Joe Paterno came to Penn State in 1966. In 1968 and 1969, Paterno’s teams capped off undefeated seasons with major bowl victories. Both times, they came up short in the final national championship voting. The 1973 Penn State football season was more of the same—undefeated, but unrecognized. Although this time, they produced one of college football’s memorable individual moments along the way.
John Cappelletti was the author of that individual moment. The running back rolled up over 1,500 yards and averaged better than five a pop. Cappelletti was a closer, scoring 17 touchdowns. He was a landslide winner of the Heisman Trophy, and his acceptance speech would become legendary.
The offensive line that paved the way for Cappelletti was led by tackle Charlie Getty and guard Mark Markovich. Each got some love in the All-American voting.
Tom Shuman did efficient work at quarterback. His 161 passes were a decent amount by the standards of the time and Shuman had a 52 percent completion rate, 8.5 yards-per-attempt and a 13/5 TD-INT ratio. All of which were solid passing numbers in an era that heavily favored running games. Gary Hayman at wide receiver, along with tight end Dan Natale were the prime targets.
All in all, it added up to the fifth-best offense in the country. The defense wasn’t far behind, seventh nationally in points allowed. Ed O’Neill was the 1973 edition of the top linebackers that Paterno’s program routinely produced. Defensive tackle Randy Crowder got All-American recognition.
Penn State came in at #7 in the preseason polls and opened up with a tough road game. The Lions went to Stanford, who had won the Pac-10 as recently as two years ago and would win seven games in this 1973 season. Penn State got a 20-6 win.
The Lions went on to Navy and shut out a bad team, 39-0. They hosted a woeful Iowa squad that would go winless, and won 27-8. Another road trip west to face a decent team, this one against Air Force, produced a 19-9 win. Another home date with a team that would go winless came against Army. Penn State racked up a 54-3 blowout .
They were up to #5 in the polls and then pasted lowly Syracuse, 49-6 on the road. West Virginia, coached by Bobby Bowden came to Happy Valley. The Mountaineers would win six games in 1973. This game was not one of them. The Lions unloaded in a 62-14 beatdown.
Penn State was heading into November and the meat of their schedule was still ahead. Prior to 1993, the Lions were one of several independents that dotted the landscape of college football in the East. The “East Indies” were not well-regarded by poll voters, which is why the Lions were still stuck on #5. But there were some opportunities ahead.
Maryland was on its way to an eight-win season and Penn State went down to College Park and won 42-22. That set up a visit from N.C. State. The Wolfpack were coached by Lou Holtz and were on their way to winning the ACC title in 1973. Holtz’s team came ready to play and jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the second quarter.
Penn State nudged to within 14-9 at the half. The second half saw the scoring heat up. Hayman returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown. But the Wolfpack hung in there, and the score was tied 29-29 in the fourth quarter.
Cappelletti was already having a huge day. He would finish with 220 yards on 41 carries. And with 8:38 to go, he bulled up the middle for a 29-yard touchdown run. Penn State missed the extra point, but it didn’t matter. The scoring was done and they had a 35-29 win.
The downside was that the win wasn’t one that was going to move the polls—ironically, the 35-29 score is the same one that resulted in 1994 when #1 Penn State beat Indiana by that count, but were penalized in the polls and ended up undefeated and uncrowned as a result. In the world of 1973, the wins over Maryland and N.C. State had not moved the needle.
A 49-10 blowout of Ohio University set up the season finale, a home date with #20 Pitt. The Panthers had a huge freshman class, keyed by a dynamic running back named Tony Dorsett. By their senior years, this class would win Pitt its only national title in 1976. And on this Saturday prior to Thanksgiving, they hung in with the undefeated Nittany Lions.
Penn State clung to an 18-13 lead after three quarters. But they were keeping Dorsett in reasonable check, holding him to 77 yards on the day. Cappelletti was on his way to a vintage 161 yards in 37 carries performance. In the fourth quarter, the Lions broke it open. A Pick-6 from linebacker Tom Hall gave them breathing room. Shuman tossed a 32-yard TD pass. The final was 35-13.
Paterno’s third undefeated regular season was in the books. An Orange Bowl date with LSU awaited. But there was no shot at a national title. Alabama and Notre Dame were both undefeated and their Sugar Bowl showdown would settle #1. To make matters worse for the Lions, LSU lost a game after the bids were finalized and came into the Orange Bowl at #13.
Penn State still had plenty to play for—capping a perfect season with a major bowl win is a big deal, even if you don’t get validation in the polls. And in the meantime, their star running back had a trophy to pick up. Cappelletti went to New York City to accept the Heisman.
What the general public did not know was that Cappelletti’s little brother Joey suffered from leukemia. A diehard football fan, Joey was his brother’s biggest supporter. As John accepted the Heisman, he began to break down in tears. He spoke of how people called him (John) courageous. But that, according to the running back, was only courage for a few hours on Saturdays in the fall. His little brother’s courage was around the clock. In front of an audience of dignitaries, Cappelletti gave the trophy to his brother. The entire story has been made into a book, then a movie, called Something For Joey.
After all of that, how could the Orange Bowl not be a little anticlimactic? Cappelletti sprained an ankle in the lead-up to the game and was held to 50 yards. Penn State trailed 7-3 in the second quarter. Then wide receiver Chuck Herd made a spectacular play. He hauled in a deep pass from Shuman one-handed, kept his feet and raced in to complete a 72-yard touchdown pass. Cappelletti added a touchdown run before halftime.
The Lions led 16-7 and then relied on the defense to salt it away. LSU did get a safety to cut the lead to a single score, at 16-9 and then drove to the Penn State 26-yard line in the fourth quarter. On 4th-and-3, linebacker Doug Allen penetrated the backfield, dropped running back Brad Davis for a loss and all but sealed the win. The 16-9 score stood up.
Respect was not coming from the polls. Even at 12-0, the Lions couldn’t get off #5 nationally. But they had three perfect seasons in a six-year stretch. They had given America one of its most uplifting sports moments. And though it would take time, they would eventually get their due in 1982, when they were finally voted #1.