The 1971 Nittany Lions too frequently get lost amid the discussion of "best" Penn State teams. Part of that results from circumstance. They're surrounded by undefeated squads from '68, '69, and '73. They didn't play for a championship, like the '78 squad. And 99% of the folks reading these pixels never saw them play.
None of those are valid reasons for excluding them from future discussions. The '71 squad was loaded. Then junior quarterback John Hufnagel completed 63% of his passes for more than 1,800 yards. He was a Heisman finalist as a senior. But he was overshadowed by his backfield mates, backs Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris. They're both Hall of Famers, you see. The former College, the latter Pro. The pair churned out more than 2,200 yards on the ground, with 32 touchdowns that season. In total, the 1971 offense averaged more than 40 points per game. That's on pace with the 1994 offense.
The defense? Well, Mike Reid, Steve Smear, Denny Onkotz, Jack Ham, and Neal Smith had all graduated. Fortunately, the '71 squad still featured three All-American linebackers in starting roles - Bruce Bannon, John Skorupan, and Charlie Zapiec. None of them were among the top 3 tacklers, though. The top three were the criminally underrated Gary Gray (ILB), Frank Ahrenhold (DT), and Jim Heller (DT). In other words, this defense had depth to spare (and, ah, don't bother trying to run it up the gut). The '71 defense held all opponents to an average of 11 points per game.
The 1971 squad rolled to a perfect 10-0 start, and a #5 rank nationally. They slipped up against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in the final regular season game. But they cheerfully accepted an opportunity to play Darrell Royal's #12 Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl. In a measure of revenge for the Richard Nixon screw up of 1969, the Lions stomped the Horns 30-6.
Thanks to the miracle of the innerwebs, we get a chance to watch the 1971 Lions in action. Here they are, against the Iowa Hawkeyes, at Kinnick Stadium, in week two.
Kill The Lights
First things first - Penn State started poorly. Sure, our Lions (presumably) took the opening kickoff and marched straight down the field. But we fumbled at the Iowa 5-yard line.
Our defense stuffed the Hawks, forcing a 3-and-out. But we roughed the punter. After a second consecutive 3-and-out, reserve defensive back John Cappalletti - he of future Heisman Trophy fame - fielded the punt, setting Penn State up near its own 40.
The Lions rolled down the field again, but turned the ball over on downs at the Iowa 8-yard line. You can't question Joe Paterno's decision to go for it down there - not when, on first down earlier in the drive, we could give the ball to Franco Harris on a fullback dive, and pick up 8 yards (gif below).
What's particularly fascinating about this gif is the Hawkeye defense. They're in what amounts to a "34" - 3 down linemen, and 4 linebackers. It just happens that then Iowa coach Frank Lauterbur preferred his inside linebackers to be in a 4-point, "frog" stance. (shocked that this technique didn't catch on.) Let's also give a special Film Room shoutout to Iowa's left inside linebacker, who completely blows (what we presume to be) his gap in order to fill the outside, while Franco runs the ball into the gap he's supposed to cover (presumably - you can't be too sure when you're diagnosing Lauterbur's frog defense).
On second thought, maybe that left inside linebacker really is supposed to cover the "9" gap? Here he is again, lined up between Penn State's center and guard pre-snap, and sprinting outside off the snap of the ball, as Lydell Mitchell takes it up the gut - where the ILB used to be - for a nice 15 yard gain. Tricky Hawkeyes?
Not that tricky, actually. Rules change, but math doesn't. We diagram this last gif below, highlighting the eternal football maxim: blocking 3 defenders with 4 men is smart. And, conversely, not having a defender assigned to every gap is dumb.
Cutting the field in half (below), to the right of the vertical line Penn State has a guard, tackle, tight end, and a fullback (Franco Harris), to block only three Hawkeye box defenders. Our Lions use a "Power" scheme, with the OT down-blocking the Hawkeye DT, while the OG pulls right to lead Hall of Famer Lydell Mitchell through the designed hole. The playside TE ignores the DE, and goes immediately to the second level to pick off Iowa's playside ILB (the one running to the outside in the gif above). That leaves the unblocked DE for Hall of Famer Franco Harris, who submarines the defender at his knees - more than enough time for Mitchell to burst through the hole, and into the secondary. This "pin-and-pull" power technique was something 2014 Penn State used extensively (sans a traditional fullback), and seemed to be something that Christian Hackenberg could audible to (i.e., when Hack saw 4 blocking 3, he could audible to a run, as guessitmated by the hyperlinked pic, and which is a nearly universal offensive football gimme).
Despite the slow start, Penn State recovered nicely. Our Lions jumped out to a 23-0 lead (missed one PAT). But just before the half, Iowa reeled off an 11-play, 80-yard drive exclusively on the arm of their QB, Frank Sunderman. Sunderman completed a 26-yard throwback on the final play of the first half, and the home-standing Hawks closed the gap to 23-7.
Your (Approximate) First Half Stats
|PSU Pass||6 of 8||51|
|Iowa Pass||10 of 16||119|
Iowa didn't (appear to) gain a first down on its own until its drive just before the half.
But Iowa's fortunes spinning the football backfired to start the 3rd quarter. On first down they were tackled for another rushing loss, this one for minus 2 yards. Then QB Sunderman tossed a pick to #30, senior linebacker Gary Gray (currently PSU Professor of Finance, Gary Gray), setting the Lion offense up at the Iowa 35. Six handoffs later, and Franco Harris had scored his 3rd touchdown of the afternoon, putting Penn State comfortably ahead, 30-7.
Game over, right? Everybody run the clock out? Not when you're playing a Frank Lauterbur team. That's no joke. Lauterbur - to borrow a Herm Edwards phrase - played to win the game (sort of). Lauterbur's Hawkeyes trailed 37-7 in the 3rd quarter, and faced a 4th down and 2 from their own 29 yard line. Lauterbur's call? Go for it. The Hawks ran a triple option and lost 4 yards, turning the ball over on downs. But that took some guts, didn't it?
Iowa never punted in the second half. Instead, they attempted every 4th down they faced (and they turned it over on downs four times). Punting was not winning for Iowa, circa 1971 (crazy, right Iowa fan?). As a matter of fact, this go-for-it phenomena worked on both sidelines. Young Joe Paterno - though he pulled Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell at the end of the 3rd quarter - was perfectly content to run his offense however he saw fit to run it. That included, with 0:44 seconds remaining in a game which his squad led 44-14, calling a pass on first down, from the Iowa 23 yard line. The final play of the game included an off tackle run for 6 yards, to the Iowa 4. Apparently "victory formation" was not a thing back in 1971.
Hit The Lights
Once you get accustomed to the lack of down, distance, time, instant replay, and explanation of penalties, it becomes an awfully fun watch. There are some murderous hits. Charlie Zapiec destroyed a back and caused a fumble. And just after the 25 minute mark, you'll see a Hawkeye catch a pass, get murdered by Bruce Bannon, and a black helmet comes screaming out, frightened, frantically looking for its owner. The video cuts to the next play, and you're left wondering, was the man's head was still in the thing? No, probably not. But it may have been.
Franco carried 27 times for 133 yards and 4 TDs. He got all of the goal line carries. Lydell went for 195 yards on 25 carries - a crisp 7.8 yards per - with one score (from 24 yards out). Hufnagel was an actual dual-threat, spinning the rock and running the option. He had the (unofficial) longest carry of the day - 26 yards for a TD (which was called back for a motion penalty).
The 1971 Nittany Lions. They were pretty good. Who knew?