so much talent at QB, WR, TE, and RB, and because 215 yards passing is just such a huge, huge number. Nevertheless, we do predict that college teams will become more "balanced" in the future, choosing to occasionally throw the ball on 1st down from time to time. And, perhaps, there may even come a day when seeing 200 yard passing days becomes routine.
(Cue laughing soundtrack).
I know - it's difficult to even imagine, and probably will never happen. In the meantime, let's see if this new-fangled PSU offense can carry us to our first undisputed, consensus national championship, as determined by totally anonymous pollsters who, in this pre-cable tv, pre-conference negotiated broadcast deals, totally NCAA controlled television era, might actually watch a max of 15 games all year long.