Penn State’s defense prides itself on killing Heisman-hopefuls’ dreams. In the 1980s, they killed Heisman winners too. Marcus Allen (1981), Herschel Walker (1982), Mike Rozier (1983), Doug Flutie (1984), Vinny Testaverde (1986), and Tim Brown (1987) all came up short against Penn State’s D.
The campaign for 1990’s Heisman winner, Brigham Young University’s Ty Detmer, started in the 1989 Holiday Bowl against Penn State. Detmer put on a show against PSU (42 of 59 for 576 yards, still Holiday Bowl records) but found a similar fate as the six other Heisman winners of the decade.
Shootouts weren’t regular fare for Nittany Lion fans, but this Wild West contest in San Diego was a welcome exception, and the final six minutes were some of the most thrilling in Penn State bowl history.
BYU football held only regional respect for its first half century of existence, but coach LaVell Edwards brought an offensive system in the seventies that set the Cougars apart nationally and gained them national recognition. Although sophisticated and powerful run offenses ruled the day (like the veer and wishbone), Edwards developed a precise and complex drop-back passing game. Top passers Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, and Steve Young followed one after another in the late seventies and early eighties, earning BYU the title “Quarterback U” for the decade. McMahon finished third in Heisman voting in 1981 (behind USC’s Marcus Allen); Young second in 1983 (behind Nebraska’s Mike Rozier).
Young’s successor at QB also came close to a Heisman in 1984 but would be more known for guiding BYU to its first and only national title. QB Robbie Bosco took over an 11-game winning streak from 1983 and extended it in the Cougars’ season opener against #1-ranked Pittsburgh. BYU cruised to 11 more wins in a mediocre WAC conference, securing a Holiday Bowl berth against 6-5 Michigan. When BYU beat Michigan in a pre-New Year’s Day bowl and proved their worth as #1, it was the first time a national championship was determined before the major bowls were played.
Edwards’ teams slumped a bit after the program’s only national title in 1984 (unranked from ’86-’88), but Detmer started to bring them back in his freshman season, going 9-4 with wins over Texas and Colorado. In 1989, Detmer rekindled dreams of passing glory for Cougar fans as he led them to 10 wins and just 2 losses. No win during the regular season was sweeter than a 70-31 drubbing of rival Utah. BYU had a 49-0 lead at one point in the first half and finished with over 750 yards of total offense. BYU headed into the Holiday Bowl (against Lambert Trophy winner and “Beast of the East” Penn State) ranked nineteenth.
In 1989, Penn State’s recovery from their first losing season (1988) under Paterno started off with trepidation—they lost to Virginia at home in the opener. But they then beat Texas and rattled off five straight until losing a heartbreaker to #6 Alabama. They beat #13 West Virginia, then tied at unranked Maryland (the closest Penn State ever came to losing to Maryland), but were frustrated 23-24 against #1 Notre Dame in State College. An impressive season finale over #19 Pittsburgh on the road put Penn State at 7-3-1 and ranked #18.
From the get-go, both teams drove the ball at will. Penn State got a field goal first. BYU drove to the1 but couldn’t score on three tries, so they settled for a tie. What would be an explosive offensive game started subtly.
The low-scoring first half (13-12 BYU) didn’t reflect the offense on display—neither team punted, BYU had 245 yards passing, and PSU went for over 100 on the ground.
Penn State struck first in the second half. A 46-yard kick return by freshman speedster O.J. McDuffie led to an impressive 51-yard field goal by Ray Tarasi. Penn State’s defense then forced the game’s first punt on BYU’s next drive, and the offense kept the momentum going. Blair Thomas danced his way to a 19-yard run, and Leroy Thompson followed him up with a 17-yard TD run. Detmer though calmly drove 68 yards in 10 plays, finishing the drive off with a 1-yard TD run again, even though they missed the extra point. The lead was 22-19 PSU
It appeared as if Penn State had to punt for the first time on the next drive, but Terry Smith threw a pass to York, PA-native, freshman Tison Thomas to pick up the first down instead of punting. The risk was soon rewarded with another Leroy Thompson jog into the end zone, securing a 29-19 lead late in the 3rd.
After Detmer quickly led BYU in for another touchdown, a 12-yard touch pass to Andy Boyce in the end zone, fans were beginning to think that the last team to have the ball was going to score. Thomas willed his way into the end zone on PSU’s next possession with two receptions and two carries, the last a seven-yard TD scramble on 1st down. Penn State was up 35-26 early in the 4th.
The second Sherrod Rainge interception of Detmer, this one deep in PSU territory, prompted Paterno and offensive coordinator Fran Ganter to go for the jugular. Tony Sacca threw a 50-yard jump ball to Daniels, which Dave Daniels tipped three times before the ball dropped into his gut as he fell to his back in the end zone. The circus catch put the Lions up 41-26.
Nine years earlier in the Holiday Bowl, BYU had another feisty QB named Jim McMahon rally his team from 21 points down to SMU in just two and a half minutes, a 46-45 victory which gained the Cougars their highest ranking in history at the time (#12 post-season). So, a 41-26 deficit in this Holiday Bowl didn’t faze the Cougars. Four plays, 68 yards, and 30 seconds was all the was needed to pull within 8. Penn State’s first punt of the game put BYU inside their 10 on the next possession with less than six minutes remaining. Seemed like good field position at the time, but three minutes later, Detmer had driven over 90 yards and was talking over which play to run for the two-point conversion with Coach Edwards, his team trailing just 41-39. BYU chose to pass, and Detmer made a rare bad decision. LB Andre Collins stepped in front of the receiver and ran the ball up the sideline 102 yards for two points.
Penn State’s awful clock management after BYU’s failed onside kick gave Detmer plenty of time to drive down again for the game-winning score. BYU took the ball from their 12 to the PSU 38 quickly, but Sherrod Rainge perfectly played a 26-yard pass to TE Bob Wilson, deflecting the pass and creaming Wilson simultaneously. Then, on 3rd down, safety Gary Brown got into the backfield, started to sack Detmer, but decided to steal the ball and run it 53 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. There would be no more comebacks for BYU; PSU won 50-39.
The Rest of the Story
Following the rough ’87 and ’88 campaigns, the up-and-down ’89 team ended with a huge up in the Holiday Bowl, winding up #15 in the polls. Although they lost Blair Thomas and Andre Collins off of the ’89 team, the 1990 team recovered from opening losses to Texas and at USC (4 and 5 points, respectively) to rattle off nine straight wins and finish the season ranked #10 in the country.
Thomas went #2 overall in the NFL draft, but despite his strong rookie season, the New York Jets considered him a draft bust after his fourth season. Ironically, the most successful NFL back off of the ’89 team played safety—Gary Brown. A very low draft pick, Brown rushed for 1,000 yards twice in the NFL, played eight seasons, and now coaches in the NFL.
Penn State’s defense in ’89 was young, which perhaps explains some of Detmer’s record-setting night in late December, and only Andre Collins was drafted off the team in 1990. A 2nd round pick by the Washington Redskins, Collins—another great linebacking #31 in PSU history—won a Super Bowl in Washington and played ten seasons for four different teams. The youth paid dividends on ’90 and ‘91’s strong and successful defensive units for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State and BYU arranged a home-and-home series in 1991 and 1992, in which both teams won the home contest, but have not played since. But if they do meet up again someday, memories of that wild night in December of 1989 will bring a smile to both Cougar and Nittany Lion fans alike.
The 22-part "The Games of Our Lives" series is excerpted from the book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-Two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy (release date summer 2012 by Fathers Press). Come back every Monday to the Nittany Lions Den for a new trip down memory lane!