Memory Lane: When Penn State was good
EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: This week's visitor, Penn State, has plenty of football history to turn to in times like these.
Headline: The great Penn State debate
Date: Oct, 3, 1997
By JEFF D'ALESSIO
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Run the Big Ten table, and Penn State could finish No. 1 in the land.
But if they want to go down as No. 1 in the Penn State annals, Joe Paterno’s 31st bunch of Nittany Lions will have to do more than beat Illinois, Ohio State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
“They’d have to go out and not only beat, but dominate the best teams in the country to say they’re in the same league as those teams,” said George Paterno, radio voice of the Nittany Lions and brother of you-know- who.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good football team. It’s got a chance to be a better-than-good football team. Whether it can be one of the great football teams, I don’t know.”
Its competition is as stiff as Illinois’ bowl hopes: Two national champions, three runner-ups, five unbeatens.
Beat this: 1994
Name a better offense (‘61 Yankees not included).
The quarterback won the Maxwell Award, given to college football’s top player. The split end won the Biletnikoff Award, given to college football’s top receiver. The tailback was the No. 1 pick in the draft, going in the same round as the tight end and two of the linemen.
“When we interviewed Ernie Zampese, the offensive coordinator of the Cowboys, he said it was the best offensive team that he’d seen in the history of college football,” said Phil Grosz, publisher of Blue and White Illustrated. “A college football team is either good at running the football or passing the football. They usually only concentrate on one area. The ‘94 team could kill you running it or throwing it.”
They didn’t win a national title, but Kerry Collins, KiJana Carter & Co. get Grosz’s vote as Penn State’s best ever. And while you’ll never catch Joe Paterno admitting it publicly, the ‘94 gang may rank No. 1 on his list, too.
“I surely hope you gave us rated No. 1. I really do,” said linebacker Brian Gelzheiser, the top tackler on the ‘94 team. “Joe told us we were the best (Penn State) team after the Rose Bowl. I don’t know if he told that to every other team he had that won the national championship.”
The ‘94 Lions, perfect for a fifth time under Paterno, finished 12-0, No. 2 in the rankings (to Nebraska) and with a Rose Bowl rout of Oregon.
Collins, sacked just five times all year, led the nation in passing efficiency and an offense that put up 47-plus points a game.
“The only offensive team I can kind of compare them to is the ‘83 Nebraska team with Turner Gill, Irv Fryar and Mike Rozier,” said linebacker Trey Bauer of Penn State’s ‘86 national champs. “They were unbelievable. I mean, it’s one thing to throw the ball like BYU does in the WAC. But it’s another thing to throw it against the teams like Penn State plays against.”
Vinny Testaverde’s worst nightmare.
“Testaverde just recovered from our game last year, 10 years later,” Bauer said.
National championship season No. 2 ended on a high note, the Lions picking off five TestavJohnson’s trash-talking, Army fatigue-wearing Miami Hurricanes 14-10 in the Fiesta Bowl.
“I thought the Miami guys were a bunch of jerks myself,” Bauer said. “It kind of played itself out with the problems those guys have had later on in their lives. Mike Irvin was there. He was a jerk then, and he’s a jerk now.”
The Hurricanes should have picked another defense to taunt. Starring All-Americans Shane Conlan and Tim Johnson, the ‘86 unit never gave up 20 points, holding second-ranked Alabama and Bobby Humphrey to a field goal.
Most of them started on the ‘85 defense, which beat Oklahoma wishbone whiz Jamelle Holieway silly in the Orange Bowl (1 yard rushing).
“With the black shoes and no names on the uniforms ... they were making us out to be, like, choir boys or something,” Bauer said. “We’re certainly not that. We’re not jerks like Miami, but we were as aggressive and tough as anybody, and I think our record proves that.”
You probably can’t name the quarterback (John Shaffer). All-American D.J. Dozier took care of the offense, the Bo Jackson wannabe rumbling for 811 yards.
“I thought they were a little bit of an overachieving team,” said Todd Blackledge, quarterback of the ‘82 crew. “Their defense was very, very good and their offense didn’t get ‘em beat.”
With first-round picks at quarterback (Blackledge), tailback (Curt Warner) and wide receiver (Kenny Jackson), this offense was as well-balanced as a tightrope walker.
“The ‘94 team had the same kind of deal, although I think our defense was better than theirs,” Blackledge said. “Curt Warner was as good a running back as I’ve ever played with or against, at any level.”
All-time rushing leader Warner put up 1,000, but Blackledge was better, the Lions becoming the first offense to win a national title passing for more yards than rushing.
Blackledge threw for a school- record 22 touchdowns that fall, none bigger than the 52-yard bomb to Greg Garrity to seal the Lions’ 27-23 upset over top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Sports Illustrated made a cover out of the catch, under the headline: “Number One at Last!”
The defense wasn’t too shabby, either, with All-Americans at end (Walker Lee Ashley) and safety (Mark Robinson).
They kept Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker from going bonkers in the Sugar Bowl (103 yards, 1 TD), just as many of them did in the Fiesta Bowl victory the year before, over Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen and Southern Cal.
What was so special about the team that finished fifth in the polls, anyway?
“The running back,” John Cappelletti said with a chuckle.
Penn State may have had more impressive than its 12-0 run in ‘73, but you’ll have a hard time finding a better back than Cappelletti. Lydell Mitchell (‘71) and Carter (‘94) rushed for more yards in a season, but Cappelletti is the only Nittany Lion with a Heisman Trophy on the mantel.
“I think he was (Penn State’s best),” said his second-team All-America guard and good pal, Mark Markovich, now a businessman in Peoria. “John had a lot of natural gifts, with his speed that was deceptive and with his strength that was just awesome. And he had a heart that never stopped.”
You could make a lifetime achievement case for the ‘73 team being Penn State’s best ever, the seniors going 33-3 in their three seasons.
“There was only one best team,” Markovich said.
The defense, featuring All- Americans Randy Crowder and Ed O’Neil, held eight opponents to 10 points or less.
“When you cross over time, it’s difficult to compare teams,” said Cappelletti, who’s in the real estate business in California. “But the type of team we had, we did enough things well to stay on the field with any of them.”
Richard Nixon’s biggest boo-boo wasn’t Watergate, Penn State people will tell you.
It was Pollgate.
“President Nixon went down to Texas and proclaimed Texas to be No. 1,” said Charlie Pittman, the leading rusher on the ‘69 Lions, 11-0 for a second straight year. “I mean, who could argue with the president? Nixon especially.”
Sure we could find a few folks in State College, Pa.
“They should have been national champions, and it shows the fallacy of the polls,” George Paterno said. “I never saw a team that was as dominating on defense. I don’t think anybody could have beaten the ‘68 and ‘69 teams.”
Added his brother: “I felt that (the ‘68 and ‘69) teams were deserving of national championships, only to be deprived of that opportunity by voters in the national polls.”
On defense: National Football League Hall of Famer Jack Ham, Outland Trophy winner Mike Reid (now a Grammy Award-winning country music writer), College Football Hall of Famer Dennis Onkotz and All-American safety Neal Smith.
On offense: NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris, College Football Hall of Famer Ted Kwalick and All-American halfback Pittman (now a newspaper publisher in Decatur).
Who’s No. 1?
“You mean there’s a question?” Pittman said.
It took Joe Paterno all of one recruiting class to build college football’s beast of the East.
In his second year in charge, Paterno threw five sophomores into the starting lineup ... Onkotz, Reid, Pittman, Steve Smear and Chuck Burkhardt. Twenty-four games later, they suffered their first loss.
“When we started out back then, people didn’t know if we were Penn or Penn State,” said Smear, a linebacker. “People thought we were from Philadelphia, not State College.”
They learned. Wins over Army, Navy, Pitt and Kansas, in their first Orange Bowl appearance, caught pollsters’ attention.
The cast of characters was just about the same as ‘69, without Harris and Lydell Mitchell. The defense was as stingy as ever, allowing 120 points in 11 games.
“Probably as good as there has been around here,” said Penn State play-by-play veteran Fran Fisher, who’s seen them all. “It’s a different game now, but it was an excellent defense,” Smear said. “It was a very intelligent defense. We had Dennis Onkotz, who was a biophysics major at linebacker. We had a bunch of guys who basically belonged in college.”