Penn State Football: Looking Back On Penn State's Christmas Bowl
With Christmas on the minds of many Penn State fans, now is the perfect time to look back at the 1977 Fiesta Bowl pitting Arizona State against the Nittany Lions in Tempe, Arizona. Penn State would go on to win the contest 42-30 and finish the season with an 11-1 record.
Penn State entered the contest on a seven-game winning streak after falling 24-20 earlier in the year to Kentucky. The Nittany Lions were coming off of a 15-13 over rival Pittsburgh to finish off the regular season ranked No. 5 in the nation. Arizona State entered the game at 9-2, falling to Colorado State two weeks earlier before closing out the season with a victory over Arizona and ended the year at No. 15.
With both teams hot off of wins over their respective rivals and plenty of positive momentum in their favor, the Fiesta Bowl promised to be one for the ages in the only meeting between these two teams in program history.
Penn State opened the game early with a defensive stop and a blocked punt was returned 21-yards for a score by Joe Lally. The Nittany Lions would never give up their lead following that early touchdown.
Only two plays later Arizona State would fumble on a sweep play to the left side of the field and Penn State recovered the ball giving the Nittany Lions and quarterback Chuck Fusina a short 25-yard field. Fusina connected on a 3-yard pass to Bob Torrey to put Penn State up 14-0 at the end of the first quarter only a few plays later.
Arizona State wasn't going to go down without a fight though. Quarterback Dennis Sproul drove the Sun Devils down the field and connected on an 11-yard pass to Arthur Lane to bring Arizona State within a touchdown. The Nittany Lions responded quickly with a 22-yard field goal on a drive that stopped just short of the endzone.
Arizona State continued its positive momentum and marched down the field again, scoring on a 15-yard pass to Ron Washington. Penn State would take the 17-14 lead into the half but with the Sun Devils threatening to gain more and more momentum in the second half.
Penn State's defense, led by Matt Millen was able to stop the Arizona State offense in the third quarter and Penn State's Steve Geise punched in an 18-yard run to extend the Nittany Lion lead to 24-14 heading into the fourth and final frame.
The Nittany Lions would strike again from 3-yards out to blow open the contest as Matt Suhey rumbled into the endzone to make it 31-14.
While Penn State was able to hold Arizona State to only 90 yards on the ground, the Sun Devils' passing attack kept the game interesting. Ron Washington caught his second touchdown of the day. This time the 30-yard score cut the Penn State lead back to only 10 points.
Matt Bahr kicked a 32-yard field goal a few minutes later to put Penn State up by 13. Arizona State continued to fight and a long drive ended with yet another score as George Perry ran the ball in from the one yard line to cut Penn State's lead to 34-28.
But what had made Penn State so good and why the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 5 in the nation was the ability to score points, play defense, and grind out victories. Penn State did it again, converting a key third-and-five and Suhey would punch in another touchdown from three yards out to end any hopes of a Arizona State comeback. Arizona State would take a safety on the final drive of the game, giving the Nittany Lions the 42-30 victory.
Interestingly enough Penn State won the game while passing the ball only 9 times for 23 yards and running the ball 50 times for 268 yards. The Nittany Lions got strong efforts from three backs that day, led by Steve Geise's 111 yards followed closely by Bob Torrey's 9 carries and 107 yards and the grinding efforts of Suhey's 13 carries and 76 yards.
The win gave Penn State and head coach Joe Paterno the program's first bowl victory since 1974 after losing to Notre Dame and Alabama the previous two seasons. Penn State would go 11-1 yet again in 1978, falling to Alabama 14-7 in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
Penn State would follow that loss to Alabama with 5-straight bowl victories and a national title in 1982. While the 1977 Fiesta Bowl may not have the same national importance to the program, it helped secure the first of three 11-1 season over a six year span in what was the early beginnings of the most successful era in program history.