Penn State Preview: Ohio State

Penn State welcomes Ohio State to Beaver Stadium on Saturday, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. on ABC (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: No. 18/17 Penn State vs. No. 3/3 Ohio State, 7:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 297-74 (80 percent winning percentage).

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 46 degrees with a mix of sun and clouds.

All-time series: Ohio State leads 20-14.

Last meeting (2019): The Buckeyes earned a 28-17 victory in Columbus.

Throwback classic (2005): This one truly is a classic. Penn State prevailed in one of the most memorable games ever at Beaver Stadium, winning 17-10 over sixth-ranked Ohio State (the Nittany Lions were ranked sixteenth). The victory propelled Penn State toward a Big Ten title, with the Nittany Lions narrowly missing out on playing for the national championship. We spoke with former defensive back Calvin Lowry (2002-05), who picked off a pass in the second quarter to set up a Penn State touchdown. Lowry recalled what it was like playing in the big, and you can check out that story on the blog.

The lead: A sold-out White Out against Ohio State on Halloween, can you imagine the scene?

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions both establish the ground game in a big-time way. This will be an extra challenge with the news this week that Noah Cain will miss the rest of the season, coupled with Journey Brown out indefinitely. Still, there’s plenty of talent for Penn State to call upon, and Devyn Ford especially will be needed, as he’s the most experienced running back. Sean Clifford can (and probably will) contribute, as the signal-caller led Penn State in rushing a week ago with 119 yards.

Ohio State wins if: the Buckeyes give Justin Fields room to both run and throw. A former Penn State commit, Fields is one of the leading Heisman Trophy finalists and is incredibly effective with his arm and his legs. If he’s able to impact the game in both areas, that’ll give Ohio State an advantage.

Count on: the Penn State linebackers stepping up. With Jesse Luketa set to miss the first half after being called for targeting in last week’s loss at Indiana, players such as Lance Dixon will be called on to help limit the Buckeyes as much as possible.

Keep an eye on: the S-Zone. Thanks to the Lion Ambassadors, the Penn State Alumni Association’s student alumni corps, the S-Zone will be a banner stretching across 800 seats above the team tunnel at Beaver Stadium. Through a partnership with the Penn State Alumni AssociationBlue & White Society, and Lion Ambassadors, the banner will honor the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 and feature the names of members of those classes. We’re excited to unveil the banner this weekend and for all Penn Staters to see it.

Trivia tidbit: This game has been played incredibly close recently, with a total of 16 points deciding the last four games between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes.

From The Archives: Penn State V. Ohio State (2005)

Penn State upended Ohio State 17-10 in the 2005 White Out, widely regarded as one of the most iconic games in Beaver Stadium history.

Calvin Lowry told himself that if he had another chance, he’d create a big play.

He did, and he did.

First, the setup: Penn State and Ohio State were battling in what turned out to be one of the most memorable games in Beaver Stadium history — the 2005 White Out. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 6, with the Nittany Lions No. 16. A win would likely catapult Penn State toward a Big Ten championship and possible national title.

Pretty high stakes.

Penn State led 7-3 a little more than five minutes into the second quarter, when Lowry experienced a case of deja vu. Only this time with a different result.

He picked off Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith on third and long on the Buckeyes’ side of the field, nearly returning the pick for a touchdown. He was tackled a few yards short of the goal line, and Penn State scored a few plays later.

“That interception, they had run that play earlier in the game,” Lowry said. “I had seen it and I had been one step short of making the play previously. I talked myself into it: ‘If it happens again, I’m going to make that play.’ Ultimately it happened. I saw it, it kind of slo-moed (slow-motion), if people could believe that. Then, being five yards short of returning it for a touchdown was the biggest hiccup I had. I would’ve loved to have seen how loud the stadium really could have got if I ran that in there.”

You can check out the video above for an abbreviated version of the game, with Lowry’s interception starting around the 4:30 mark.

The Nittany Lions won 17-10 en route to winning the Big Ten, narrowly qualifying for the Rose Bowl (where USC and Texas played for the national title), and ended the highly successful season with a marathon victory in the Orange Bowl, defeating Florida State in triple overtime.

The 2005 White Out edition of The Football Letter noted the second-largest Beaver Stadium attendance of 109,839 and featured photos of students camping outside the stadium in tents and Joe Paterno firing up fans at Rec Hall on Friday, at an event aptly titled, “Rally in the Valley” hosted by the Blue & White Society, the student membership of the Alumni Association.

The positive vibes flowed before and after the game, with editor John Black leading off that game’s edition of The Football Letter by writing:

“From the students camping out in what they called ‘Paternoville’ to the Friday night Rally in the Valley to the Saturday morning ESPN Game Day show (where Penn State fans jeered Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit for picking Ohio State) to the midnight wrap-up (where they chanted ‘Say You’re Sorry’), it was an All-Penn State Weekend.

Lowry spoke about the game, recalling vivid details and how much confidence the team had, especially coming off of the 2004 season, when they had the last-minute goal-line stand against Indiana and a blowout win over Michigan State.

Even though they were ranked lower, the Nittany Lions came into the game with a 5-0 record (the Buckeyes were 3-1), leading into one of the contests routinely mentioned when ranking the biggest games in Beaver Stadium history.

What continues to stand out the most about the atmosphere that night to Lowry?

“How loud it was,” he said.

“Conversations that we usually had defensively with each other on the field, we weren’t allowed to do that. It was so loud that it definitely played a factor in that game. They were sixth, we were sixteenth coming into that game, College Game Day was there, it was just one of those (games) that spring boarded us the rest of our season to accomplish one of the goals that we wanted to accomplish, which was be Big Ten champions; secondly try to get to the national championship. We fell one step short, but we finished it up with a BCS bowl game.”

Lowry recalled Ohio State having “tremendous talent all over the place,” when discussing the defense’s approach to shutting down the Buckeyes, and when you add in everything else, it’s no surprise that Lowry succinctly remarked, “It was one of those prototypical night primetime games.”

That description perfectly describes this Saturday’s tilt with Ohio State, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. on ABC. We’ll be tuning in like everyone else.

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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 1986

For the second time in the 1980s, Joe Paterno ended the season by being carried off the field by his players after Penn State won the national championship. (Photo by Associated Press)

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. Up next is the season that cemented the Nittany Lions as one of the nation’s premier programs, 1986, the season that Penn State won its second national title. Fans can also hear from letterman Bob White, who’s appearing this week on The Football Letter Live to share insight and stories from the ’86 season. 

In terms of a centennial celebration goes, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl unfolded in cinematic fashion for Penn State. Almost as if brothers and Penn State graduates Julius and Philip Epstein wrote the script; the two brothers authored quite possibly the greatest screenplay ever, Casablanca, and as John Black noted in The Football Letter, Julius was in attendance for the game. 

Penn State alumni and fans knows the details that elevated that game beyond just college football or even sports, transcending it into a national event that captured the attention and imagination of an entire country. 

Two unbeaten teams. An iconic coach with a tradition-rich program against a brash up-and-coming squad not afraid to boast — sometimes, I wonder if a younger Joe Paterno actually had more in common with Jimmy Johnson than Penn State fans have ever realized. Army fatigues. A bombastic pre-game dinner that included players walking out. A Heisman Trophy winner. A national television audience on a night set aside entirely for the game. And most importantly, a national title at stake.

A lot has been written about the 1986 Penn State team, and we were fortunate enough earlier this year to get a bunch of the guys from that together to watch a replay of the Fiesta Bowl, and you can watch the archived video on our Facebook page. There are plenty of good stories and insight from the players who were on the field, who were so enthusiastic and articulate, that we ended up keeping the video going for four-plus hours. Leading up to the night, we thought maybe we’d go for an hour or two before things slowed down. Fortunately, that never happened, and you can tell that the guys enjoyed each other’s company immensely, in addition to having the opportunity to interact with fans who tuned in on Facebook Live. 

Leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State mostly dominated its scheduled, which with the exception of Notre Dame, was comprised entirely of opponents in the eastern time zone. Along with the Fighting Irish (24-19), only Cincinnati (23-17) and Maryland (17-15) stayed within single digits of Penn State, which outscored its regular season opponents by an average margin of 30-12 (326-123).

The list of folks who were in person that night in Tempe includes Black, who followed in the legendary footsteps of Ridge Riley to continue chronicling the Nittany Lions’ ascent atop the college football landscape. 

Similar to his letter detailing Penn State’s first national title following the 1983 Sugar Bowl, Black included references to Riley and his book, Road to No. 1, within the opening paragraphs of the letter following the ’87 Fiesta Bowl. 

The 1986 season is a fitting sequel to Riley’s history, as the national championship culminated a six-month celebration of the 100th gridiron season (in Penn State history), which began with three black-tie galas in Hershey, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in July, honoring gridiron greats of the past, and brought Coach of the Year honors from the Football Writers of America and Sportsman of the Year honors from Sports Illustrated for Coach Joe Paterno in December. 

In terms of imagery and a backdrop, that Fiesta Bowl might never be topped. In some ways, that’s OK, or even something to be cheered. When a win that iconic comes around, it’s maybe best to not try to compare it to something else or have it topped. Rather, enjoy it for what it is and the circumstances that led it to happen. 

Looking back a few years, or even Paterno’s head coaching career up to that point, there were several near-misses and seasons when Penn State was overlooked, even with unbeaten season. The ’68 and ’69 teams were dominant, ’73 was magical with John Cappelletti winning the Heisman Trophy, and ’79 and ’85 were oh-so-close, with the Nittany Lions falling to Alabama and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl, respectively, in national title games. 

After winning two national titles in four years, and playing for a championship in four out of nine years, the sentiment was that Penn State had fully arrived, and wasn’t just amid a nice stretch. 

Penn State football transformed during the 1980s, as did the University, and it’s fairly easy to argue that the relationship goes beyond merely correlation to causation. 

Paterno gave a series of highly charged speeches to the University’s Board of Trustees and Faculty Senate following the team’s first national title, prompting Penn State to start focusing in earnest on fundraising. In the Fiesta Bowl letter, Black noted that earlier in 1986, Paterno had a Library Endowment Fund established in his name and that he was selected as vice-chairman of the University’s largest fundraising campaign in history, a $200 million effort for academic excellence. 

Paterno’s Grand Experiment has been noted and discussed many times, to the point that it almost seems obvious now. But 30-40 years ago, it was a sweeping change, and one that Penn State gravitated toward and supported. 

Let’s put it this way: When was the last time you read a story about a historic victory in college football, and within the first handful of paragraphs, the winning coach’s strident support of academics is pointed out? 

It’s fair and worthwhile to point out that the Grand Experiment might not’ve been so successful if the football team hadn’t been so dominant, though any thorough write-up of Penn State football in the ‘80s should merge the two parallel universes, and that shines through with Black’s letters. 

The football team doesn’t exist on its own. The Nittany Lions are an extension of the University and our worldwide alumni base. Each side supports the other, and in the end, everyone is better for it. And when it ends with a national championship on a night when very few people watching will ever forget — and certainly nobody who was there in person — it’s worth remembering for all the right reasons. 

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Readjusted Expectations the Norm for 2020

Sean Clifford threw three touchdowns and finished with 238 passing yards and 119 rushing yards, to go along with two interceptions in Penn State’s season-opening loss at Indiana. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

One game into the season, and Penn State might already need to readjust its expectations. If “readjusted expectations” isn’t the theme of 2020, I don’t know what is.

Yes, Penn State can still run the table, win the Big Ten, and qualify for the College Football Playoff. But the outlook heading into this week’s clash with Ohio State certainly doesn’t have the same electricity after Saturday’s season-opening loss at Indiana. And there are more questions facing the Nittany Lions than in any other time in recent memory.

Despite three turnovers and three missed field goals, and 10 penalties — all incredibly uncharacteristic for the Nittany Lions — there’s a reasonably easy argument that Penn State still should have won the game. We’ve all seen the various angles of Indiana quarterback Michael Penix’s last-play dive toward the end zone on the Hoosiers’ 2-point conversion.

Quick note: No matter your allegiance, that was a hell of a play by Penix, which deserves to be said.

After a brief hesitation, the officials ruled it good on the field, though replays showed convincing evidence that the ball was inches, millimeters, maybe a few layers of dental floss (it was that close) away from crossing the plane while touching the ground.

The Centre Daily Times’ star photographer, Abby Drey, captured the moment in her amazing photo that’s garnered a ton of attention online.

The scene was chaotic — even with a limited number of people in the stands — as the officials reviewed the play. In the end, the call stood, with Indiana tallying its first win against a Top-10 team since 1987.

Here’s what was going through star tight end Pat Freiermuth’s mind during the review:

“It stunk. Obviously leaving the game up to the ref’s hands, you never want that. We wanted to end the game on our terms,” he said. “I just thought about the whole game and how, to be honest, we were lucky to be in that point because of turning the ball over way too many times and the whole situation at the end of the game (Devyn Ford scoring instead of kneeling), but we can’t put the game into the ref’s hands. I was kind of by myself, I saw the replay. I’m going to leave my opinion out of it but you can’t let the end of the game go to the refs like that.”

Pat Freiermuth set a program record with his 16th career touchdown, the most for a tight end, finishing with seven catches for 60 yards and a first-quarter score. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

If Penn State and Indiana play that game 10 times, chances are the Nittany Lions win seven or eight of the battles, at least by my estimation. And while Freiermuth said the team couldn’t use the excuse that they need time to adjust to a new offense, since the team’s had “100 meetings and 100 walk-throughs,” opening up against a conference opponent, on the road, during a pandemic, with a new offensive coordinator, ultimately provided too many obstacles.

“The first half, the two turnovers, we talk about winning the turnover battle all the time, and the two turnovers — the interception on the screen and the interception to Pat — were both completely on me, and I’ll man up and take that 100 percent,” Sean Clifford said. “It wasn’t the call, it wasn’t anything that they did. It was what I did, and I just can’t make that mistake.”

With Micah Parsons opting out and Journey Brown out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical condition, Penn State lost the best defensive player in the country and one of the top running backs in the nation. There’s still plenty of talent and experience, but without those two standouts, maybe the biggest lesson is that Penn State’s margin of error is less this year than previously expected.

Penn State’s usually won this type of game over the last few years, one where mistakes were made, though the Nittany Lions ultimately made enough winning plays. Think about the second half of the 2016 season, for example, including at Indiana, where the Nittany Lions trailed by 10 points in the second half.

For a moment, Saturday looked like it would end the same way. Was anybody really surprised when Clifford connected with Jahan Dotson for a 60-yard touchdown to take the lead with less than three minutes left?

No. That type of leadership and step-up mentality has been a hallmark for James Franklin and his teams at Penn State over the last four-plus seasons. Even in this case, a “winning play” helped lead to Indiana having a chance for the comeback. When asked about Devyn Ford not taking a knee and instead scoring with 1:42 left in the fourth quarter — which opened the door for the Hoosiers’ last-minute scoring drive —  both Franklin and his players essentially said it doesn’t make sense to examine the loss with one play.

“It’s not one play that loses the game,” Clifford said. “It starts with me. I just have to be better and can’t turn the ball over.”

Players were understandably feeling dejected after the game during their Zoom press conferences. They’ve invested so much into this season, one that they weren’t even sure was going to happen. Now, it’s here, and the schedule rolls on, with Ohio State and College Game Day visiting Happy Valley this week.

Win Saturday, and expectations are readjusted again. And really, if anything in 2020 has become standard, it’s that what you think is going to happen most definitely won’t, or at least not in the way you envisioned.

“I’m just disappointed,” Freiermuth said. “I was just disappointed in how the whole offense performed today. I think that Coach Ciarrocca did a good job of putting us in the right positions and calling the right plays, but at the end of the day, you can call whatever play you want and do whatever you want offensively but if your players aren’t executing it the right way or doing the right things on the field, then you’re never going to be able to get anything. We were able to move the ball, but we shot ourselves in the foot way too many times. At this point, it’s just disappointing, but we have to move on.”

Penn State Preview: Indiana

Pat Freiermuth and the Nittany Lions will kick off the much-anticipated 2020 season Saturday at Indiana. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions this football season.

Game details: at Indiana, 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on FS1.

Venue: Memorial Stadium.

Weather forecast (via Accuweather): High of 56 degrees with clear skies.

The line: Penn State –5.5

All-time series: Penn State leads 22-1.

Last meeting (2019): Penn State won 34-27 in Happy Valley.

Throwback classic (2016): Penn State continued its trend of coming from behind, overcoming a 10-point deficit in the second half en route to winning the Big Ten title. The Hoosiers had the ball late with a chance to tie, though Torrence Brown recovered a fumble in the end zone for the final 45-31 margin.

The lead: Football is back. Or more specifically, Big Ten football is back, and so are the Nittany Lions. Some of the many questions swirling around the team are: How will the rushing attack fare (presumably) without Journey Brown, who will reportedly might miss the entire season because of a medical condition discovered during the offseason. Will the defense suffer a setback without Micah Parsons? How sharp will the offense be, and will it look different with Kirk Ciarrocca coming in from Minnesota? What will it be like watching a game with no fans?

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions establish the passing game. Penn State’s depth at running back is well noted. The passing game, meanwhile, is a little more uncertain. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is actually the team’s lead returning receiver, though Jahan Dotson did start all 13 games last season. Along with Dotson, Cam Sullivan-Brown and Parker Washington are listed as the team’s three starting receivers, and how quickly that group can synch up with Sean Clifford will be critical.

Indiana wins if: the Hoosiers offense can keep Penn State’s defense guessing. Indiana is a fun team to watch. The Hoosiers score a lot of points, though they also are prone to allow a bunch, too, though their defense has shown signs of improvement. It’s difficult to see Indiana winning a fairly low-scoring game, so if the Hoosiers can score 35-plus, they have a chance to pull off the home upset.

Count on: Brandon Smith having an impact. He appeared in all 13 games last year as a true freshman, and is listed atop Penn State’s depth chart at outside linebacker. Smith checks in at 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, and has garnered plenty of praise from teammates and coaches. His trajectory is one reason why there’s optimism the defense won’t significantly regress with Parsons opting out, with the linebacker room featuring plenty of depth and talent.

Keep an eye on: the Penn State running backs in the receiving game. Getting them move involved catching passes out of the backfield has been something of a theme that emerged this summer, with players talking about how this year’s offense might differ with Ciarrocca.

Trivia tidbit: With Journey Brown expected to possibly miss the entire season, Penn State’s leading returning rusher is actually Clifford (552 yards on 116 carries).

Predictions

John Patishnock — Penn State 37, Indiana 27

Vince Lungaro — Penn State 27, Indiana 23

Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 1982

Gregg Garrity’s Sugar Bowl touchdown landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, one of the lasting images from Penn State’s first national title. Image credit: Sports Illustrated

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.”

The Football Letter editor John Black chronicled Penn State’s first national title, with the championship edition coming during Black’s early years of succeeding Ridge Riley, who created The Football Letter in 1938.

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.”

Black continued: 

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.”

Todd Blackledge received the game’s Miller-Digby Award as the Most Outstanding Player of the Sugar Bowl. Photo credit: Allstate Sugar Bowl

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

Shortly after:

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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Alan Zemaitis’ Sense of Service

Penn State letterman Alan Zemaitis is leading an inspiring community service initiative at Susquehanna University, called Season of Service. The former Penn State cornerback is an assistant coach at Susquehanna, which has had its season canceled because of COVID-19. Photo credit: Susquehanna University Athletics

Susquehanna University isn’t playing football this season, which means Penn State letterman Alan Zemaitis ’05 isn’t coaching this season, at least not on the field. But as Penn Staters know, coaches have an impact beyond the gridiron, and Zemaitis is embodying that sense of leadership with a community service project he’s spearheading.

The 2005 graduate who helped fuel the Nittany Lions’ 11-win season that year is an assistant coach with Susquehanna, which had its season canceled because of COVID-19.

He’s ensuring that the team stays busy, however, coordinating a town-gown collaboration with his players called Season of Service, which fans can read more about on Susquehanna’s website. One of the goals is to hopefully bridge racial divisions, and one of the early projects is to improve a nonprofit playground in the community and to engage with residents.

“The lack of football is an opportunity for us to get connected with the community,” Zemaitis said in the feature. “It’s the most diverse group at Susquehanna. We can be an example of what it means to work together. That’s how things get accomplished.”

The project is already underway, with Susquehanna sharing updates in a recent feature. We’ll be sure to ask Zemaitis about this project next month, when he’s scheduled to appear on The Football Letter Live.

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For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

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Face of the Penn State Community

James Franklin leads Penn State onto the field for the 2019 Citrus Bowl. Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to a winning record and a bowl appearance in each of his first six seasons, in addition to being a visible figure in the community. Photo by Steve Manuel.

You wouldn’t think that a nearly half-a-million dollar gift would go under the radar, though in 2020, nothing should surprise us.

That’s where we are, and it feels like that’s what happened, when James Franklin announced in July that he and his wife, Fumi, raised $462,500 for The Franklin Family Educational Equity Scholarship, which the couple established in fall 2019.

This was before the 2020 season seesawed between being on and off, and back on again, and you can read Franklin’s message he posted to Twitter below.

A college football coach and his family raising such an impressive amount of money for such a worthy cause is admirable, and perhaps one reason why there wasn’t more attention paid to this is because this overwhelming generosity is who Penn Staters are and it’s what we do. In many ways, the high standard is the norm.

Still, it’s worth pointing out the message this sends: Yes, Franklin is the football coach, and at Penn State, that’s an awfully big deal, though his title doesn’t describe Franklin’s entire contributions to the University. In terms of showing that he’s committed to Penn State and the legion of alumni and fans who follow his team, this is a crystal-clear sign that Franklin is all in, and has been for some time.

Many of the football student-athletes have been showing an incredible level of maturity and leadership off the field, and it shouldn’t be surprising when you look at the model that Franklin sets. Just this week, he emphasized the importance of voting — without advocating for anyone or any particular party, just that it’s important to have your voice heard — when discussing the voting PSAs that the team has shared on social media recently.

With Franklin, you get it all. It’s a lot to ask for in a coach, though when you get it, the result is a ton of on-field success, impact off the field, and an ongoing legacy that hits home with players and recruits.

“Coach Franklin does a great job in this program of being a leader,” standout tight end Pat Freiermuth said Friday during the team’s virtual media days. “I think that he gives everyone answers that sometimes you don’t really like to hear, but I think that he does a great job of demanding excellence and demanding perfection. At the end of the day, he’s always going to love you.”

“I think that’s what you want as a head coach — and a guy who is at such a prominent university and who loves their football — to lead the whole community really. He’s the face of the whole Penn State community, and I think that he does it in a really great way. If you’re a recruit, I just don’t get why you wouldn’t come to Penn State, especially if you’re from around this area, because it has everything a recruit wants or a college student needs or wants.”

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The Football Letter Live: Week 5

The Football Letter Live rolls on this evening, with the season’s fifth episode focusing on the Blue Band and the Alumni Blue Band.

Alumni and fans can register online or tune in on Facebook at 8 p.m. tonight. Penn Staters can also watch all previous season episodes on our website.

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Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams

Chances are good Daryll Clark and the 2008 Penn State squad will find a place on our list of Penn State’s most memorable teams. The team won the program’s third Big Ten title and finished the season in the Rose Bowl, narrowly missing a chance to play for the national championship after a late-season loss at Iowa. Photo credit: Steve Manuel.

Kickoff for Penn State’s opening game against Indiana is still weeks away, though chances are this season will remain memorable for many reasons, most of which being the bizarre circumstances that the Nittany Lions will play under.

That’s one way to elevate to “memorable” status,” though there are many others. Success certainly is a good option, with wins being just one way to define that word. The 2012 team that finished 8-4 instantly jumps to mind for obvious reasons.

Starting next month, we’ll rank Penn State’s most memorable teams over the years, and we’ll include insights from the letters that Ridge Riley ’32 and John Black ’62 authored as the Nittany Lions rose to national prominence over the second part of the 20th century. As much time as we’ve spent browsing them, there are still many lessons and stories that are worth uncovering for new generations of fans.

We’ll also speak with some of the lettermen who can share insights about what stood out about those teams: talent, chemistry, off-the-field stories that created bonds.

Fans know all about Penn State’s storied tradition, so there are plenty of teams to choose from. Have a suggestion for who should make the list? Drop us a line in the comments or tag us on Twitter at @PSUFBLetter.

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For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.