For the last several weeks, the headlines surrounding Penn State football have been doom and gloom. Perceived health issues with a legendary coach, sluggish recruiting, and a full-blown quarterback controversy have all dampened the mood around Happy Valley about the start of college football season.
So, when I sat down at my television this weekend, needless to say I wasn't high on this whole football team ... that was, until I came across a rebroadcast of LSU vs. Penn State in the Capital One Don't-Call-It-Mud Bowl from New Year's Day, when a heroic final drive led by fifth-year senior quarterback Daryll Clark elevated Penn State to yet another big bowl win over an SEC opponent.
With the juices flowing, I was suddenly excited for college football again. I also got to wondering about Penn State's great bowl games of the past, and where the Mud Bowl stacked up. Here's what I came up with:
5. 1995 Rose Bowl
Fresh off their first Big Ten title, the Nittany Lions rolled into Pasadena undefeated and with the national championship on their minds. Returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 73 years, Penn State was locked in a battle with Nebraska for the coveted crown, and only Oregon stood in the way of completing one of the best seasons in school history. Ki-Jana Carter opened the scoring with an 83-yard touchdown run, and didn't look back all afternoon, amassing 156 yards on 21 carries as Penn State crushed the Ducks 38-20. The win gave Joe Paterno a win in every major bowl game and his fifth undefeated season as head coach.
4. 2006 Orange Bowl
Penn State's first official BCS bowl appearance came on the heels of a renaissance season for Paterno and his program. The Nittany Lions finished 11-1 with a share of the Big Ten championship, rebounding big time following losing campaigns in four of the previous five seasons. Waiting for them was Bobby Bowden and his ACC champion Florida State Seminoles. Led by senior Michael Robinson and a star-studded cast of freshmen highlighted by Justin King, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler, the Lions came back from a 13-7 second-quarter deficit to take the lead on an Ethan Kilmer touchdown moments before halftime. The 'Noles tied the game late, however, pushing Penn State to overtime. In the extra frames, both teams were tortured by missed field goals by Penn State's Kevin Kelly and Florida State's Gary Cismesia, until Kelly drilled a 29-yarder in triple overtime to make the Nitts the Orange Bowl champs. In the final battle between Bowden vs. Paterno, Penn State got the last laugh.
3. 1959 Liberty Bowl
Although Penn State had built a strong football reputation by 1959, the program was still searching for a bowl victory when coach Rip Engle took his team three hours down the road to play in the inaugural Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia. Before a small, freezing crowd, Penn State stars Galen Hall and Richie Lucas led the Nittany Lions to a tough 7-0 win over a Bear Bryant-coached Alabama Crimson Tide. The contest was a precursor to what would become a hotly contested series between the two schools decades later, and will be renewed this September 11, when Alabama hosts Penn State in Tuscaloosa.
2. 1983 Sugar Bowl
Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker and his top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs awaited Penn State at the Superdome on New Year's Day for the 49th installment of the Sugar Bowl. The winners would be national champions, and the Lions weren't about to let the opportunity to win their first crown slip away again after watching Alabama snatch it from them in 1979's contest. Curt Warner rushed for 117 yards and two scores, fueling the Nittany Lions on their way to a 27-23 victory that propelled the program and its legendary coach to the very top of the college football world.
1. 1987 Fiesta Bowl
Now remembered as "The Night College Football Went To Hell," the 1987 Fiesta Bowl was perhaps the most anticipated college football game of all time. The No. 1 Miami Hurricanes, coached by Jimmy Johnson and led by quarterback Vinny Testaverde and wide receiver Michael Irvin, were pitted against a No. 2 Penn State team boasting four All-Americans. The game was hailed as "Good vs. Evil," as the Canes, who'd gained a thuggish reputation on their way to dominating opponents by a combined score of 420-136 that year, stepped off the plane in Arizona wearing fatigues, and walked into a pre-bowl dinner in sweatsuits while Penn State players arrived in suits and ties. It was at the pre-game meal that a legendary exchange took place between the two teams.
Miami's Jerome Brown spoke to the room. "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?" he said. "No. We're outta here."
Penn State's John Bruno replied, "Excuse me, but didn't the Japanese lose the war?" Those words echo in Penn State lore today.
The Nittany Lions went on to defeat the heavily favored Hurricanes 14-10 on a game-winning six-yard touchdown run by D.J. Dozier and a furious final defensive stand that ended with a Pete Giftopoulos interception with ten seconds left in the game. It was Penn State's second national championship in five years, and "Good" had prevailed in the most-watched college football game ever.