The 1982 Penn State football team came into the season with great expectations—to get head coach Joe Paterno his first national championship ring. Paterno saw undefeated teams go uncrowned in 1968, 1969 and 1973. When Joe Pa was in position to close on a national title in 1978 he suffered a crushing loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Both Paterno and Nittany Nation were hungry for a breakthrough.
Penn State closed 1981 with a Fiesta Bowl win over USC and its Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen and earning a Top 5 ranking. The defense was tough and led by defensive end Walker Lee Ashley. Offensively the Lions had their usual strong running game, with shifty Curt Warner. But this Penn State team had a real passing game to go with it, as future ABC analyst Todd Blackledge was at quarterback and his top receiver was Kenny Jackson.
This potent team opened with three easy wins and set up a big September 25 home game with Nebraska. The game was everything you would want for a pair of national title hopefuls, each with coaches after ring #1 (Nebraska’s Tom Osborne wouldn’t get his long-sought title until 1994). The Cornhuskers appeared to have won when they took a 24-21 lead with 1:18 to go. But an inexcusable special teams blunder handed Penn State a free 15 yards—the Huskers were whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, when the kick had gone deep into the end zone.
Starting on the 35, Blackledge went to work. His biggest completion was a 4th-and-11 conversion to Jackson and they reached the nine-yard line as the clock ticked down. In a play that rankles Nebraska fans to this day, Blackledge hit tight end Mike McCloskey with a pass down to the two-yard line, a catch where McCloskey was clearly out of bounds.
With seven seconds left, the quarterback dropped back one more time. The only receiver open was backup tight end Kirk Bowman, nicknamed “Stonehands” and yet to make a catch this season. Bowman caught this one inches from the ground and the Lions had a 27-24 win.
Penn State didn’t control its national championship destiny yet, with Washington being the #1 team. With the Huskies locked into the Rose Bowl, everyone needed help. Paterno had bigger problems after the next week though. His team had to go to Alabama, and trailing 24-21 in the fourth quarter, they came apart late.
Blackledge threw an interception to ‘Bama corner Jeremiah Castille—a player who five years later would recover a fumble that sealed a Super Bowl trip for the Denver Broncos—and the turnover triggered 18 straight points from the Tide. Penn State’s 42-21 loss dropped them to #8 in the polls and it looked like national title hopes would have to be deferred yet again.
At a softer spot in their schedule, the Lions chipped away, winning four straight and moving back up to #5. November 13 was a good day for Penn State fans. They won a tough game at Notre Dame 24-14, a game they trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter, but relied on Warner’s 145 yards, as well as a big catch from the running back that he turned into a 48-yard touchdown play late.
The same day, Arizona State—a team who’d beaten Washington and ultimately moved to the top of the polls themselves—lost and there was no way the Rose Bowl, locked into a Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup could settle the national title. The contenders were Georgia, SMU and the winner of the Pitt-Penn State game coming up on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The Pennsylvania rivals had name quarterbacks in Blackledge and Dan Marino, but it was the defenses that ruled the day. Penn State won 19-10. In news almost as good, SMU played Arkansas to a 17-17 tie. Penn State was moved up to #2 in the country and its Sugar Bowl date with #1 Georgia would settle the national championship.
Georgia’s Heisman Trophy running back Herschel Walker was the dominant player in the country, and for the second straight year, the Lion defense would have a Heisman winner to stop in a bowl game. Offensively they caught the Bulldogs off guard by coming out throwing. After an initial run by Warner, Blackledge rifled four straight completions down the field that set up a Warner touchdown run. Before the stunned Bulldog crowd could even get settled in the score was 20-3 and the game was into the second quarter. Georgia quarterback John Lastinger wasn’t a particularly adept passer, but he did find a way to complete a touchdown drive before the half. At 20-10, it wasn’t over yet.
More nervousness filled Nittany Nation when Lastinger and Walker led another drive that cut the lead to three. Georgia was poised to tie or take the lead when Lastinger threw an interception. Penn State chipped away and moved the ball to midfield. At this point, receiver Greg Garrity ran a straight fly route down the sideline and beat his man. Blackledge got him the ball and the Lions had a huge touchdown to push the lead back to ten.
The drama wasn’t over. Return man Kevin Baugh made the one mistake of his otherwise exemplary night when he fumbled a punt, but the Bulldogs couldn’t cash it in. Penn State got a game-clinching first down on a short third-down pass to Garrity. The Lions were home free in a 27-17 win.
There was never any doubt Penn State would win the final vote over SMU, who had beaten Pitt in the Cotton Bowl 7-3, a game played in an icy rain in Dallas. There was irony in this though. After Paterno had been thrice denied the throne room with a perfect season, he was now ready to claim his first national title at 11-1 over the unbeaten Mustangs.
This was justified however. The biggest distinction to make is that while SMU was unbeaten, they weren’t perfect. The tie to Arkansas meant they hadn’t done all they could possibly do to prove their merits. And their schedule was genuinely awful. The Arkansas game, along with Texas and then the Cotton Bowl were their only real tests. If you play a de facto three-game schedule it’s a reasonable requirement that you sweep it. Penn State’s wins over Pitt, Nebraska and Georgia easily exceeded anything SMU had done.
In an ideal world, the teams might have been able to play in post-bowl playoff. But if you had to vote after the New Year’s Day bowl games, Penn State deserved to be #1. It was a long-time coming and much deserved.