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Penn State’s History in the Cotton Bowl

Let’s take a look back at how the Nittany Lions fared in their previous trips to the Cotton Bowl.

1948 Cotton Bowl Photo by Cotton Bowl/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Whenever Penn State’s bowl destination is announced, I enjoy recalling memories of their trips to that bowl. However, not much came to mind for the Cotton Bowl, despite its rich history as a prestigious bowl game. That would be because it’s been 44 years since Penn State last appeared in the Cotton Bowl, which was seven years prior to my birth (now you can figure out my age if you happen to be some kind of a math genius).

Penn State will be playing in its fourth Cotton Bowl when they square off with Memphis on Dec. 28. Interestingly enough, it will be the first time Penn State faces a team that is not from Texas, as well as the first time they will play in the Cotton Bowl outside of New Year’s Day. Now, let’s take a quick look at the Nittany Lions previous three trips to Dallas for the game:

January 1, 1975
(#7)Penn State-41, (#12)Baylor-20

Could you imagine the storylines if this the match-up occurred this season? A battle of two top-10 teams that were left for dead, only to bounce back well before anyone could have imagined. It would also pit the Nittany Lions against one of their own, with Coach of the Year candidate Matt Rhule leading the Bears.

There was still plenty of intrigue for this game, however. Baylor stumbled to an 0-2 start in 1974, only to bounce back by finishing the regular season 8-1 that included four wins against top 20 teams. Penn State boasted a 9-2 record, but had two losses against unranked opponents when the offense just couldn’t get going- falling to Navy 7-6, and then suffering a 12-7 defeat at NC State later in the season.

It looked like the offense may again falter in the Cotton Bowl as the Nittany Lions found themselves down 7-3 at halftime. However, an explosive second half saw Penn State put up 38 points as they would eventually cruise to a 41-20 victory.

Quarterback Tom Shuman was named game MVP for passing for 226 yards and a touchdown on 10-of-20 passing. Tom Donchez contributed 116 rushing yards and a touchdown, while Jimmy Cefalo had 102 receiving yards on three catches.

January 1, 1972
(#10)Penn State-30, (#12)Texas-6

The Longhorns had a decent but unfulfilling season in 1971. They finished the regular season at 8-2, but lost both of its games against ranked opponents (No. 9 Oklahoma and No.16 Arkansas). Penn State was in a similar boat- the Nittany Lions raced out to a 10-0 start with each game against unranked opponent. Penn State then fell to the only ranked team on the schedule, losing to No. 12 Tennessee in the regular season finale, 31-11.

The game itself was very similar to Penn State’s trip to the Cotton Bowl following the 1974 season. The Nittany Lions trailed 6-3 at halftime before a second half explosion allowed them to run away with the game. The halftime adjustments obviously worked well, resulting in Penn State outscoring Texas 27-0 in the second half. It was the first time Texas was held out of the end zone in 80 games.

Penn State legend Lydell Mitchell was named MVP with 146 rushing yards on 27 carries, which included a one-yard touchdown. Quarterback John Hufnagel threw for 137 yards, with a 65-yard touchdown strike to Scott Skarzynski to help the Nittany Lions pull away.

This decisive victory was a major boost to the program. For one, it helped exact some revenge after a heated argument for the 1969 National Championship as the polls sided with Texas over the undefeated Nittany Lions. It also helped shape the national perception of the program, which at the team was still dealing with the notion they were simply feasting on Eastern programs and not part of the elite powerhouse teams.

“We had something to prove going into this game,” Mitchell stated. “Our reputation as a major football power was in question.”

January 1, 1948
(#3)SMU vs. (#4)Penn State

This game was not only played before Joe Paterno’s arrival in State College, it was also before Rip Engle was leading the Nittany Lions. Bob Higgins was near the end of his career as Penn State’s head coach, and would retire one year later with a record of 91-57-11 in Happy Valley.

The Nittany Lions enjoyed a 9-0 regular season, outscoring opponents 319-25. The defense pitched shutouts in six of those nine games, and had just one game where they allowed more than seven points (a 21-14 victory against West Virginia). SMU was also unbeaten, but ended the regular season with a 19-19 tie with TCU that resulted in a 9-0-1 record. While the Nittany Lions did not face any ranked opponents, the Mustangs were able to beat No. 15 Rice, No. 16 UCLA and No. 3 Texas in a three-week stretch.

The legendary Doak Walker kicked off the scoring with a 53-yard touchdown strike, and then followed up by making the extra point. SMU struck again in the second quarter, but this time Walker missed the extra point, resulting in a 13-0 lead for the Mustangs. The Nittany Lions would answer before halftime as Elwood Petchel threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Ed Czekaj. Petchel would strike again in the third quarter, this time on a six-yard touchdown pass to Wally Triplett. The extra point was no good, resulting in a 13-13 tie as both teams were unable to score the res of the way.

Penn State held Walker to just 56 yards on 18 carries, although it was good enough for Walker to share MVP honors with Penn State guard Steve Suhey.

This game also proved historic for reasons far removed from what occurred on the gridiron that day. Both schools worked together to circumvent the segregation ordinances in Dallas at the time. By working with the federal government, Penn State was able to stay at a nearby Air Base as black and white players were not able to room together (provided Penn State would have even been able to find a hotel that would accommodate the entire team). As Triplett would go on to say, “We play or or we play none.” The Nittany Lions refused to leave any members of the team behind, breaking the color barrier at the Cotton Bowl in the process.