If it wasn’t for the thousand miles in between State College and Lincoln, someone might confuse the two teams when thinking about football. Iron-strong defenses and a penchant towards running the ball. Schools located in rural regions. Histories dating back to the late-1800s but made famous by transcendent teams in the sixties and seventies. Top 10 programs in all-time victories. Legendary coaches who were denied championships for many years. Nebraska and Penn State have a lot in common.
Despite the similarities, the two geographically-distant teams rarely played until a memorable five-game stretch from 1978-1983. Nebraska was in the middle of a streak of top 10 finishes that went from ’71 to ’88. Penn State had a recent undefeated season (1978) and was ranked #1 just eleven months earlier. These two programs were both part of college football’s elite in 1982.
While the first three matchups were important, the 1982 game became monumental, cementing these two programs as fierce rivals from here onward. Penn State rode the wave of this victory to Paterno’s first national title, and Nebraska rebounded from the loss with 22 straight victories. A decade later the two undefeated squads never squared off on the field but squared off in the polls, with Osborne winning his first national championship thanks to the voters and Paterno watching another undefeated campaign go unrewarded.
Don’t think the Big Ten didn’t recognize the similarities or the rivalry. Penn State and Nebraska are slated to meet every season as protected cross-divisional rivals. Game on.
The stars of the 1982 Cornhusker team resemble an NFL All-Pro team. In the backfield, Mike Rozier (two-time All-American, 1983 Heisman winner, and College Football Hall of Famer) and Roger Craig (three-time Super Bowl champ and four-time Pro-Bowler who went to the playoffs every year of his eleven year career) made Osborne wish he had more footballs to go around. At wideout and returner, Nebraska had Irving Fryar, a seventeen-year pro who was an All-American in 1983 before being the #1 overall pick of the New England Patriots.
Blocking for these legends were two other legends. Dave Rimington, besides being a two-time All-American and winning both the Lombardi and Outland Awards in 1982, is considered by many to be the greatest center in college football history. The Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top collegiate center today, bears the Husker’s center’s name.
Distributing the ball on this offense was an uber-athlete named Turner Gill. Although his legs were deadly and his arm was solid, his leadership ability was his greatest strength. As starting quarterback from ‘81-’83, Gill went 28-2. Gill is currently head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks.
Big Red won the early-season 1979 and 1980 games, but Penn State escaped Lincoln with a win against the Gill-less Huskers in 1981, 30-24. NU won their next eight before falling victim to national champion Clemson 22-15 in the Orange Bowl.
A record-crowd of 85,304 showed up at Beaver Stadium on September 25, 1982 to see if #8 Penn State could win two-in-a-row against #2 Nebraska. A game that would be forever remembered for controversial officiating started off with one on the Huskers first drive. The confused referees gave Nebraska the ball back after a fumble had apparently been recovered by Penn State.
Penn State’s offense continued their tear, but even though they had two touchdown receptions on their first drive, they were both called back and the Lions came up empty on a Massimo Manco missed field goal. On the next drive though, the Lions got on the scoreboard first when a scrambling Todd Blackledge hit a 43-yard prayer to Curt Warner to set up a 14-yard TD pass to Kirk Bowman on the next play.
In the first 20 minutes of the game, Nebraska fumbled five times but only lost two of them, with the three recoveries being questionable. The second one though, by Irving Fryar on the PSU 44, hurt the Cornhuskers. Curt Warner took two caries for 46 yards, and then finished things off himself with a 3-yard TD.
Penn State was close to unstoppable in the first half, but Massimo Manco’s three misses kept the score close. With less than two minutes in the first half and trailing 14-0, Nebraska’s Turner Gill was plastered as he released a wobbly duck to Irving Fryar. Fryar snatched it, lowered his shoulder, and trucked two Lion defenders before running into the end zone—a 30-yard TD to bring the deficit within one TD.
Trailing 279 to 208 in first half yardage, Nebraska’s offense rolled down the field on the opening possession of the second half with big plays by Fryar and Rozier. A botched hold on the field goal kept NU off the board and let PSU’s offense back on the field. PSU marched down for an 18-yard Blackledge-to-Jackson TD connection, on the star receiver’s first catch of the day. PSU gained a 14-point lead but lost Warner on the drive. Warner would be used as a decoy later in the game but had no more touches, a huge blow for the Lion’s chances to finish out the game victoriously.
Nebraska answered on the next possession, with a clock-eating 80-yard drive, cutting the PSU lead back to 21-14 on a 2-yard Gill pass to Mike Rozier. Nebraska wasn’t going away.
Things got a bit wacky at this point, setting the tone for the wild and dramatic finish. PSU drove again but lost the ball on a controversial fumble call that should have been ruled an incomplete pass. DE Al Harris then had a clean interception off of Gill, Nebraska’s third turnover of the day. PSU back Skeeter Nichols fumbled it back on the next play, three turnovers on four plays for the two teams. Nebraska got two breaks as they drove on a short field—a tipped pass that rainbowed into Fryar’s hands and a fumble that may or may not have been recovered by PSU before the players slid out of bounds. Nebraska wound up with a field goal on the possession, narrowing the lead to 21-17 and setting up the exciting ending.
Penn State again methodically moved down the field, but right after converting a 4th and 1, Blackledge was hit as he released the ball and underthrew it into Nebraska’s Neil Harris’s arms in the end zone.
Although they began the game with 10-straight runs, Nebraska’s Gill had a great passing day. He deftly passed the ball down the field on NU’s final drive. To enter the red zone, Fryar caught a 14-yard pass across the middle but paid for it. Mark Robinson destroyed the future #1 draft pick, who needed to be helped off the field. A few plays later on 3rd and goal from the 1, Gill leaped over legendary center Rimington for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:18 left.
As night was descending on the warm, early fall evening, Penn State started their historic drive on the 35 after a personal foul on the kickoff’s touchback.
Blackledge recorded one of the greatest drives of his career, hitting a 15-yard screen pass to Nichols and then a 16-yard reception to Jackson to move the Lions down the field. The drive stalled, but on 4th and 11, Blackledge threaded a 13-yard pass to Jackson but the ball was spotted horribly. The ref marked only a 11-yard gain, but the measurement gave it to PSU by an inch.
The next two memorable plays will be forever revered by PSU supporters and reviled by the NU faithful. Rolling out to his left, Blackledge put a bit too much air under a long pass to Mike McCloskey. McCloskey caught the ball on the sideline but lifted his back foot before the catch. Both sideline refs awarded the catch on the PSU 2, setting up a first and goal with :09 remaining. On an obvious run down, PSU faked up the middle and Blackledge threw a nearly-deflected touch pass through the end zone into Kirk Bowman’s low-reaching hands. The Beaver Stadium crowd flooded the field, even though Manco still needed to kick the extra point (which he missed) and PSU had to kickoff with :04 left on the clock. Rozier made a great effort on the return but Penn State stopped the future Heisman winner to finalize the victory.
The Rest of the Story
Penn State had no time to revel in their victory. A few days after the epic Nebraska game, the #3 Lions packed up their bags for Tuscaloosa and Bear Bryant’s #4 Crimson Tide. PSU kept things close for four quarters, trailing just 24-21. But Blackledge threw a bomb to Warner that was intercepted by Jeremiah Castille. The turnover deflated the Lions, and Alabama scored 18 unanswered to give Bryant his fourth and final win over Paterno, 42-21.
Penn State rebounded from the loss well. Impressive road wins over #13 West Virginia (24-0) and #13 Notre Dame (24-14) positioned PSU at #2 for their season finale with 10-1 and fifth-ranked Pitt. Dan Marino’s Heisman campaign was buried at Beaver Stadium in a 19-10 loss. Penn State held strong at #2, and their Sugar Bowl clash with Herschel Walker and the undefeated Georgia Bulldogs was their chance to exorcise the demons from five years prior.
Nebraska didn’t like losing in State College. In fact, they were so motivated that they didn’t lose again for over fifteen months. Seventeen of their 22 straight wins were by more than 20 points, and they even beat arch rival Oklahoma twice. They finished #3 in 1982 (behind PSU and SMU).
The ’83 season started off with a nice cold plate of revenge—a 44-6 drubbing of Penn State in the first-ever Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands. The Huskers ran the table as #1 and then dominated the awards ceremonies. However, the team considered one of the most talented in football history couldn’t beat #5 Miami (helping them snag the first title in Hurricane football history). NU wouldn’t get another chance at a title game for another decade (a controversial 18-16 loss in 1993 to Florida State in Bobby Bowden’s first national championship).
Osborne’s annual excellence but perpetual frustration finally captured the hearts of America in 1994. The Cornhuskers soundly defeated eventual Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam and #2 Colorado in late October, stealing the top spot in the polls from Penn State and not looking back. A favorable bowl matchup for them (another Orange Bowl, this time against Dennis Erickson’s #3 Miami) and a poor one for Penn State (locked into the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl against #12 Oregon) made it an open-and-shut case for voters.
Osborne and Nebraska beat Paterno’s Nittany Lions for a national championship without playing a down—stealing back one they felt they deserved on the field in 1982.
The 22-part “The Games of Our Lives” series contains excerpts 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 from Father’s Press). Look for it every Monday on Nittany Lions Den.