Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. We start with the season that launched the Nittany Lions into a player on the national stage, 1982, and fans can hear more about this landmark season on this week’s episode of The Football Letter Live.
After Penn State football spent the late 1960s and 1970s knocking on the door of national prominence, the Nittany Lions burst through during the 1980s.
Two national championships. Five seasons of 10-plus wins. Defining plays. Increased national media exposure, including Joe Paterno becoming the first college football coach that Sports Illustrated named as Sportsman of the Year — at a time when the publication was the leading authority in sports media.
Totaled together, the decade eliminated any doubt that Penn State was simply just a regional power in college football. The Nittany Lions transformed into a national contender, with 1982 serving as the launching point after Penn State earned its first national title with a thrilling win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Covering the team in the early years of his succeeding The Football Letter creator, Ridge Riley, current editor John Black capped off the landmark season with an opening paragraph that paid homage to both Riley and the humble beginnings of Penn State football.
In the lead to The Football Letter detailing the epic bowl victory, Black referenced Riley’s landmark book, The Road to Number One, writing:
“The Road to Number One began its long and tortuous route on Old Main lawn 96 years ago when George Linsz showed up one autumn afternoon in 1887 with his funny looking oblate spheroid. It reached its goal the night of Jan. 1, 1983, in the New Orleans Superdome, where the Nittany Lions knocked aside previously undefeated and top-ranked Georgia, 27-23, in the 49th Sugar Bowl Classic to claim their first national championship.”
Black weaved additional reference to Riley and his book throughout the intro, writing how Paterno and Penn State were greeted with fans upon landing in Harrisburg, and then along the entire route back to Happy Valley. Back in State College, President John W. Oswald declared to the team, “You inspire us all to excellence,” Black wrote, adding that Paterno closed out the rally at Old Main by saying, “Let’s be No. 1 not only this year, but forever.”
Penn State jumped to a 20-10 halftime lead before a record Sugar Bowl crowd of 78,124, with Gregg Garrity’s iconic touchdown catch from Todd Blackledge providing the winning cushion in the fourth quarter. Georgia added a touchdown with less than five minutes remaining but couldn’t close the gap, resulting in the 27-23 victory for the Nittany Lions.
“It was just your basic streak,” demurred Garrity after the game,” Black reported. “We usually throw that pass to the tailback, but the safety stopped on Curt (Warner) along the hashmark and I was open.”
Dooley (Vince Dooley, Georgia’s coach) and Paterno saw it a little bit differently.
Dooley called it the key play of the game. “Everybody talks about (Kenny) Jackson and they call Garrity the other receiver,” he moaned. That’s some other receiver!”
Paterno said, “We had been running effectively. It was a good play action fake, a great pass and a great catch. It was a clutch play. We had been struggling in the second half till then.”
Garrity totaled four catches for 116 yards, while Blackledge finished 13-for-23 and 228 yards, to go with the 47-yard scoring strike to Garrity. Warner, meanwhile, out-rushed Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker (117-103)
The Sugar Bowl ended up being the last game as a Nittany Lion for Blackledge, who declared for the NFL Draft. After defeating Georgia, Blackledge discussed the impending decision, saying that if he did come back, he’d be more concerned with repeating as national champs than winning the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top player.
As Black pointed out, either Blackledge or Warner might’ve had a good chance of winning the honor if Penn State wasn’t such a balanced team, though as Warner astutely mentioned on a national TV appearance following the win, “You have to make some sacrifices to be a national champion.”
As a good indicator that Paterno’s Grand Experience had been highly successful up to that point — and would continue to be so for three more decades — here’s what Blackledge said about what he valued most about his Penn State experience:
“The preparation Penn State and the coaches have given me for life away from college and away from football. The confidence to use my abilities in whatever way I can.”
Penn State qualified for the Sugar Bowl by battling through one of the nation’s toughest schedules, beating traditional powers Nebraska and Notre Dame, and finishing off the regular season with a victory over Pitt. The one blemish was a 42-21 loss to Alabama in the middle of the season, though the Nittany Lions responded by beating their next opponents 201-48, before clashing with Georgia.
Black laid out the prospects for Penn State in a preseason edition of The Football Letter that looked ahead to the season opener against Temple, even including how “the ’82 season is a tailgater’s dream with every September Saturday scheduled for a fall frolic in the vale of old Mt. Nittany.”
Aside from the Sugar Bowl, the 27-24 victory over Nebraska in the season’s fourth game is the contest many fans remember most vividly from that year and showed signs that 1982 would be the year when things would break the Nittany Lions way.
Black started that edition of The Football Letter in memorable fashion, transforming into the role of a professor and laying out a pop quiz with 12 questions. There was a lot to digest after Penn State’s memorable come-from-behind victory, a win capped with a two-yard touchdown pass from Blackledge to tight end Kirk Bowman, who made a spectacular catch with only a few seconds remaining.
Penn State alumnus and author Michael Weinreb — a frequent contributor to the Penn Stater magazine — detailed attending the game as a youngster in the preface to his impressive book, Season of Saturdays.
I strongly recommend getting a copy so you can read the entire entry, though I’m guessing Penn State fans can relate to the sense of wonder that Weinreb shares in these two sections:
The home team led 14-0 early, and then they trailed 24-21 late in the fourth quarter, and I could not see most of what happened after that, because I was too small and everyone around me was standing and I was engulfed in a thicket of down jackets and cigar smoke and pocket radio antennas and the voice of a guy named Steve was critiquing the play-calling
There was a throw to the sideline, to a Penn State tight end who was clearly out of bounds but was ruled in bounds, for reasons that either defy explanation or raise suspicion, depending upon one’s perspective; there was a throw to the end zone, to a klutzy tight end whose nickname was actually stone hands, who cradled the pass in his arms and toppled to the ground for the game-winning touchdown. And I remember the quake and the aftershocks inside the stadium, and I remember the bacchanalia outside, and I remember listening to the radio broadcast in the car, and I remember watching the highlights on the news and on television the next morning, and I remember thinking that I would never, in the course of my life, see anything bigger than that again.
In a way, Weinreb was right. Seeing that game at that age is an experience that can never be replicated. Just the same, a senior standing in the front row of Nittanyville after camping outside Beaver Stadium won’t have that same experience again the following year, or the following decade.
The last 40 years of Penn State football have provided plenty of these moments for alumni and fans, and we’re looking forward to sharing as many as possible this season.
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As with many things, Weinreb is clearly wrong in his declaration that McCloskey was “clearly out of bounds.”