Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2019

Penn State celebrated its third 11-win season in four years after besting Memphis 53-39 in the 2019 Cotton Bowl. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

For a team that had been so much fun to watch, the Cotton Bowl was a fitting scene for the season’s biggest celebration.

It was a year ago today (Dec. 28), when James Franklin and the Nittany Lions celebrated capturing their second New Year’s 6 bowl victory during his tenure with the team; two years earlier, Penn State knocked off Washington in the Fiesta Bowl.

There were plenty of reasons why that victory was memorable, both at the time and now.

For many fans, it’d represent the first trip to the Cotton Bowl, Penn State was playing Memphis — an upstart team playing in its biggest game in the history of its program — and with the game being played indoors, there was no chance of weather slowing down Penn State’s dynamic offense.

Everything surrounding the game enhanced the experience.

Leading up to the contest, fans enjoyed plenty of hospitality in the area. And without exception, every Memphis fan that folks traveling with the Alumni Association ran into were overly pleasant. Adding to the fun was that this was the first time that editor John Black covered the Cotton Bowl during his legendary career.

The last time Penn State played in the Cotton Bowl was 1975 (to cap the 1974 season), and creator of The Football Letter, Ride Riley, was still authoring the publication at the time. Likewise, this was the first time photographer Steve Manuel covered the game for The Football Letter, and you can check out Manuel’s all-star photos from the game and trip online.

The game itself was highly entertaining, took place in one of the most impressive stadiums in the world, and provided an opportunity for the Nittany Lions to complete their third 11-win season in four years.

And that’s exactly what they did.

In The Football Letter, Black wrote:

“In a contest that proved highly exciting to fans of each team, No. 10 Penn State emerged victorious against the 17th-ranked Memphis Tigers, 53–39, in a contest that set a Classic record for combined points by both teams—92.

The crowd-pleasing contest matched Memphis’ explosive passing attack against State’s explosive rushing attack.

Just as in each previous Classic, the Lions’ opponent scored first and clung to an early lead, until the Nittany Lions’ offense got untracked and their defense took control.

Ultimately, Penn State ground out a school bowl record 396 yards for a Cotton Bowl record-tying five rushing
touchdowns— two each by Journey Brown and Noah Cain and one by Devyn Ford.”

Journey Brown scored two touchdowns while helping Penn State total a bowl-record 396 rushing yards against Memphis. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Nobody knew it at the time — and certainly nobody would have any reason to believe — that the Cotton Bowl would be Brown’s last game ever. The emerging star running back retired from football earlier this fall because of a medical condition.

The Cotton Bowl was also Micah Parsons’ last game as a Nittany Lion, as he dominated the field in a way that no previous defensive player might’ve ever done. Parsons tied his career high with 14 tackles, forced two fumbles, hurried Memphis quarterback Brady White into throwing a pick-6 that teammate Garrett Taylor returned for a touchdown, and generally disrupted the Tigers’ offense all game. Parsons opted out of 2020 because of concerns for COVID-19 and is expected to be a top pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

And while players’ families could attend most home games this year, the Cotton Bowl was the last time that fans watched and cheered on star tight end Pat Freiermuth, along with many other Nittany Lions, in person. Similar to Brown’s trajectory, nobody could have imagined that after the Cotton Bowl, it’d be at least a year before fans could attend a game in person.

This is all to say that the 2019 Cotton Bowl will prove to be memorable not just for what Penn State accomplished that season, but for the moment in time that the victory represented for the program and for its players.

And perhaps more than anything, the Cotton Bowl serves as a reminder to stop and appreciate what’s happening in front of you, at that moment. Because often the future, is at best, unknown.

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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2017

Safety Marcus Allen (left) and quarterback Trace McSorley were named the defensive and offensive players of the game following Penn State’s 35-28 victory over Washington in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

It’s impossible to tell the story of Penn State football without mentioning the Fiesta Bowl, and the same is true of the 2017 season.

In his edition of The Football Letter recapping Penn State’s 35-28 victory over Washington in the Nittany Lions’ latest appearance in the prestigious game, John Black laid out how closely linked the two are, and how Penn State helped the bowl elevate to its elite status.

The folks in Phoenix love Penn State, because it always brings planeloads of fans and a big television audience. And in their first four appearances between 1977 and 1986, the Nittany Lions provided great impetus to the bowl’s rapid rise from a regional affair to the Big Five of the national bowls.

Penn State loves the Fiesta, because the Lions have compiled their best record in any of the postseason classics there and the players are always shown a great time.

State’s fans love escaping the northeast winter by going to Arizona, because they have always found plenty of sunshine, delightfully warm temperatures, excellent hospitality and fun things to do.

The most fun, of course, was watching their Lions cage three Heisman Trophy winners—Marcus Allen of USC in 1982, Vinnie Testaverde of Miami in 1987 and Ricky Williams of Texas in 1997.

And who will ever forget the Lions’ upset of Miami to win the national championship in the 1987 Duel in the Desert, witnessed by 70 million television viewers in addition to the sellout crowd in Sun Devil Stadium?

Penn State amassed a bowl-record 545 yards of total offense against Washington in late December 2017, while rolling to its second straight 11-win season, its 29th bowl victory, and its second postseason decision over the Huskies. Penn State beat Washington, 13–10, in the 1983 Aloha Bowl in Hawaii.

The Nittany Lions’ entered the game ranked ninth with the Huskies three spots behind in 12th, and Penn State beat the team that edged them out the previous year in the College Football Playoff. The 2017 team was part of quite possibly the most successful four-year run for Penn State in the Big Ten era, as the team won 40 games in four years. Even their losses were close, as the Nittany Lions’ two setbacks in 2017 were by a combined four points to Ohio State and Michigan State.

Saquon Barkley provided plenty of star power for the 2017 edition of the Nittany Lions, including an all-time performance at Iowa. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The wins, meanwhile, came in bunches and with plenty of flair.

Penn State outscored its three non-conference opponents (Akron, Pitt, Georgia State), by a combined score of 141-14. The conference open was memorable for a different reason, as Trace McSorley found Juwan Johnson in the back of the end-zone for a walk-off win at Kinnick Stadium, one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten.

Saquon Barkley — you may remember him? — put together an epic performance of more than 300 yards from scrimmage (211 rush/94 receiving), befuddling and mesmerizing the Hawkeye defense with leaps, stutter steps, and moves that can only be described as Barkley-esque.

Penn State was an incredibly fun team to watch with Joe Moorhead running the offense; he accepted the head coaching offer at Mississippi State prior to the Fiesta Bowl, where Ricky Rahne served as offensive coordinator and called plays. Rahne has since accepted the head coaching position at Old Dominion.

In total, Penn State scored at least 30 points in all but two of their games, and also produced 40-plus points six times, 50-plus points four times, and 60-plus points once.

Many of the stars from that team are now on NFL rosters, and it’s entirely possible that a decade from now, one or two will be future Hall of Famers. Fans can look back further on the 2017 season by logging in below to read The Football Letter issues from that season, as well as view photo galleries from the season on our Flickr page.

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Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 2012

The 2012 team featured 31 seniors who made their final appearances at Beaver Stadium during a 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. The 2012 team will forever be remembered for the Nittany Lion stayed united while also bringing together the Penn State community.

Gritty. Resilient. Inspiring.

A lot has been written and said about the 2012 Penn State football team, which compiled probably the most impressive 8-4 mark in the history of college football.

This week, we’re welcoming one of the leaders from that team to The Football Letter Live, as quarterback and NFL/XFL veteran Matt McGloin will join the program to discuss his team with the Nittany Lions and how the 2012 squad defied all expectations while, in many ways, holding together the Penn State community.

You can register online for the show or tune in on Facebook. This week’s show will air at noon on Tuesday, and we’ll return to our regular day and time, 8 p.m. on Thursdays, next week.

Matt McGloin’s family joins him on the field during pregame ceremonies prior to the 2012 contest against Wisconsin. (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The team closed out the season by winning eight of its final 10 games, including a home win over Wisconsin on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions won 24-21 in overtime after the Badgers missed a field goal, and John Black ’62 wrote in that game’s edition of The Football Letter that the cheers from the home team’s locker room roared throughout the underpinnings of the stadium.

You can read more elsewhere on the blog, including how Black wrote that the team had competed for the honor of the of their team and university.

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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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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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