Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in State College was a magical time. Part of the magic was autumn Saturdays in Beaver Stadium. Kids could get into the game for a couple of bucks to sit in the kids’ section. Some kids got into games selling programs, hot dogs or Cokes (pre-Pepsi contract days). And the more venturous ones ran ticket scalping operations (pre-StubHub days). With that as background here is a Thanksgiving list of games from my youth from 1973 through 1985 for which I am thankful.
Sept. 29, 1973 - No. 6 Penn State 27, Iowa 8: Just weeks before my 5th birthday, I don’t remember a whole lot other than it was my first game. I wouldn’t miss another home game for 17 years, until starting my coaching career at UVA.
Nov. 4, 1978 - No. 2 Penn State 27, No. 5 Maryland 3: ABC was in town for the game, which was a big deal in the years when only one or two games a week were televised. The night before 8,500+ people jammed into Rec Hall for a loud pep rally where quarterback Chuck Fusina said “We’re gonna beat the Twerps.” Penn State’s defense dominated Maryland, holding them to -32 yards rushing on 42 carries. Fusina ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated when that was the biggest weekly honor in sports.
Nov. 11, 1978 - No. 2 Penn State 19, NC State 10: The 1978 Pitt game was also a big deal but there was a moment in this game that stands out. Penn State was No. 2 in the country and No. 1 Oklahoma was playing at No. 4 Nebraska. Long before cell phones, the announcer updating the stadium with “In scores of other games” was our link to the rest of college football. In the fourth quarter came the update I can still hear in my head: “In scores of other games a final from Lincoln, Nebraska…” All 77,043 fans fell silent. “Oklahoma 14, Nebraska…17!” An explosion of sound erupted and evolved into chants of “We’re number one!” For the first time in the poll era Penn State would be atop the polls. That is until…
Jan. 1, 1979 - The Sugar Bowl - No. 2 Alabama 14, No. 1 Penn State 7: Why would this be on this list? None other than ABC’s Keith Jackson called this epic defensive battle the greatest game he ever called. Yes the wrong team won. But out of failure came lessons to even greater success. The lessons led to future national titles and bowl success. As we left the Superdome into the Louisiana rain, shouts of “Roll Tide” echoed around us. My mother, knowing how hard so many people had worked to scale college football’s summit, shed a few tears. “Mom, stop crying.” I said. She looked at me and retorted, “Even God is crying.”
Jan. 1, 1982 - The Fiesta Bowl - No. 7 Penn State 26, No. 8 USC 10: The Fiesta Bowl made the move to January 1 with a big-time match-up. Penn State had played the nation’s toughest schedule in 1981 including a 48-14 win at No. 1 Pitt. The Nittany Lion defense held USC’s Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen to 85 yards on 30 carries. Penn State would play and defeat four Heisman Trophy winners in six years (1981, 1982, 1984 and 1986).
Sept. 25, 1982 - No. 8 Penn State 27, No. 2 Nebraska 24: CBS rented temporary lights for the first game under the lights in Beaver Stadium history. The game matched the hype, coming down to a 65-yard drive capped by a Todd Blackledge touchdown pass to Kirk Bowman with four seconds to play. From my seat in the kid’s section in SK, it was pandemonium as fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts.
Nov. 13, 1982 - No. 5 Penn State 24, No. 13 Notre Dame 14: Penn State became the first school ever to win in their first visit to Notre Dame Stadium. It was a cold, blustery day in South Bend, the kind of day that you think of for late fall games. I remember most vividly a Walker Lee Ashley safety and a great seam pass to running back Curt Warner for a score. Walking out of the stadium, I saw a Penn State fan holding a sign that said “Jesus Saves…..But Not Today.”
Jan. 1, 1983 - The Sugar Bowl- No. 2 Penn State 27, No. 1 Georgia 23: After a season-ending 19-10 win over No. 5 Pitt (which could’ve made this list) came this showdown. Penn State set two NCAA firsts in 1982. It was the first team to win the national championship playing the nation’s toughest schedule, and the first to do it amassing more passing yards than rushing yards. You can win a bar bet or two with those stats. After several undefeated and untied teams went uncrowned, this was one of those great moments that will be etched into our minds forever. Keith Jackson saying, “He’s going for the bundllllllllle…..” as Blackledge tossed the game-clincher to Greg Garrity still gives us chills. If Todd Blackledge’s time on earth comes to an end before mine, I will splurge to have “He’s Going For The Bundle” engraved on his tombstone.
Oct. 8, 1983 - Penn State 34, No. 3 Alabama 28: In 1983 I started working in the Penn State press box gathering stats and the scores of other games for $15 and all the Coke and hot dogs I could consume. Penn State started the season 0-3 before beating Temple and Rutgers. This was a whole other level. Late in the game Penn State led 34-7 before a furious Alabama rally and a goal-line stand in the south end zone. PSU would also beat No. 5 West Virginia and Notre Dame before winning their bowl game to finish 8-4-1.
Dec. 25, 1983 - The Aloha Bowl - No. 22 Penn State 13 Washington 10: Not a great game but it was in Hawaii… enough said.
Oct. 12, 1985 - No. 8 Penn State 19, No. 8 Alabama 17: This was my senior year in high school and my final year working stats in the press box. There are probably still nitrate residues in my body from all the hot dogs I ate during those three seasons. On a critical third and 1, starting quarterback John Shaffer got injured. Backup quarterback Matt Knizner came in. Everyone in the stadium expected a run. But on a play-action pass Knizner hit the tight end for a touchdown that was the game’s key play.
Oct. 15, 1977 - Penn State 31, Syracuse 24: This game at Syracuse should not be on the list because I did not attend it, but neither did Joe Paterno. On the Friday before the game, my brother Dave had a trampoline accident that would leave him with a life-threatening brain injury and in a coma for a week. I learned that there were more important things than football. What happened after the game in the Syracuse locker room reinforced that. After a tough loss, Syracuse head coach Frank Maloney had his team kneel and pray for my brother. My father never forgot that gesture, one that represented college football at its best. It showed the bonds all of us find in this game. We may compete and hit each other for 60 minutes but we should share a common humanity and respect after the game.
These weren’t necessarily the best or greatest games. But as college football celebrates its 150th year, this Thanksgiving seemed like the time to say thanks from a kid in section SK holding a $6 ticket stub who got so much more from the game than he could ever repay.