It was a matchup between traditional powers with huge fan bases and top-20 rankings. And it wasn’t even on live TV.
The television landscape has changed drastically since 1981, when it was unusual but not unheard of that teams of the caliber of Penn State and Nebraska could play an early-season game with national title implications that was broadcast via tape delay a few days later on a fledgling network called ESPN. The 72,000 fans at Memorial Stadium on that late-September Saturday enjoyed a game that the rest of the world had to wait to watch, and which the ESPN announcers called one of the best they’d ever seen.
The outcome was a 30-24 Penn State win—a team effort, of course, but a victory with a clear star. “It’s a shame for Penn State’s great tailback Curt Warner that the game was not televised live, because the exposure would have immediately catapulted him into the national limelight along with Georgia’s Herschel Walker, SC’s Marcus Allen and North Carolina’s Kelvin Bryant as one of the premier running backs in the country,” John Black ’62 wrote in The Football Letter after Warner ’83 (pictured) ran for 238 yards, a record for an opponent at Memorial Stadium.
The other record set that day belongs to Brian Franco ’84, whose five field goals were the most ever by a Nittany Lion placekicker.
It was an early statement from a team with championship aspirations that, despite regular-season losses to Miami and Alabama, would go on to finish No. 3 in the nation. A year later, the Lions would host Nebraska for what remains one of the most memorable games in Beaver Stadium history. That one was broadcast live.
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