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Top Ten Penn State Teams of the Joe Paterno era


I cannot win.

This is not a phrase ever uttered by Joe Paterno except maybe in the last year of his life, but rather my reflection on how this top ten list will be received. Penn State fans, and general college football fans alike, will argue back and forth all day about the best Nittany Lion campaigns as USAToday aims to celebrate Joe Paterno’s amazing career.

(Originally published in USA Today Special Edition on January 26, 2012)

As a result, please consider this list loosely ranked as it would be folly to support which of JoePa’s National Titles is the finest, and I have had many certain that the 1969 squad was the finest despite its finish at AP #2.

One thing I am certain of – we should all be in awe of a career of both quantity and quality, of toughness and grace, his principles and his adaptive ability and finally of Joe Paterno’s historical and cultural significance. While I break down each team in this article with lots of Hall of Fame players and football stats, I also layered on some significant news stories from each season to reinforce the impressive longevity of JoePa’s legacy on the football field.

Paterno took the helm in 1966, 44 years ago which is at the top end of this reader demographic. To reflect on just how long ago Paterno began his stellar career, I submit these other 1966 events:

*   Star Trek debuted on TV
*   NFL-AFL merger
*   Miranda v. Arizona
*   Texas Western beat Kentucky in college basketball final
*   Sound of Music won Best Picture at the Academy Awards

With that, the Top Ten Nittany Lion teams of the JoePa era.
10. 1971 (11-1), Final Ranking of AP #5, PPG 40.3 (2nd in nation), PPGA 11.4 (11th)
All-Americans: Dave Joyner, Lydell Mitchell, Charlie Zapiec

Also in 1971: Walt Disney World opens in Florida, USA bans tobacco ads, NYC World Trade center construction finished, Dow Jones Industrial average creeps above 1000 for the first time in five years.

While the excellent margin of victory stands impressively, PSU faced an average to weak schedule, including three games against service academies that tallied up to 114-17. Up until the December 4 31-11 loss to #12 Tennessee (their first ranked opponent), the Blue and White beat every team like they stole something from their sister. RB Lydell Mitchell set the bar high with the all-time rushing season with 1567 yds and 26 TD – it certainly helped to run behind Franco Harris and All-American tackle Dave Joyner. On defense, LB Zapeic made the AA team and Gary Gray secured 115 tackles.

Longtime Penn State fans though remember the thrashing of Texas in their backyard Cotton Bowl, 30-6, “payback for Richard Nixon’s greatest transgression” says Frank O’Brien an SB Nation commenter. Fandom like that certainly can skew one’s view of history. Wait for the 1969 team for a full review of Nixon’s involvement with college football.

9. 1973 (12-0) AP #5, PPG 37.2 (7th), PPGA 10.8 (7th)
All-Americans: RB John Cappelletti, DL Randy Crowder, Ed O’Neil

Also in 1973: George Steinbrenner buys Yankees for $10mil, Vietnam War ends, Watergate begins and OJ Simpson runs for 2,000 yards in the NFL, first season that NCAA split football into three divisions.

Another season with a weak strength of schedule, but no one can argue the dominance of JoePa’s third perfect season. Heisman/Maxwell Award/Walter Camp Trohy winning RB John Cappelletti had the second best fantasy game in Penn State history with 220 yards rushing and three TDs in the narrow 35-29 win over North Carolina State, and the third best rushing season in Penn State history. Gary Hayman stood out as a fine return specialist and LB Greg Buttle started his fine career that led to him holding the career PSU tackles record with 343.

Notre Dame and Alabama split the national title despite the epic win by the Irish over the Tide in the Sugar Bowl, but the Lions did all they could beating Coach of the Year Johnny Majors and his #20 Pitt and #13 LSU in the Orange Bowl to close the season. JoePa probably remembers Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy acceptance speech the most from this campaign, as the emotional RB honored his brother who suffered from leukemia.

8. 1991 (11-2) AP #3, PPG 36.5 (5th), PPGA 14.2 (11th)
All-American: S Darren Perry

Also in 1991: USSR collapse, Dow hits 3000 for first time, Gulf War, Rodney King

This up and down campaign began on the heels of three average seasons after the 1986 National Title team as Penn State looked to set up the program for economic success in the future by signing with the Big Ten in late 1990.

The offense looked like the future as it adapted to a more pass-friendly look. QB Tony Sacca set the season passing yards record in 1991 on his way to securing the career yards passing team mark, and no wonder JoePa started passing with Terry Smith, Bobby Engram, TE Kyle Brady and OJ McDuffie on the flanks. Safety Darren Perry earned All-American status and led the defense.

#7 PSU opened with the Kickoof Classic versus #8 Georgia Tech and secured a 34-22 win, followed by next weeks demolition of Cincinnati 81-0. Week Three held a long road trip to Los Angeles to play USC, who took a 24-10 loss to Memphis State in their opener that most call the low point of the Trojan program. Throw the records out – USC blitzed with abandon and forced five turnovers in the 24-10 Lion loss. Penn State then embarked on a Big East schedule after a beating of Ty Detmer and BYU, but that nemesis Mimi (FL) stood in the way with a loss in the Orange Bowl stadium to push PSU to 5-2.

Fight On State! JoePa unleashed the passing attack in dramatic fashion as the lions ran off the next six  for a combined score of 244-80 including Notre Dame and the IBM OS/2 Fiesta Bowl win over Johnny Majors’ Tennessee 42-17. OJ McDuffie garnered MVP of the bowl game, part of a five touchdown barrage in the second half in the come from behind win. Sacca only completed 11 passes, but four for scores.

7. 1968 (11-0) AP #2, PPG 32.2 (11th), PPGA 10.9 (5th)
All American: E Ted Kwalick, LB Dennis Onkotz

Also in 1968: US Congress repeals gold standard for currency, MLK assassination, Matell’s Hot Wheels and CBS 60 Minutes debut, Beatles’ White Album

JoePa achieves his first perfect season in just his third attempt. Linebacker U tradition started here with All-American Dennis Onkotz and my colleague Daniel Freer’s choice as best player of the Paterno era Jack Ham, then on the other side of the ball stood PSU’s first two-time AA TE Ted Kwalick.

The first true challenge of the year came at West Virginia in early October, but a 31-20 win in the mountains was secured. Army presented the next challenge in Week 6, as PSU escaped with a hard fought 28-24 win.

One of three unbeatens come bowl season (#1 Ohio State played #2 USC in the Rose Bowl with the Buckeyes victorious), Penn State trailed #6 Kansas Jayhawks 14–7 with 1:16 left in the Orange Bowl. A long pass from QB Chuck Burkhart to Bobby Campbell and Burkharts subsequent short TD run as time ran out. Kansas stopped the two-point conversion try but was called for having 12 men on the field. Given a second chance, Penn State converted on a Campbell run and won 15–14 and finished the season #2. Paterno found his groove and setup the legendary 1969 campaign quite well.

6. 1981 (10-2) AP #3, PPG 30.9 (10th), PPGA 13.5 (21st)
All Americans: Sean Farrell, Curt Warner

Also in 1981: The birth of the 401(k), Iranian hostage crisis, First Space Shuttle mission, President Reagan shot, Princess Diana wedding, MTV debuts and Metallica forms

As you can see above, 1981 was a crazy year and college football got in line with the times. Six different teams laid claim to the #1 ranking at some point of the season, and Paterno grabbed his share in October after beating #15 Nebraska behind Curt Warner’s 238 yard rushing performance, then followed by decisive wins over Temple, BC and Syracuse.

Unfortunately, Miami (FL) hosted a Halloween bash for the Lions and dealt them the first defeat 17-14. Two weeks later, #6 Alabama came to Beaver Stadium and left with a 31-16 victory. The Lions could have wrote off the season, but the next week they took down Notre Dame followed by a thumping of consensus #1 Pittsburgh 48-14. On to a major bowl they went.

In the Fiesta Bowl, college football fans rejoiced as USC and their Heisman Trophy RB Marcus Allen faced off against the vicious PSU defense. Lion RB Warner stole the show again with the first score on his way to finishing with 145 yards rushing, compared to 85 for Allen on 30 carries with a crucial fumble. QB Todd Blackledge added on a 52-yard score on the way to a 26-10 win.

5. 1994 (12-0) AP #2 PPG 47 (1st) PPGA 21 (30th), First Big Ten Title
All Americans: Kyle Brady, Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins, Bobby Engram, Jeff Hartings.

Also in 1994: Kurt Cobain died, Nelson Mandela takes office in South Africa, Netscape Navigator web browser introduced, and the other OJ Simpson major news story.

In my research of this article, I found many well-defended positions for this campaign as the finest of the Paterno era, but as a fantasy football guy I know “offense-bias” when I see it. In this case, 47 points per game is worthy of the wonder as this squad overflowed with NFL-quality players like Heisman Trophy runner-up RB Ki-Jana Carter, TE Kyle Brady, Maxwell Award winner QB Kerry Collins, G Marco Rivera and WRs Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius.

All but three of the victories were by double digits including a vicious homecoming beatdown of #21 Ohio State 63-14, and if not for a late Hail Mary by Indiana it would have been only two. Bobby Engram remains the only Lion wideout with a 1000 yard season receiving, but Carter carried this squad with 23 touchdowns and over 1500 yards rushing.

No one can deny the legendary talent, but what could be denied was a national title by the Bowl Coalition. Maybe that isn’t the Coalition’s fault as the big 10 and the Pac-10 chose to continue their Rose Bowl tradition, so let’s blame the sportswriters and their “Osborne Bias”

Both the Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions finished 1994 without a scratch, and if the BCS were around then they likely would have faced off. Penn State took it to the #12 Oregon Ducks 38-20, highlighted by Carter’s 83-yard TD run to open the floodgates. In the Orange Bowl, the Huskers blackshirt defense controlled the Miami Hurricanes potent offense for a 24-17 win and Coach Tom Osborne’s first national title. One of the beauties of college football remains the constant fodder for who deserved a given year’s title, you know.

4. 1982 (11-1) AP #1, PPG 32.9 (5th) PPGA 16.3 (22nd), Paterno’s First National Title
All-Americans: RB Curt Warner, DE Walker Lee Ashley, WR Kenny Jackson, S Mark Robinson

Also in 1982: Cal Ripken begins his 2,632 games played streak, Cal beats Stanford with “The Play” and the Dow Jones Industrial Average eclipses 1000 for the final time [fingers crossed]

Notice that the first title year was not undefeated – the only ranked team to emerge unscathed in 1982 was SMU, and they had their own battles to deal with. The only loss was to at an unusually weak Alabama 42-21 who finished out of the Top 20 for the first time in a decade, made only more surreal when their legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant passed away early in 1983.

But two of the greatest games in college football history ended very well for our Blue and White.

September 25, 1982, the #2 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers brought in QB Turner Gill and soon to be Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, but PSU still had a lot of that 1981 team like QB Blackledge and the original Curt Warner (not the one on Dancing with the Stars as you read this). The two teams slugged it out back and forth the entire game, but State possessed the ball last and got two very favorable calls resulting in a Todd Blackledge TD and an improbable 27-24 win

After the loss at Legion Field, Penn State ripped off 6 impressive wins capped with a roadie in South Bend followed by playing poor hosts to Pitt, setting up the rare #2 PSU against top ranked Georgia Bulldogs and wunderkind Herschel Walker in the 1983 Sugar Bowl. Warner again proved his mettle with an early TD and 117 yards rushing, but Walker and the Bulldogs kept snapping at the Black Shoes. Blackledge hit WR Gregg Garrity with a long TD pass in the 4th quarter to secure the margin of victory and the national title, 27-23.

At the final gun, Paterno was surrounded and hoisted on shoulders to celebrate his first OFFICIAL title. Paterno was quoted as saying “”for the nine thousandth time…(the) undefeated teams of 1968, 1969 and 1973 were champions as well, even if they weren’t voted to the top spot in the polls.” We know I already slotted the “68 squad at #6, so look who sneaks into the top three.

3. 2005 (11-1) Won Big Ten title, AP #3, PPG 34.4 (13th), PPGA 17.0 (10th)
All-Americans: DL Tamba Hali, LB Paul Posluszny, CB Alan Zemaitis

Also in 2005: Pope John Paul II funeral, first human face transplant

There actually was a time when the college football cognescenti thought Joe Paterno no longer an able coach – the new millenia proved unkind with losing seasons in three of the first four. JoePa secured a bevy of talented freshman to contribute immediately, and QB Michael Robinson took the helm of the new Spread HD offense under PSU alum offensive coordinator Galen Hall. JoePa actually sent the offensive staff to Austin to study how Texas used dual-threat QB Vince Young, and plugged in Robinson with great success. Defense talent was stacked also, with the All-Americans listed above.

The Lions were caught by surprise by the excellent 2005 Northwestern offense but hung on for the last-minute comeback win in late September. JoePa likely thanked Cats HC Randy Walker for the wake up call as PSU returned home to whip up on unbeaten Minnesota then Ohio State in a classic night game which vaulted them to the AP #8.

Then the heart breaker in the Big House – Michigan’s Lloyd Carr convinced the refs to put a second back on the clock leading Chad Henne to hit Mario Manningham for a TD at the horn and the destruction of the perfect season. I implore everyone to not dismiss this 7-5 Michigan squad, as they were a collective 49 seconds away from being undefeated in 2005. I mentioned wake-up calls earlier – the Black Shoes beat the next three teams by an average of 30 to set up the Orange Bowl matchup of football patriarchs, Paterno versus Bobby Bowden and the Florida State Seminoles for JoePa’s first BCS Bowl. After numerous missed FG by both teams throughout the game, K Kevin Kelly secured the 26-23 win in triple OT.

This season proved clutch in saving and cementing the legacy of Paterno, hence my elevation with the benefit of impartiality. Paterno revealed that his own administration wanted him to quit in 2004, so they were likely his best friends after the 2005 AP Coach of the Year award. If it weren’t for 2005, Paterno would never have had the additional seasons to achieve 400 wins. If it weren’t for Michigan, 2005 tops this chart.

2. 1969 (11-0) AP #2 PPG 29.3 (25th) PPGA 8.2 (1st)
All-Americans: Onkotz, DL Mike Reid, HB Charlie Pittman

Yes, the second best team on the countdown did not win the writer’s poll. The 100th year of college football treated fans to a tumultuous mix of politics and perception with their pigskin, positioning playoff partisanship for an epoch to follow.

Early in the season, two close road wins over Kansas State and Syracuse dropped the Lions out of the Top 5 for just one week. After running the regular season to a 10-0 record, PSU stood as one of four undefeateds with claims to a national title along with USC and Southwest Conference rivals Texas and Arkansas. Politics made all the difference for how the season played out from here.

Seems that prior to the season, ABC Sports legend Roone Arledge inspired the Longhorns and the Razorbacks to move their game date from the traditional October date to the end of the season, not just as a climactic battle to determine SWC Championship and the Cotton Bowl berth but also to host president Richard Nixon at the game.  As luck would have it, Ohio State fell to Michigan the week before to also setup #1 versus #2 – folks, the entire sports world (and half of all American televisions) ignored the solid Penn State team for this “Game of the Century”. President Nixon, caught up in the pageantry, declared he would present a national champion plaque to the winner also, BEFORE THE BOWL GAMES.

In short, Texas won 15-14 on a last minute comeback to grab the plaque, but Penn State won two tough road games to setup an Orange Bowl victory over Dan Devine’s Missouri (no slouch with four victories over ranked teams) from the old Big 8. Texas beat Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton to make a great case to claim the writer’s title, but Penn State fans to this day stand by this squad as deserving of title consideration.

Joe Pa got the last laugh though – Nixon fell from the public grace during the Watergate scandal, leading the “conservative” Republican coach to ask “How did Nixon know so much about football in 1969, but so little about Watergate in 1973?” Zing!

1. 1986 (12-0) AP #1 Consensus National Champion, PPG 28.3 (17th) PPGA 11.1 (3rd)
All-Americans: LB Shane Conlan, OL Chris Conlan, RB DJ Dozier, DL Tim Johnson

ALSO IN 1986: First PC virus (Brain), Mike Tyson’s first heavyweight title, Len Bias death, Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

The second title team of the era was classic hard-nosed Paterno – run with power backs DJ Dozier and Blair Thomas, play stellar defense and destroy the other team’s psyche. They went to Alabama and crushed the Tide, stumbled past the Maryland Terrapins by blocking their two-point conversion attempt, they traveled to South Bend and stopped the Fighting Irish with a late goal-line stand but could never quite get the #1 ranking.  That spot was held by a team whose psyche was indomitable, whose style was inimitable – the Miami (FL) Hurricanes.

Both teams finished calendar year 1986 undefeated, and Penn State was a lock to get a Fiesta Bowl invite. Miami and coach Jimmy Johnson saw no reason at the time to leave Miami and simply play in the Orange Bowl, as their NFL-talent-laden roster of Michael Irvin and Vinny Testaverde and Jerome Brown crushed all opponents even defending champ Oklahoma.

In this era before these behemoth programs joined conferences, there was a true free-for-all competing for this matchup. The Fiesta Bowl innovated a new way to compete – corporate sponsorship, so blame Sunkist and the Fiesta bowl for giving us the forgotten Poulan-Weed Eater Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The capital infusion, as well as some clever PR from the Fiesta Bowl suggesting that coach Jimmy Johnson was ducking the Nittany Lions on a neutral field, allowed the Fiesta to move to the top echelon of bowl festivities and give us the second “Game of the Century”.

Beano Cook said of the 1986 Lion offense; “Penn State had less firepower than Sweden did in World War II.” Miami wielded more firepower than a Nimitz-class freighter, but the Penn State defense would be the story. Actually, more of this game’s lore lies in its pre-game smack talk and how that shaped the then unbeatable thug Hurricane image.

Five sacks of Testaverde and seven Hurricane turnovers showed the Penn State dominance, but Miami unleashed a defensive flurry upon Blue Shirts of even greater intensity. Despite Miami outgaining  penn State by 445 to 162, the turnovers kept the score tight with Penn State holding a 14-10 lead to the final minute. The defense held within their five yard line to secure the title.

JoePa has been quoted “to this day, I don’t know how we beat Miami”. College football fans, writers and pundits alike marvel at JoePa, not knowing how anyone else could succeed consistently for 45 years.

I must give a hat tip to the amazing Sports-reference.com that helped with my research, as well as websites like Black Shoe Diaries, Wikipedia and and the Penn State Collegian newspaper. Also, my friend Jason Young proved an amazing resource putting most of these teams into context of college football history.

Yes, this piece focused on Joe Paterno’s work on the field – I will let other arenas perform proper due diligence on the off-the-field tragedies that surrounded JoePa’s off-the-field legacy.

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