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Penn State Football: Alabama Through The Years

by on June 29, 2010 3:00 PM

It's been more than 20 years since the last time Penn State and Alabama faced each other -- a 9-0 victory for the Nittany Lions in Bryant-Denny Stadium -- and the two programs are preparing for battle again this fall.

The history between in the two schools in the Joe Paterno era has been full of high-profile coaches, match-ups and upsets, and this year's game has as much hype as some (but not all) of them. 

Here's a look back at every game in the Joe Paterno era, with highlights from the most significant wins and losses for PSU.


Date: Dec. 31, 1975

Location: The Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

Rankings: Alabama No. 4, Penn State No. 8

Outcome: 13-6 Alabama.

Significance: This was the first time Paterno ever played Paul "Bear" Bryant and his Crimson Tide, and it was in the highly publicized Sugar Bowl. Alabama won the game and finished No. 3 in the country. Penn State ended up with a 9-3 record and No. 10 ranking.

Defining moment: Tide defensive back Mark Prudhomme intercepted PSU quarterback Jon Andress at the Alabama 6 in the second quarter, costing a sluggish Nittany Lion offense its best scoring opportunity of the game. A touchdown there would have at least tied the final score for Penn State.

What they said:  “Considering the personnel we have on our offense, we played about as well as we could.  We felt we needed a break and they didn’t give us one,” Paterno said in the Jan. 12 edition of Sports Illustrated.


Date: Jan. 1, 1979

Location: The Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

Rankings: Alabama No. 2, Penn State No. 1

Outcome: 14-7 Alabama 

Significance: The game featured a No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up, extremely rare in bowl games at the time. It also pitted two legendary coaches against each other in Paterno and Bryant. Instead of earning a first national title, PSU finished 11-1 and No. 4 in the rankings. Alabama won the championship.

Defining moment:  Alabama’s fourth-quarter goal-line stand. Clinging to a 14-7 lead, Tide defenders stuffed Penn State’s Matt Suhey on third-and-goal and tailback Mike Guman on fourth down. The crucial stop later became the cover shot on Sports Illustrated’s Jan. 8 issue.  

What they said:  “It seemed like the world fell in on us but….we looked around after the game and decided we gave it everything we had,” said Suhey in Lou Prato’s 1998 Penn State Football Encyclopedia.


Nov. 14, 1981: 31-16 Alabama. The No. 6 Tide came into Happy Valley and squashed the 7-1 Lions’ national title hopes for good.


Date: Oct. 9, 1982

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Location: Legion Field

Rankings: Alabama No. 4, Penn State No. 3

Outcome: 42-21 Alabama 

Significance: Penn State’s blow-out loss at Alabama was the only setback of its first national championship season. The team that stole the title from the Nittany Lions four years prior upended Paterno’s team yet again, only to see it win the championship regardless. The loss dropped PSU to No. 8, but the Lions would ride a six-game winning streak up to the No. 2 spot before beating No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for the title. The Crimson Tide, on the other hand, dropped four of the next seven to finish No. 17 in the rankings.

Defining moment: Quarterback Todd Blackledge’s fourth-quarter interception sealed the Lion’s fate. Penn State had cut the deficit to 24-21 until cornerback Jeremiah Castille caught the deep ball intended for running back Curt Warner. The Tide poured on 18 fourth-quarter points from that point, turning a nail-biter into a rout.

What they said:  “I never thought we’d go unbeaten with the schedule we have,” said Paterno in the Oct. 11, 1982 edition of The Football Letter of the Penn State Alumni Association. “I figured some place down the line, someone would beat us — if not here, it might have been later….but this team still has a lot of time to prove itself.”


Date: Oct. 8, 1983

Location: Beaver Stadium

Rankings: Alabama No. 4, Penn State unranked

Outcome: 34-28 Penn State

Significance: This was the game of the year -- maybe even the three-year period between titles -- for Penn State fans. The Nittany Lions roared back from the 0-3 start to their title defense by winning two straight, then shocked the college football world by upending the unbeaten and No. 4-ranked Crimson Tide at a rocking Beaver Stadium. The home crowd of 85,614 was the largest to date.  

Defining moment: Trailing 34-28 with one second left, Alabama was poised for the winning score at Penn State’s 2-yard line. But tailback Kerry Goode was stuffed at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Greg Gattuso and cornerback Mark Fruehan. Seconds later, the crowd rushed the field chanting, “We are….Penn State!”

What they said:  “They didn’t surprise us,” said Tide defensive tackle Randy Edwards in the Oct. 10, 1983 edition of The Football Letter. “They just wanted it more than we did. They executed well, and they played a better ball game.”


Oct. 13, 1984: 6-0 Alabama. The No. 11 Lions were embarrassed by un-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and things never got better as Penn State then dropped four of the final six games to finish 6-5. 


Oct. 12, 1985: 19-17 Penn State. No. 8 Penn State won a nail-biter over No. 10 Alabama in Happy Valley, pushing the Lions to 5-0 on the year, but they would lose the national title to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.


Date: Oct. 25, 1986

Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium

Rankings: Alabama No. 2, Penn State No. 6

Outcome: 23-3 Penn State

Significance:  This was a statement game for the eventual national champions. The 6-0 Nittany Lions went into Tuscaloosa and smothered the 7-0 Tide, taking a 14-3 halftime lead and never looking back. The 20-point loss was Alabama’s worst home defeat in 10 years.

Defining moment: The Crimson Tide walked off the field with the scoreboard reading 23-3, visitors.

What they said:  “It’s definitely the biggest game of my life,” All-American Shane Conlan said before the game, in the Oct. 27, 1986 edition of The Football Letter. “It can make or break our season. If we’re going to reach our goal of winning a national championship, we have to win this game.”


Sept. 12, 1987: 24-13 Alabama. The Tide handed Penn State its first loss of the season, sending the Lions to a disappointing 8-4 record a season after winning the national title.


Oct. 22, 1988: 8-3 Alabama. This low-scoring loss was sandwiched in the middle of a three-game losing streak that sent Joe Paterno’s squad to a 5-6 finish. 


Oct. 28, 1989: 17-16 Alabama. The Lions rode a five-game winning streak and No. 14 ranking into this Beaver Stadium showdown with No. 6 Alabama, but the Tide won a close one, sending Penn State to an 8-3-1 finish.


Date: Oct. 27, 1990

Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium

Rankings: None

Outcome: 9-0 Penn State

Significance:  This was the last time Penn State played Alabama. The Lions were hungry for respect after a column in the Birmingham paper suggested that they were one of Paterno’s worst teams. PSU had five interceptions and one fumble to maintain good field position throughout the defensive struggle. The two teams would not meet again for 20 years.

Defining moment: Whenever the Tide tried running the ball. Alabama’s average rushing yardage per game had been 204.3 going into the contest, but on this day finished with only six.

What they said: “It’s about time we get the respect we deserve,” starting middle linebacker Mark D’Onofrio said in the Oct. 29, 1990 edition of The Football Letter. “If we’re not a Top 25 team, I don’t know who is.”


And now, for the final tally….

Penn State’s overall record in the Joe Paterno era: 4-8 (Paterno went 0-4 against Bryant-coached Alabama teams, and 4-4 since his retirement.)

Luke Fetkovich is a junior journalism student at Penn State and a student video manager for the football team. He self-published his 2008 novel, Zero Hour: The Revelation and is currently working on a second novel. His email is [email protected]
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