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Oh, So Sweet After many near misses, the Lions of '82 and '86 became national champs

For Joe Paterno, the defining moment of the 1982 championship
season came not in the last seven seconds of the pivotal Nebraska
game, when quarterback Todd Blackledge completed a winning touchdown
pass to second-string tight end Kirk Bowman, who happened to be a
former offensive guard nicknamed Stonehands. Nor was it the diving
end zone catch by former walk-on Gregg Garrity in the fourth quarter
of the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. For Paterno, the image that
stands out most sharply from his first championship season was
formed over the course of three hours and was caught in the
headlights of the team bus.
It was people, endless throngs of people waiting along the
roadsides in tiny mountain hamlets from Harrisburg to State College
in the cold January night. They shivered as they waited to clap or
honk or wave when the Nittany Lions rolled by on the last 100-mile
leg of the team's return from the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where
they had beaten Georgia 27-23 to win their first national title. Fire
engines from one town escorted the Lions to the next.
''I learned how much this team and its successes are an expression
of so many people,'' says Paterno in the second of his two
autobiographies, Paterno: By the Book. ''And never in one place at
one time have I sensed so many football players in their private
darkness sneaking so many silent, exultant tears.''
No doubt Paterno was sneaking a few himself. How many times had he
come this close to a championship, only to be foiled by a final
opponent, the final polls or, in one particularly aggravating case
(page 15), the president of the United States? Three undefeated
seasons -- 1968, 1969 and 1973 -- had gone unrewarded by the poll
voters. Sensing correctly that the 1973 Nittany Lions, a team that
had rolled to a sparkling 12-0 record behind future Heisman
Trophy-winning running back John Cappelletti, would be snubbed again
by poll voters, Paterno held his own private poll and awarded his
team national- championship rings. And in 1978 an 11-0 Nittany Lion
team featuring All- America defensive tackles Matt Millen and Bruce
Clark went into the Sugar Bowl with a No. 1 ranking in hand but came
out No. 4 after a 14-7 loss to Alabama.
Clearly some sort of cosmic changeup was in order.
And so it was that Paterno entered the '82 season with a team that
was surprisingly distinct from his previous squads. In fact, so
little did this group resemble a Penn State team that it might as
well have been wearing Day- Glo orange helmets and striped jerseys.
Unlike past Nittany Lion defenses, this one didn't rank in the
nation's top 50. And unlike past Nittany Lion offenses, this one
gained more yards in the air than on the ground. But just like past
Nittany Lion teams, this one would mow down almost everything in its
path. ''If this isn't the best team I've had here,'' said Paterno,
''it's certainly as good as any.'' Said a somewhat equivocal Bear
Bryant before Alabama took on Paterno's team in the Lions' fifth
game of the season, ''Penn State may be the greatest team in the
history of college football -- this year.'' (The Crimson Tide
proceeded to hand the Lions their one loss of the season, 21-42.)
The success of the '82 team was due in large part to the catapult
arm of redshirt junior Blackledge, a quarterback who had seemed
doomed to obscurity -- first because he had chosen to play at Penn
State, a school whose running tradition was as sacrosanct as its
black shoes and anonymous jerseys, and second because he entered
college with a national class of QBs that included Dan Marino of
Pitt, John Elway of Stanford and Tony Eason of Illinois.
But when the Lions failed to open up holes for star tailback Curt
Warner early in the season, Paterno opened up the skies to
Blackledge, allowing him an unprecedented 30 passes a game.
''Frankly, I'm amazed,'' said flanker Kenny Jackson of the new
offensive emphasis. ''It's night and day around here.''
The success of Air Paterno came, to some degree, at the expense of
Warner, Blackledge's best friend and roommate. A preseason Heisman
Trophy candidate, Warner saw his numbers dwindle as his friend's
soared. ''Some of the dreams that I had kind of went down the
drain,'' he said later. ''But I think I became a tougher football
player. By the end of the season I was as tough a football player as
there was in the country.''
In the Sugar Bowl, against No. 1 Georgia and Heisman Trophy winner
Herschel Walker, Warner would get a chance to prove it. Despite
suffering agonizing leg cramps, he racked up 117 yards on 18 carries
and 23 yards in two catches, while the Lions' unheralded defense held
Walker to 103 yards on 28 carries, his second-lowest output since his
freshman season.
In beating Georgia, the Nittany Lions finally discovered their key
to a title: Secure a No. 2 ranking, then take on the No. 1 team --
especially if No. 1 has the Heisman Trophy winner. The planets would
once again line up just so in 1986, Penn State's 100th year of
Unlike the '82 team, the '86 squad looked very much the Penn State
part, especially because it featured 14 fifth-year seniors who wanted
another crack at the championship after losing to Oklahoma in the
Orange Bowl the previous season. Among the elders was linebacker
Shane Conlan, an aggressive 6 ft. 3", 225 pound All-America who led
the third-best rushing defense in the nation and ^ perfectly embodied
the dual personality of the team. Off the field he smiled widely, got
good grades and said things like ''so great'' and ''really nice.''
But he left those sentiments, along with his upper dental plate, in
the locker room. On the field he displayed the fiery disposition
suggested by his missing front tooth, contributing to the team's
copious personal fouls that season. After a Pitt-Penn State sideline
brawl that sent Paterno running across the field to intervene, he
said, ''I've got four or five guys on this team ready to fight at the
drop of a hat, and it looks like I'm one of them.''
If Conlan embodied the team's personality, Trey Bauer, another
hard-hitting linebacker, embodied its anonymity. Said Miami line
coach Art Kehoe of Bauer, ''I don't know his name, but his number is
35, and he shows up in every play.''
The picture of a classic Penn State team was completed by the
ground-bound offense, which some wags compared to the golf ball with
Paterno's face on it that was being sold on campus that year --
''guaranteed to go straight up the middle three times out of four.''
Directed by John Shaffer, a lightly regarded QB despite the fact that
he had lost only one start since junior high, in the Orange Bowl, the
offense relied heavily on a squad of five running backs, headlined by
senior tailback D.J. Dozier.
In dispatching Alabama, Notre Dame and nine other teams, the
Nittany Lions racked up a lavish 326 points, against 123, and entered
the postseason unbeaten, ranked No. 2 and scheduled to face off
against No. 1 Miami and Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde in the
Fiesta Bowl. Perfect, thought Paterno. All was in order.
In the Tempest in Tempe, both teams performed their expected
off-field roles beautifully. The Penn State players remained polite,
buttoned-up and, with the exception of a few wounding jabs at Miami
coach Jimmy Johnson's perfectly coiffed hair, respectful. For their
part, the Hurricanes blew into town wearing camouflage fatigues and
shooting their mouths off in an all-out verbal offensive. Only Penn
State's well-prepared defense would shut them up.
Though the Lions were outrushed and outpassed in the game, they
caught as many Testaverde tosses (five) as they did passes from
Shaffer. With 10 seconds remaining and Penn State up 14-10, Miami had
a first down on Penn State's 13. Testaverde took the snap, faded back
and delivered right into the soft hands of Penn State linebacker Pete
Giftopoulos, who cradled the ball and with it the national title.
''Wouldn't it have been a shame if we hadn't played this game,''
said Paterno afterward. ''If we had not had a shot at them, Miami
would have been voted No. 1, no question. Instead, we got to find out
who was better.''