There are certain games that will forever live on in Penn State lore, for better or worse. In this new series, we examine some of the games that sparked a special season in Happy Valley - or destroyed a once-promising season.
Penn State, National Champions.
It was January 1st, 1983. I’d fallen asleep on the couch next to my dad, who woke me to point at our 14” Zenith black and white television, proudly displaying Penn State 27, Georgia 23, in the Sugar Bowl. Our boys had done it - particularly #25 Curt Warner, my then-hero, who played through a hip pointer. A few days later, Pennsylvanians lined route 22 from Harrisburg to State College, welcoming home the Commonwealth’s first officially-crowned national championship football team, in spite of the snow fall.
Prior to that season, Penn State paid its collegiate dues with a litany of screw jobs, near misses, and almosts. Back to back undefeated seasons in 1968 - 1969 left PSU no higher than 2nd in the final AP Poll. A third unbeaten season in 1973 produced the team’s only Heisman trophy, but a 5th place pollster finish.
By 1978, Penn State entered the post season ranked in the top spot, only to lose on a goal line stand that still lives and breathes down in Alabama. Three seasons later, Joe Paterno fielded what’s lately been recognized as one of the best teams of the 1980s, only to finish 10-2, ranked 3rd (kicked the crap out of then #1-Pitt, though).
The 1982 squad began the year in traditional Paterno fashion - that is, slowly. The Nittany Lions were still figuring things out whilst logging wins over Temple (31 - 14) and Boomer Esiason’s Maryland Terps (39 - 31). The offense’s superstar, tailback Curt Warner, had averaged 6.1 yards per carry in 1981, outshining Marcus Allen in the Fiesta Bowl at season’s end. The pre-season Heisman favorite was a marked man entering 1982, and it showed in how defenses played the Nittany Lions.
Entering the last week of September unbeaten at 3-0, in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium (with Mount Nittany still proudly in view), the 8th ranked Nittany Lions hosted the national favorite, #2 Nebraska. Like JoePa, Tom Osborne had experienced several near misses and almosts. Unlike Joe, Dr. Tom would have to wait another 12 seasons before getting the elusive MNC (at the expense of Joe Paterno’s new-to-the-B1G 1994 squad (thanks for nothing, B1G voters).
Penn State started slowly, “receiving” the kick by muffing it. Backed up in its own end, PSU ran three times and punted - Curt Warner and Jon Williams finding little room early. A booming punt put the Huskers in plus territory, from which they fumbled twice, attempted a 4th down, and got stuffed (by a severely underrated PSU defense).
The first down of Penn State’s second possession encapsulated the national championship winning trend. Prior to this season, no team had ever won a natty by throwing for more yards than it rushed. Joe Paterno’s 1982 squad changed that. Todd Blackledge took the snap, faked a handoff, stood tall in a perfect pocket, and - in this instance - checked down to tight end Brian Siverling for a 10+ yard gain. Hello, innovation. In a bit of foreshadowing, Blackledge completes the game winner off of play action to a back up tight end nicknamed stone hands. So that is fun.
While we wait for our Nittany Lions to return to the field, let’s rewind the clock and enjoy a condensed version of the 9/25/1982 classic, between #8 Penn State and #2 Nebraska.