I must preface this by saying that the period of history is my 42 years of watching Penn State football. I’m quite aware that Penn State football’s history was rich and illustrious before I became a fan, but I can only comment on the plays that I saw. I certainly mean no disrespect to the young men who paved the way for future success.
Also, this list is in more of a chronological order rather than the order of importance.
#10 1982 Nebraska-Penn State
From Jan. 1st, 1982, Penn State fans knew that calendar year would be special. They started 1982 off in style, shutting down the Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen and his USC Trojans in the Fiesta Bowl, 26-10. But that was just a prelude of what was to come the following season.
The 1982 regular season started in customary fashion, with the Nittany Lions beating up on their regular patsies Temple and Rutgers, and also holding off Maryland in a 39-31 shootout.
Going into the season, the offense was supposed to be focused on Penn State’s own Heisman Trophy candidate, running back Curt Warner. The Senior back was off a Junior campaign that saw him rush for over 1,000 yards. Great things were being predicted for Warner this season.
But in the first four games, it was Junior QB Todd Blackledge getting all of the press. He became the first Penn State QB to throw four TDs in the first three games of the season. This sure wasn’t the Penn State squad everyone expected.
The fourth game of the season against Nebraska was one of the most important games in Penn State history, at that time. First, it was the first night game in Beaver Stadium history.
Second, the 2-0 Cornhuskers were ranked second in the country and were the highest-ranked opponents to ever visit Happy Valley, at that time, while Joe Paterno was head coach. Their roster featured multiple future Pro Bowlers, such as Irving Fryar, Roger Craig, and the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Rozier. To say they were a stacked team would be an understatement of epic proportion.
The game was a see-saw battle, worthy of the CBS broadcast. Nebraska took the lead 24-21 on a Turner Gill QB sneak with 1:18 left. What happened on the next drive still rankles an older Nebraska fan (for once, it’s nice to be on the opposing side of bitter).
The drive started on the 35-yard line after a personal foul penalty on the kickoff. A Skeeter Nichols screen pass was taken out to the 50-yard line. Kenny Jackson caught a deep out along the sideline at the 33 with 52 seconds remaining. A draw play lost a yard and a couple of incomplete passes forced Penn State into a 4th and 11. Blackledge hit Jackson on an 11-yard curl that gave Penn State a first down with 23 seconds left.
Lucky break #1: With 13 seconds remaining and Penn State facing a 2nd and 5, Blackledge hit tight end, Mike McCloskey, on a sideline pass at the 2-yard line. Instant replay was not in use at this time and it’s a good thing because it was clearly shown that McCloskey was out when he caught it. He even admitted in a speaking engagement in 1998 to being “out of bounds”.
Lucky break #2: After the clock stopped at nine seconds, Penn State ran a play-action fake and Blackledge hit backup tight end Kirk Bowman for a touchdown. Bowman, lovingly called “Stone Hands” by his teammates, had the perfect season as a receiver, with two catches that both went for touchdowns. Ironically enough, they both came in this game.
There was more controversy initially over Bowman’s catch than McCloskey’s sideline grab. Even when the video was good (sorry about the grainy picture), there was never “conclusive” evidence that he trapped it, as the Cornhusker faithful protested.
Either way, after all of the horrible breaks that had gone against Penn State, finally something broke in their favor.