One Step Away

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For the 1985 Nittany Lions, an unbeaten regular season was tarnished by an Orange Bowl loss, and overshadowed by a perfect season in 1986. Thirty years on, we look back at one of the great—but largely forgotten—teams in Penn State history.

*   *   *

As Massimo Manca remembers it, the pivotal moment in Penn State’s 1985 season came rather early.

On opening day, to be exact.

“I think the turning point was that very first game against Maryland,” Manca ’87 says now. “Nobody had us picked to win that game. That’s when we realized: We could beat anybody.”

The Nittany Lions’ long-awaited return to Maryland this week brings to mind that visit to Byrd Stadium 30 years ago—a 20-18 victory over a Terps team ranked in the preseason Top 10—that set the tone for one of Penn State’s all-time great seasons. Of course, the ’85 season generally isn’t remembered as such, both because it ended with a loss in the de facto national title game, and because it’s overshadowed by what happened in 1986.

Football seasons don’t happen in a vacuum, and you can’t talk about the Nittany Lions’ 1985 campaign without considering what happened before—and after. It was a season that saw Penn State return to national prominence after one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, and it paved the way for that unforgettable national championship run in ’86. Thirty years later, it’s worth looking back on one of the great, overlooked teams in Nittany Lion football history.

*   *   *

To understand the 1985 Nittany Lions, you have to go back to 1982.

There were dozens of true and redshirt freshman on that ’82 national championship team who would play key roles on the ’85 squad—who saw what it took to be champions, even if most played a minimal role in ’82. (As linebacker Rogers Alexander ’87 remembers it, 31 of the 35 members of the ’82 recruiting class took a redshirt that fall.) They were there in ’83, when Penn State stumbled to an 0-3 start before rallying to finish 8-4-1. By ’84, many of them were starters or key contributors, and expectations were typically high. Too high, as it turned out.

A 6-5 record in ’84 was the worst since Joe Paterno’s first season as head coach, way back in 1966. And it wasn’t just the number of losses, but the nature of them—particularly the last two: a 44-7 blowout at Notre Dame, followed by a 31-11 home loss to rival Pitt. “Those losses were historic,” says inside linebacker Trey Bauer ’87. “The expectations were so high—with a 6-5 team, we felt like failures.”

Linebacker Trey Bauer

Trey Bauer

Failures according to Penn State’s sky-high expectations, perhaps, but still technically bowl eligible. Instead, for the first time since 1970, the Lions didn’t play in the postseason. Paterno presented the team with a choice, and as quarterback John Shaffer ’87 says now, “I think ultimately we felt like we’d stunk up the place.”

Adds Bauer, “Nobody wanted to go. We just wanted the season to be over.”

As Alexander remembers it, there was one other prominent sentiment at the end of the ’84 campaign: “Even in the locker room, five minutes after that last game was over, the guys who were going to be on the team the following year were already talking about it: We are not going to let this bitter taste stay for long.

Still, the fallout was brutal. Bauer remembers how Paterno, then 58 and just two seasons removed from claiming the program’s first national championship, was suddenly the subject of doubts about whether he was still up to the job. “People were like, ‘He’s lost it, he doesn’t know how to coach anymore,'” Bauer says. “There was a lot of pressure.”

For Paterno, the response was obvious: Heightened focus, and harder work. Tim Johnson ’87, a junior defensive tackle in ’85, remembers Paterno instilling “an expectation to take on the challenge of preparing to win, not just the winning. Coach had us locked in.”

He also had them sweating.

“That winter conditioning, spring practice and summer conditioning was so, so difficult,” remembers Bauer. “He wanted to know who was going to show up the next season. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.”

As Shaffer remembers, “It was literally the hardest offseason we’d ever had. We worked our butts off. We were a bunch of young players from a 6-5 team, and Joe was going to make us into a good football team.”

John Shaffer

John Shaffer

Paterno and his staff knew they weren’t lacking talent. The ’85 squad was loaded, particularly on defense, where Johnson, senior safety Michael Zordich ’86, and redshirt junior linebacker Shane Conlan ’86 would all finish the season as All-Americans. As Manca, the Lions’ junior placekicker, remembers, “Our defense was incredible.” On offense, the strength was up front, where senior guard Todd Moules ’86 and junior tackle Chris Conlin ’87 anchored a solid line. But there were plenty of younger players who would help the Lions, as well, even if they wouldn’t see much of the field.

“The biggest contributor to our success defensively in ’85 was how talented the guys on our foreign team were—Blair Thomas ’89, Quintus McDonald ’89, guys who ended up being starters in ’87, ’88, ’89,” says Alexander. “It was the same thing for the ’82 team—the scout team guys were guys from my class—Conlan, Bobby White ’86, those guys. You had such quality of depth.”

Rogers Alexander

Rogers Alexander

As the season drew near, there were still questions to answer, chief among them being who would be taking snaps. The competition came down to Shaffer, then a junior, and senior Matt Knizner ’87. “Playing for Joe, and this being Penn State football, there was always a quarterback controversy,” Shaffer jokes now. “There was always a question. But I’d started against Syracuse the year before, and I’d played off and on the rest of the season, so I felt I was in a good position going into ’85. And then before the first game, I was named the starter against Maryland.”

Which brings us to that turning point, down in College Park, on opening day.

*   *   *

It’s hard to imagine now, but Maryland entered the 1985 season looking like a national title contender. Fresh off an ACC championship, the Terps were ranked 7th in the preseason AP poll and received a handful of No. 1 votes. Maryland was favored at home in its opener against Penn State, a reflection of the program’s recent fortunes and not the series history, in which the Lions had won 27 of 28 meetings.

For many reasons, that early September afternoon in College Park was a memorable one. You can start with the weather: the high in College Park that day registered 96 degrees, and at field level in Byrd Stadium, it felt much, much hotter. “It was like 105,” Shaffer says. “I remember Trey throwing up on the field. It was just really, really hot.” For his part, Bauer remembers fire trucks being brought in to spray down the crowd, and video of the game shows the referees wearing… shorts.

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Perhaps the only sight more shocking? Bauer insists that it was one of only two games in Paterno’s career that he didn’t wear a tie on the sideline. (The other being the 1983 Aloha Bowl.)

Then there was the shared border—and the Maryland roots of many Nittany Lions—that gave this game the feel of a “rivalry” despite Penn State’s dominance of the series. “My high school was three miles away from Byrd Stadium,” says Alexander, one of many Lions recruited by Maryland, and one of many who had family in the stadium that day. And even the Lions without a Maryland connection could appreciate the role reversal; finding themselves in the rare position of underdogs against the Terps, they embraced it. “We were hungry,” Bauer says. “We felt like we had a lot to prove.”

They didn’t have to wait long. On the Terps’ second play of the game, Zordich picked off a Stan Gelbaugh pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. “That was the ice breaker—’Ok, we came to play,'” says Bauer. “I think that was a real boost for us, a sign that we came to play not just that day, but for the whole season.”

Not that it was easy. The Lions led 17-0 before the Terps rallied to take an 18-17 lead. But Manca drilled a 46-yard field goal late in the third to put Penn State back in front, and the Lions held on for a 20-18 win.

Temple was the opponent a week later for the Lions’ home opener, and a theme began to emerge: Penn State won, just barely, 27-25. Up 24-10 at halftime, the Lions struggled in the second half after junior tailback DJ Dozier ’01 went down with an injury. Still without Dozier over the next two weeks, Penn State posted narrow, 17-10 wins over East Carolina and Rutgers. Unbeaten and up to No. 8 in the rankings, but still largely unproven, the Lions had a week off before returning to action against No. 10 Alabama.

D.J. Dozier

D.J. Dozier

This one was a slow-burning classic, a defensive battle between two great programs that Manca remembers as “the loudest I’d ever heard” Beaver Stadium. Alexander remembers another detail: “The groundskeeper got lost for a couple weeks before that one, and the grass didn’t get cut,” he says with a laugh. The result? Slightly overgrown turf—and so much for SEC speed. “I know they complained about that,” Alexander remembers.

Leading 12-10 early in the fourth quarter, thanks to that stalwart defense, Dozier’s return to the lineup, and Manca’s four field goals, the Lions appeared ready to settle for a fifth. On second down inside the Bama 20, Shaffer was hit from behind and forced out of the game. In came Knizner, barely used up to that point, with a third-and-short play call that nobody in crimson and white was expecting: A bootleg.

“I would’ve been happy with the field goal,” Paterno said afterward, “but I decided, Let’s let it all hang out.”

Faking the handoff to Dozier, the backup QB rolled right and found tight end Brian Siverling ’86, ’88g wide-open for the touchdown. A late Alabama touchdown was mere consolation in a 19-17 Penn State victory. Looking back now, Shaffer says, “I think that was when we started to really believe.”

On the road a week later, they edged Syracuse, 24-20 before returning home for the first blowout of the ’85 season: a 27-0 Homecoming romp over West Virginia. That was followed by another close one, 16-10 over Boston College, before a trip west to face Cincinnati, where they dispatched the Bearcats, 31-10. It was now the second week of November, and Penn State stood 9-0—and the No. 1 team in the country. It had rarely been pretty, but to the Lions, that hardly mattered.

“When I think back on that year,” Alexander says, “Joe didn’t give us the chance to look back. He was so on us all the time, screaming and yelling about the next opponent and only the next opponent. That kept us focused. You never had the chance to reflect and realize, ‘Hey, we’re 6-0, we’re 7-0.’ We couldn’t really look back and get distracted.”

Adds Manca, “We had a lot of nail-biters, but we had such strong leadership. That’s what really pulled us through.”

They couldn’t know it at the time, but the last of the nail-biters was behind them.

*   *   *

A week after that romp over Cincinnati, the Lions were back home to face Notre Dame. This was not a great Irish team—they were on their way to a 5-6 finish—but that hardly mattered to Penn State’s players. They had an unbeaten season in their sights, as well as the memory of that 37-point loss a year earlier. There were other motivations, as well.

“Despite being Catholic school boys,” says Alexander, “Notre Dame told me and Steve Smith we weren’t good enough to go to their school.” He and Smith ’87 had been teammates at Maryland’s DeMatha High School, and both were overlooked by the Irish before coming to Penn State—and then going on to play in the NFL. As he says now, “It was nice to play one of my better games against Notre Dame.”

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Based on the outcome, a 36-6 Penn State victory, nearly all of the Lions had great games on that wet and frigid afternoon at Beaver Stadium. Shaffer says he can “still feel” the wet mud that coated everything—”It was tremendously poor weather, the worst conditions to throw the ball in,” the QB says—while Alexander jokes that “a good friend of mine, his dad and my dad sat together in the stands, and they still have arguments about who left the game first because of the icicles that were forming on their coats. It was so cold.”

Manca had a career day against the Irish, drilling five field goals despite conditions that made every kick an adventure. “I thought I was going to fall on my butt every time, because it was just pouring,” Manca says. “But fortunately I made all my kicks.”

Afterward, Ray Isom ’88, the hard-hitting junior safety, was one of the few Lions who acknowledged that revenge was a factor. “We had that memory, the way we finished last year,” Isom told reporters. “That makes you intense. Very intense.” Of course, acknowledging that sort of motivation wasn’t Paterno’s style, and at least some of the Lions bought in. As Johnson remembers, “There was no motivation to prove anything from the year before—for me, that wasn’t even a distant thought. It was, ‘This is our team, we can shoot for that national championship.'”

Certainly there were plenty of Lions like Isom, for whom the pain of the previous season’s losses burned hot. And none burned hotter than the season-ending loss to the rival Panthers. “It’s hard to understand now, but back then, if we won one game the whole year, we had to beat Pitt,” says Bauer. “For us, certainly, after the way it went in ’84, it was like, ‘OK, it’s our turn.'” And as Bauer tells it, even Paterno seemed hungry for a win that would erase that memory.

“When we played at Pitt that year, that’s the only time I ever heard Joe Paterno curse,” Bauer says. “He got himself so worked up before the game—‘You gotta go out and kick their ass.'” Bauer chuckles at the memory. “It was like, Did he just say that?

Whatever Joe said, his players got the message. Final score: Penn State 31, Pitt 0, clinching not only revenge, but an unblemished regular season and a chance to play for the national championship. Just one more game for perfection.

*   *   *

Even though they had met only once previously, in the 1972 Sugar Bowl, Penn State and Oklahoma had a history. A few years earlier, an off-hand, off-the-record comment from Paterno that seemed to question the integrity of Sooners coach Barry Switzer had gone public, leading to a simmering controversy. It was an obvious story line going into the 1986 Orange Bowl, in which the top-ranked and unbeaten Lions would face a one-loss Oklahoma team that had started the season ranked No. 1. It took Switzer telling reporters that Paterno had called him to apologize years earlier to finally squash the story, allowing the focus to settle on a matchup between arguably the two best defenses in the nation.

Ask the Penn State players on the field that night in Miami about the game, and you’ll hear a consensus: They went in thinking they were the better team, and the outcome did little to change their opinion. They just didn’t get the result to prove it.

The Sooners won, of course, a 25-10 victory that, combined with No. 2 Miami’s loss in the Sugar Bowl, gave Switzer’s team the most logical claim to the championship. Just don’t tell the Lions they were out-played or out-coached—with one brief, monumental exception.

“We beat the breaks off of Oklahoma,” Johnson says. “But there was one play…”

“A safety blitz,” Alexander says, “with a back-up safety in there…”

“‘Red stab seal’—that was the call,” says Bauer. “And that was the worst call…”

The Nittany Lions marched down the field on their opening possession and took a 7-0 lead on a short dive by fullback Tim Manoa ’87. Knowing how good the Sooners’ defense was, Shaffer admits now, “I was surprised that we went right down the field and scored. But after the first drive, we really weren’t advancing the ball. We were frustrated: We couldn’t run, we couldn’t pass, and they had the fastest defensive secondary I’d ever seen.”

Still, the Lions had a world-class defense of their own, a unit that had kept them in games all season long. Fully prepared for Oklahoma’s vaunted wishbone attack—Alexander remembers the linebackers shedding weight in the weeks leading up to the game to prepare for the all the running they’d have to do in the humid Miami night—the Lions gave up just 31 yards rushing in the first half, and for the game held the Sooners more than 100 yards below their season rushing average. In a cruel irony, it was a pass by fleet-footed freshman QB Jamelle Holieway that ultimately changed the game.

Up 7-3 early in the second quarter, the Lions appeared ready to snuff out another Oklahoma drive. After a series that included a personal-foul penalty and a swarming sack of Holieway on second and long, the Sooners faced third and 23 from their own 29. Shortly before the seemingly hopeless play, the NBC graphic showed an ominous stat:

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The call came in from the sideline: A blitz—on third and 23. The Lions showed a nickel package, but on the snap, all three linemen and all three linebackers charged toward the Oklahoma line—as did Isom, the safety, leaving just four Lion defenders in coverage. Holieway, dropping back nearly 10 yards, threw up a rainbow in the direction of Keith Jackson—one of the great pass-catching tight ends in the history of the game, a future six-time Pro Bowler and College Football Hall of Fame inductee—who was barreling down the middle of the field. Backup safety Barry Buchman ’87, seeing his first action of the game, found himself in single coverage with the All-American, but he couldn’t keep up. Jackson caught the ball in stride and sprinted into the end zone.

It was only 10-7 Oklahoma. There was still plenty of time left. But Johnson spoke for most of his teammates when he says, “That was the game. One play made the game.”

Keith Jackson

Keith Jackson

Asked a few months later about the call—which wasn’t his—Paterno said, “It obviously wasn’t a percentage call. But if you always play the percentages, you’ll never make anything happen. We went with a gut feeling. I can’t second guess that blitz.”

What was undeniable was that Oklahoma had seized the momentum, and with the Lions’ offense struggling, a comeback seemed an almost impossible task. Shaffer, trying to make plays against the best secondary he faced all season, had one of the worst nights of his career—en route to his first and only loss as a starter since seventh grade—throwing three interceptions before being pulled for Knizner. “It’s just too bad when the performance of one individual has so much do with the outcome of the game,” he says now. “I remember seeing Mike Zordich with his dad, and thinking, ‘Crap, we can come back, but the seniors can’t.'”

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Paterno with his 1985 captains, Alexander, Moules, and Zordich

Zordich, Alexander, Moules, and a handful of other Lions would be lost to graduation, but most of the roster—including potential NFL draft picks like Conlan—would be back the following year. Shaffer would have to re-earn his starting job, a process he called “maybe the most competitive, pressure-packed thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Each of the returning players had to cope with the experience in their own way, but all seem to have used it as fuel.

“I can only speak for myself, but it was devastating for me,” says Bauer. “I felt like we were the better team, better prepared, and to lose the way we lost really left a bitter taste in everybody’s mouth. But after that, I went back home to New Jersey for break, and I guess it was before the semester started that it really kicked in—that there’s some unfinished business here.”

You know how that worked out. The 1986 Nittany Lions remain the iconic team in school history, capping another unbeaten regular season with one of the most memorable bowl wins the college game has ever seen. And it bears repeating: A football season does not exist in a vacuum. The ’85 Lions earned no rings, but what they did—and didn’t—accomplish that season made the glory of ’86 possible.

“That season became the motivating thing for us the next season,” says Johnson. “Coach Paterno wanted us to remember that feeling. It wasn’t to prove anything. It was to say, Let’s not do this again.

“I think it pushed us a lot,” says Bauer. “We felt like we had the talent, and we certainly had the coaching. People don’t even talk about 1985, but we should’ve won two national championships in a row. That ’85 team is probably one of the top-10 teams in Penn State history. But we weren’t playing for second place.”

“It’s not what defines us—’86 defines us,” says Shaffer, “but I think when we talk about ’86, the ’85 season is part of the beginning of that sentence.”

“I’m glad you brought this up,” Manca says. “I don’t think it’s ever been mentioned how great that team was.”

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