Penn State produced unbeaten but uncrowned teams in 1968, 1969 and 1973. Much to the chagrin of the Nittany Lions, their rival Pitt was honored with a national title after a perfect season in 1976. After two years out of the major bowl picture, Joe Paterno’s 1978 Penn State football team was ready to return to the national stage.
The Lions had a ferocious defensive line, led by Bruce Clark and Matt Millen. Millen would later convert to being an effective NFL linebacker and after that convert to being the worst general manager in the history of the NFL with the Detroit Lions. But that was for down the road. In the meantime, another future pro, Rich Milot, was at linebacker. And Pete Harris, the younger brother of Steeler/Penn State legend Franco Harris, intercepted ten passes in the secondary.
The Lions were no less stout on the offensive line, with All-American tackle Keith Dorney, a top 10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and guard Eric Cunningham, also chosen early by the prost.
Paterno was renowned for his conservative offenses, but Chuck Fusina put the ball up 242 times in 1978, a lot for a good team in that era and Fusina was a consensus All-American who finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. The backfield combined the speed for Booker Moore with the power of Matt Suhey. Penn State came into the season with high expectations, ranked #3 in the preseason poll.
The Lions opened the season with a shaky win at Temple on a Friday night, and then were unimpressive in dispatching Rutgers the week after. Both teams had winning records, but Eastern football was not well-regarded and the failure of the Lions to post blowouts dropped them to #5 in the rankings when they visited #6 Ohio State on September 16.
It turned out that Ohio State was in for a tough year, one that would end up being Woody Hayes’ last, and Penn State was in command in a 19-0 win. They were back to #3 in the rankings, although another shaky win over SMU at home immediately dropped Paterno’s team back to #5.
Penn State beat TCU and Kentucky by a combined 88-0 and moved to #2 in the rankings. The Lions were free to play then-#1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, so Penn State controlled their championship destiny. They beat up on Syracuse and West Virginia, scoring 94 points in the process and then hosted undefeated Maryland to open November.
Even though this Terp team didn’t have any big names, they had won their first eight games to rise from being unranked in the preseason to #5 nationally. But they would be exposed down the stretch and it started here with Penn State delivering a decisive 27-3 thumping.
Penn State wasn’t dominant the following week at home against an N.C. State team that was competitive, but not great. The Lions won 19-10. In the meantime, Oklahoma was upset by Nebraska, so the Lions were now on track to play the Cornhuskers in a 1 vs. 2 Orange Bowl game.
Paterno had a week off to get his team ready for a Black Friday date with Pitt and the national picture underwent more changes. Nebraska was upset by Missouri while the Lions were on their bye. Penn State’s potential destination was now the Sugar Bowl and the potential opponent was the new #2, Alabama.
Before that though, there was the not-so-small matter of Pitt. The Panthers. were “in-between”, with Tony Dorsett being gone and Dan Marino not yet there, but they were a good team that had won eight games and were ranked #15 coming into this battle.
With 5:02 left in the game, Pitt was leading 10-7. Penn State faced a fourth-and-2 on the Pitt 4-yard line. Paterno eschewed going for a tie. It was probably a wise move. The Lions didn’t get any slack from the pollsters and even with being the only undefeated team in the country, a tie would risk dropping them behind not only Alabama, but any or all of USC, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and taking the Lions from controlling their national championship fate.
Paterno gave the football to fullback Mike Guman, a decision that would foreshadow one coming on New Year’s Day. Guman delivered with a touchdown run. Milot then intercepted a pass to set up a clinching field goal from All-American kicker Matt Bahr. Penn State’s 17-10 win had them going to the Sugar Bowl ranked #1. At long last, they could cap an undefeated season with a national championship.
But Bear Bryant’s Alabama defense would stand in the way. Penn State’s offense was stymied in the first half, but the Lion D had kept it a scoreless game. Near the end of the first half, Paterno inexplicably failed to kill the clock and gave the Tide time to launch a late drive. It ended with a 30-yard TD pass that had Penn State down 7-0 at the half.
In the third quarter, Fusina tied the game with a touchdown pass of his own before Alabama reclaimed the lead at 14-7. The Lions were driving for the tying touchdown when Fusina was intercepted. Fortunately a bad pitchout on the part of the Tide gave Penn State the ball right back at the Alabama 19-yard line .
Penn State ground it down to the goal line and had two chances to get in. The first time up the middle was stuffed. It was down to one play and even though six minutes still remained, it was realistically for a national title. Paterno opted to give the ball to Guman. The fullback tried to go up and over in the middle of the line, aiming to score the winning/tying touchdown of each his team’s final two games.
Guman went up and over the top. He was met head-on by Alabama linebacker Barry Krausse. A Sports Illustrated cover caught the collision head-on in a photo for the ages. The Lions had been stopped short. Alabama ended up sharing the national championship with USC.
Paterno–and the fans–would second-guess his playcalling on the goal line, although I think that deserves less attention than the clock management at the end of the first half. He was back to the drawing board to try and get that elusive crown. In 1982, he brought another Penn State team back to New Orleans for another 1 vs. 2 battle, this time with Georgia. And it was in that game that Paterno and Penn State finally got their redemption. In 1986, they did it again.