Joe’s First Cotton Bowl And A Defining Win For Penn State

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I have been a Penn State fan for a long time, and when I started writing for Victory Bell Rings, I thought that, on occasion, I would take a look back at some of the milestones in PSU’s past that have contributed to making Penn State what it is today.

I have a friend, Frank Ahrenhold, who played defensive tackle for Penn State from 1968 to 1972 and who has one of the two game balls given out after one of Penn State’s most iconic victories: the 30-6 stomping of Texas in the 1972 Cotton Bowl. This was the game that showed the country how to stop the wishbone and that brought Penn State, once and for all, into the national discussion.

I recently talked to Frank about that game, and other things about Penn State, and I’d like to share what he said.

It’s a well known story. Penn State was undefeated in 1968 and finished second in the national polls. The next season, Penn State went undefeated again and, after Richard Nixon declared Texas the national champion on a visit to Texas, the Nittany Lions were voted second in the polls again.

“We had the ’68 and ’69 teams that ran off 22 games in a row,” Ahrenhold said, “a couple Orange Bowl victories, and we finished #2 in the polls both years. And then we came to sort of a down year, after Mike Reid and Steve Smear and all of those guys graduated. We lost three games that season, and I think we were offered the Liberty Bowl or something like that, and we just said the heck with it and passed on it.

“So anyway, people were saying that we were just another flash in the pan. You know, another eastern school who made a little bit of noise and then at the end of the day just kind of disappeared into the background. But I came in with a talented recruiting class. I came in with guys like Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Gary Grey, Dick Joyner, just big time Pennsylvania kids, big 33 kids, solid recruiting class. We were chaffing a little about the fact that people were dismissing us. So we saw our chance to make some noise in the 1971 season, and we came into that year with a chip on our shoulder and I think the staff did, too.

“We started off strong, too, and just kept on going. We went into Syracuse, who was supposed to be the team to beat in the east, and just crushed them. I don’t think they got a first down until the second half. We ran off the rest of them until we went to Tennessee, and I don’t know, that was one of those games where we couldn’t get out of our own way–we fumbled three punts and stuff like that–and ended up losing the game. And it was just so disheartening.

“But it was our only loss, and then we were offered a shot at the Cotton Bowl. And for all of us guys on that team, that meant a lot because we all felt that we got snubbed when Texas got that championship and we thought this was our chance at retribution. We saw an opportunity to shut some people up, to be honest with you. We had a good team and we knew we did.”

“It was also Texas, so it was payback time. We had a chance to beat a big-time southern school on their own turf, and do it convincingly.”

So the stage was set to face the Longhorns and their wishbone offense, which had yet to be even slowed down. The Lions, however, had a plan. “We knew we had to get them going sideways,” Ahrenhold said. “We were an eight-man front, basically a stack-eight. The only two down linemen we ever played were the two defensive tackles. So our job was just create havoc. Get on their guards and drive them into the backfield, and have the linebackers just scrape off that. So basically, we dared their five offensive linemen to block our four, and we didn’t think there was a team in the country who could do that.

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Topics: Cotton Bowl, Franco Harris, Frank Ahrenhold, Joe Paterno, Lydell Mitchell, Penn State Football

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