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The 20 Worst Losses in Penn State Football History & What Happened Next

by on September 06, 2015 10:25 PM

Penn State’s football team has lost before. (It’s now 377 defeats and counting.)

And it will lose again. (That team from Ohio looks pretty good.)

But the Nittany Lions’ 27-10 loss against Temple in The Linc certainly hurt a lot of Penn State fans.

It wasn’t the worst loss in Penn State’s 1,267-game history. But it did make my Top 20 – yours, too, I bet.

In (dis)honor of the Owls’ first win over Penn State in 74 years, I’ve compiled a list of the worst losses in Penn State football history. Not narrow losses, like the one in Michigan in 2005 that cost the Lions a shot at the national title. Or the 17-14 defeat in a Miami monsoon by a 1981 Penn State squad that was ranked No. 1.

We are talking for the most part about terrible thumpings, bad beat-downs and embarrassing endings. Sure, there are a few stinky squeakers on the list – The 6 to 4 Game, the 1979 Sugar Bowl, the blasphemy of losing to Beckman in 2014.

But, mostly, the following list is Penn State simply breaking bad.

Not on the list is perhaps the most transformational loss in Penn State football history – the Nittany Lions’ 23-22 loss to Navy in 1967. That defeat, in the season opener, gave a fledgling head coach named Joe Paterno a 5-6 career record at Penn State and a case of severe self-doubts. Discouraged, on the ride back from Annapolis Paterno decided to go with a youth movement and make massive lineup changes.

The next week, Penn State traveled south to Miami, staying in air conditioning until they hit the Orange Bowl playing field. They won, 17-8, using a host of young players, then lost 17-15 to UCLA the next week. But after that, Penn State went on an historic 31-game unbeaten streak that set the table for its rise to national prominence.

(Coincidentally, James Franklin is 7-7, coming off an opening-game loss and is faced with a roster full of youngsters. Hmmm…)

I’m not exactly sure how to compare a 106-0 loss to Lehigh with losses to Ohio arch-enemies Cincinnati and Toledo, so the following Top 20 list is done chronologically, not chronically. To add context, I included what happened the weeks – or the weak -- after the loss.




Lehigh 106, Penn State 0 (Nov. 11, 1889) – This was the most lopsided loss in Penn State history. It came on the road, just three seasons and eight games after the sport was introduced on campus. NEXT: Penn State rebounded to beat Bucknell, 12-0, at home.

Alabama 14, Penn State 7 (Jan. 1, 1979) – This loss as the No. 1 team-ranked team to No. 2 ’Bama hurt Paterno like no other, even more than the loss to the Midshipmen. NEXT: Paterno walked around Brooklyn for days, pondering his future. The loss’ effects lingered into 1979, an 8-4 season full of turmoil on and off the field, but eventually strengthened Paterno’s resolve.

Alabama 42, Penn State 21 (Oct. 9, 1982) No. 3 Penn State blocked its own punt against No. 4 Alabama in Birmingham in the game following its miraculous 27-24 win over Nebraska. NEXT: The Lions won their next six games, advancing to No. 2 in the polls, then beat No. 1 Georgia, 27-23, in the Sugar Bowl to win their first national championship.

Nebraska 44, Penn State 6 (Aug. 29, 1983) The Nittany Lions thought they couldn’t be more embarrassed than by their defeat on national TV at the Kickoff Classic in the Meadowland. NEXT: They were wrong. …

Cincinnati 14, Penn State 3 (Sept. 10, 1983) True. In Beaver Stadium, no less. NEXT: PSU lost the next week, too, 42-34 to Iowa, before stopping the carnage with a 23-18 win over, ahem, Temple.

Notre Dame 44, Penn State 7 and Pitt 31, Penn State 11 (Nov. 17-24, 1984) James and Sandy: These were real rivalry games. NEXT: Paterno called his team “a bunch of babies” and decided they didn’t deserve a bowl trip.

Oklahoma 25, Penn State 10 (Jan. 1, 1986) A very bad offense belied PSU’s No. 1 ranking entering the Orange Bowl. NEXT: Oklahoma won the national title, but Penn State returned a plethora of ultra-motivated and -talented fifth-year seniors in 1986 and went 12-0 to win their second national title in four seasons.

Notre Dame 21, Penn State 3 (Nov. 19, 1988) Penn State fell 14-7 the previous week to Pitt, dropping their record to 5-5 heading into a road trip to South Bend against the No. 1 Irish. NEXT: The loss gave Paterno a 5-6 record, his first losing season since becoming head coach in 1966.

Minnesota 24, Penn State 23 (Nov. 6, 1999) Penn State was No. 2, but that didn’t stop a Gophers’ Hail Mary and game-, season- and era-ending field goal. NEXT: Two more losses and a whole lot of bad stuff.

Toledo 24, Penn State 6 (Sept. 2, 2000) A 29-5 loss to Southern Cal in the Meadowlands the previous week may have foreshadowed this one a bit, but it’s the loss that really kicked off The Dark Years. NEXT: A 67-7 thumping of Louisiana Tech, followed by a combined 57-6 shellacking by Pitt and Ohio State – and three out of four losing seasons.

Miami (Fla.) 33, Penn State 7 (Sept. 1, 2001) 109,313 were there for the opening of a renovated Beaver Stadium and the chills of Adam Taliaferro coming out of the tunnel. The chills that occurred later were the effects of a sickening loss. NEXT: 9/11 soon followed and there were no games for three weeks.

Wisconsin 16, Penn State 3 (Sept. 25, 2004) – On the road, quarterbacks Zack Mills and Michael Robinson went down with injuries, leaving QB Chris Ganter, who was 6 of 23 for 32 yards. Back home, Paterno’s son-in-law was severely injured in a bicycle accident. NEXT: Five more Penn State losses, but thankfully, everyone eventually got healthy, including the Lions’ offense in 2005.

Iowa 6, Penn State 4 (Oct. 23, 2004) – Kirk Ferentz did the safety dance. The gold standard for Penn State offensive ineptitude. NEXT: Scoring outbursts of 10 and seven points in the next two contests, losses against Ohio State and Northwestern.

Alabama 24, Penn State 3 (Sept. 11, 2010) Unbearable, including a grizzled and gruff Paterno after the road game. NEXT: Wins against Kent State and, yes, Temple.

Wisconsin 45, Penn State 7 (Nov. 26, 2011) It wasn’t even that close, as the scandal floodgates were wide open by that point and the Lions had nothing left to hold into. NEXT: A 30-14 loss in the Ticket City that was less memorable and exciting than a noon kick in Bloomington in November.

Virginia 17, Penn State 16 (Sept. 8, 2012) A kick in the ass. NEXT: Happily, Sam Ficken, Bill O’Brien, Michael Mauti and the 2012 Nittany Lions rebounded to earn near-legendary status.

Indiana 44, Penn State 24 (Oct. 5, 2013) Penn State was in it until the fourth quarter, as Indiana waited its turn for scandal-era victory. NEXT: The 4 OT win against Michigan the very next week. Amazing.

Ohio State 63, Penn State 14 (Oct. 26, 2013) Even worse than the score. Heaven help Urban Meyer if he someday coaches against O’Brien in the NFL. NEXT: An OT win over Illinois (Beckman!) and a season-ending upset of No. 14 Wisconsin, led by that whiz kid named Hackenberg.

Illinois 16, Penn State 14 – Beckman. Really? NEXT: Penn State’s 20-19 loss to Maryland came three weeks before the defeat in Champaign, but it was close until the end. The Illinois loss was followed by a loss to Michigan State, then a win vs. BC in the Pinstripe Bowl and then…

Temple 27, Penn State 10 (Sept. 5, 2015) 10-0 lead. 10 sacks. Untenable. NEXT: ?

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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