The Road To The 1980 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State & Penn State

The 1980 Fiesta Bowl marked a threshold moment for both teams involved, Penn State and Ohio State, as well as the bowl game itself. Here’s a look back on the road the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes took through the 1980 college football season, the Fiesta Bowl itself and the aftermath for the teams and the bowl.

Start reading today. 

Ohio State came into the season riding high. They had narrowly missed sharing the national title in 1979, the first year under coach Earle Bruce. The Buckeyes entered 1980 as the preseason #1 team in the country.

Junior quarterback Art Schlicter posted the second of three straight top 6 finishes in the Heisman Trophy voting. His 1,980 passing yards were third in the Big Ten behind only Purdue’s Mark Herrman and Illinois’ Dave Wilson, both of whom played in pass-happy attacks. Schlicter’s 8.5 yards-per-attempt were second in the conference and his 15/9 TD-INT ratio was good by the standards of the time.

Schlicter had two solid receivers in Doug Donley and Gary Williams and the offensive line was led by guard Joe Lukens, who got some All-American recognition. But perhaps no one mattered more to the offense than running back Calvin Murray.

Murray churned out over 1,200 yards and won the Big Ten rushing title. Even more impressive, he did it with efficiency, averaging a conference-best 6.5 yards-per-rush. And when Murray needed a break, Tim Spencer stepped in and produced 577 yards.

The defense wasn’t quite as decorated, but still had All-American linebacker Marcus Marek. Ohio State came out of the gate fast with a 31-21 win over Syracuse and a 47-0 blasting of Minnesota.

Those were wins over mediocre teams, but you couldn’t say the same about Arizona State. The Sun Devils came to Columbus ranked #20 and ended the season with seven wins. Both offenses cut loose, combining for over 1,000 yards and over 50 first downs. Schlicter threw two touchdown passes to Donley and another to Williams. The final was 38-21 and the Buckeyes remained atop the polls.

Another Pac-10 foe came to the Shoe a week later though, and the offense disappeared. UCLA, ranked #11, pressured Schlicter constantly. The Bruins sacked him five times and the quarterback had to leave early in the fourth quarter due to a combination of a light concussion and poor play. A 17-0 loss sent Ohio State down to #9 in the rankings.

The Big Ten wasn’t very good this year and the next six games saw just one opponent with a winning record and that was Indiana who finished 6-5. The Buckeyes beat the Hoosiers 27-17 and on November 8 they had to survive a shootout with Illinois, 49-42.

Otherwise, the conference schedule leading into the finale with Michigan didn’t offer any challenges. There was 63-0 blasting of Northwestern, a 48-16 rout of Michigan State, a 41-7 demolition of Iowa and a historic 21-0 shutout at Wisconsin. The latter game was history-making, because as a ten-year-old growing up just outside Madison, it was the first college football game I ever attended. I also learned that when attending an outdoor sporting event in cold weather, wear multiple pairs of socks.

Purdue was a legitimate challenger for the Big Ten title, but they were the one conference foe not on the Ohio State schedule. The Boilermakers lost to Michigan, so the traditional finale between the Buckeyes and Wolverines had the clarity of being for the undisputed conference title.

Ohio State had moved up to #5 in the rankings. Michigan was #10. But the Wolverines were coming on strong after two early losses and their defense completely dominated the game. The Buckeyes D was awfully good in its own right, but Ohio State lost 9-3. They settled for the Fiesta Bowl, ranked #11 at the end of the regular season.

Penn State had their own recent miss of a national title, although that was now two years ago, back in 1978. The Lions slipped to a 7-4 season in ’79 and were looking to get trending back upward in 1980.

Joe Paterno had two good sophomore quarterbacks on his roster. He opted for Todd Blackledge. The numbers in 1980 weren’t very impressive—48% completion rate (though that was more tolerable in 1980 than it would be today) and a meager 6.5 yards-per-attempt. But Blackledge would be the leader of coming excellence in Penn State football.

The backup? Jeff Hostetler transferred out of Happy Valley after the season and did okay for himself, enjoying a good two years at West Virginia and a long NFL career, mostly as a backup, and highlighted when he stepped in for Phil Simms and led the 1990 New York Giants through the playoffs to a Super Bowl title.

Your program is in good shape when you can let a Hostetler walk and have no regrets. And this Penn State program was in good shape. They had a talented sophomore running back in Curt Warner, who rushed for over 900 yards. Booker Moore pounded out over 700 more, and both backs ran behind a good line that had All-Americans in guard Sean Farrell and tackle Bill Dugan.

Penn State opened the season ranked #18. They opened with a tuneup game, blowing out Colgate. Two weeks off allowed them to rise to #12 by the time they played at Texas A&M. The Aggies weren’t very good and the Lions won 25-9. But a visit to third-ranked Nebraska didn’t go as well, ending in a 21-7 loss and sending Penn State back down to #17.

The Lions played a third road game in as many weeks, going to ninth-ranked Missouri. Blackledge threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Brad Scovil early on, but Penn State trailed 21-16 at the half. The defense began to take over in the second half and a pair of third-quarter field goals gave the Lions a one-point lead. Blackledge then scrambled 43 yards for a touchdown that clinched a 29-21 win.

Penn State continued to be road warriors, playing their fourth straight road game and again playing a good team in Maryland. The Lions’ future Big Ten East rival would win eight games in 1980. Mike Tice, the future head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, was the Maryland quarterback and running back Charlie Wysocki rolled up over 1,300 yards in a ground-heavy attack. Penn State still muscled out a 24-10 win.

Wins over mediocre teams from the East followed, 24-7 over Syracuse and 20-15 at West Virginia. A Miami Hurricane program that was getting close to the breakthrough that would transform college football three years later came north to Happy Valley. These ‘Canes won eight games, but the Lions dispatched them 27-12.

The steadily competitive schedule continued with a home date against N.C. State, who won six games. Penn State won that won 21-13 and then crushed lowly Temple 50-7. The Lions were rolling, at #7 in the polls but they ran into an outstanding team in archrival Pitt. The Panthers would finish the season with just one loss and ended up #2 in the country. They came into Happy Valley and won 14-9. Penn State finished the regular season ranked tenth.

So both Ohio State and Penn State took the field in Tempe the day after Christmas having lost to their biggest rivals, but still coming off 9-2 seasons and having a Top 10 finish at stake.

It was the Lions who struck first. On their first offensive play, Warner bolted 64 yards for a touchdown. The rest of the first half mostly belonged the Buckeyes and especially to Schlicter. The quarterback went 15/22 for 214 yards and threw three first-half touchdown passes. Two went to Donley and another to Williams. The only downer for Ohio State was two missed extra points, and the game went to halftime at 19-10.

The Penn State defense responded the way they had at Missouri, and that’s by taking over the football game after halftime. In the second half, Schlicter went only 5/13 for 58 yards and threw two interceptions. Ohio State had net zero total yards in the third quarter. Penn State cut the lead to 19-17.

Meanwhile, the Nittany Lion running game was gashing the Buckeye defense. Penn State ended up with 351 rushing yards for the game. They got another touchdown on the ground to take a 24-19 lead and then Moore sealed the deal with a 37-yard jaunt. Penn State won 31-19. Warner got Offensive Player of the Game, while defensive lineman Frank Case got honors on that side of the ball. It was an appropriate recognition of a game where the Lions ran the football at will and the defensive front stopped Ohio State.

The Lions ended up ranked #8 while the Buckeyes slipped to #15. This was the game that marked the two programs passing each other like ships in the night, at least for much of the 1980s. Ohio State’s three-loss season started a trend. They lost at least three each year through 1986. Those years included a Rose Bowl trip and victories here at the Fiesta Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, but that wasn’t the Buckeye goal. Bruce was fired at the end of a 6-4-1 season in 1987.

Penn State came back to the Fiesta Bowl one year later and shut down USC’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back Marcus Allen, a win that got the Lions to third in the nation. In 1982, Paterno won his first national championship. Penn State played for titles again in 1985 and 1986, winning the ’86 crown.

And the Fiesta Bowl? Big things were afoot here too. The following year’s game between Penn State and USC was on January 1, marking the bowl’s entry to “major” status. The Fiesta hosted the Penn State-Miami national title game following the 1986 season and has continued to be one of the sport’s elite postseason games. The 1980 game was the last year the Fiesta Bowl spent on the December undercard.