Penn State had gone 18-6 in the two years since 1978, when they came up a yard short of the national title in a Sugar Bowl clash with Alabama. Averaging three losses per year was high for PSU in this era, but they had finished in the Top 10 in 1980. The 1981 Penn State edition went one level higher, finishing in the top five, winning a major bowl game and setting the stage for the program’s first national championship a year later.
The Lions’ offense was keyed by a strong running game led by 1,000-yard rusher Curt Warner, and supported by Jon Williams. Warner was the third-best back in the country, behind USC’s Marcus Allen and Georgia’s Herschel Walker and the Lion back would go on to a good pro career with the Seattle Seahawks. Warner’s offensive line was led by consensus All-American guard Sean Farrell.
Todd Blackledge was the quarterback, and his 50 percent completion rate was good enough by the passing standards of 1981, and his 7.5 yards-per-attempt was pretty good for any era. The receiving corps was led by receivers Kenny Jackson and Greg Garrity, along with tight end Mike McCloskey.
They began the 1981 season ranked #7 and promptly blew out a respectable Cincinnati team 52-0. A week off, combined with a series of upsets, had the Lions ranked #3 when they visited Nebraska on September 26.
The Cornhuskers would win the Big Eight title, but they had already lost to Iowa. Nebraska needed this game and they led 24-20 after three quarters. But Warner was running at will and he finished with 238 yards in an amazing display. Penn State played like the hungrier team on the road and ended up with a 30-24 win.
Penn State rolled through Temple, Boston College and Syracuse, all teams that hovered around the .500 mark and when that stretch concluded the Nittany Lions were ranked #1 in the country. They followed it up with a home win over a good West Virginia team, 30-7. But one week later in Miami, the run at the top came to an end.
The Hurricanes had Jim Kelly at quarterback and head coach Howard Schnellenberger was building the dynasty that would eventually transform college football. Penn State lost 17-14 and slipped to #6.
An unimpressive road win at lowly N.C. State kept Penn State in the title chase, but was a warning sign as they prepared to host Alabama on November 14. The Crimson Tide were on their way to a Cotton Bowl bid and the Lions got manhandled, 31-16 on their homefield. A 24-21 win over fading Notre Dame, who ended the year 5-6, set up the season finale with Pitt.
Penn State was ranked #13, while the rivals from western Pennsylvania were undefeated, ranked #1 and had Dan Marino at quarterback. Playing at old Pitt Stadium, the Lions fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter and Marino was driving for more points. Roger Jackson then made the play of the season.
Jackson intercepted a pass in the back of the end zone to kill the threat. Penn State promptly drove down and scored. Warner, playing hurt, was able to rush for 104 yards, but the big story was that Blackledge played the best game of his career to date.
The Lion quarterback went 12/23 for 262 yards and twice hooked up with Kenny Jackson for touchdowns. The game was tied 14-14 by halftime and then the avalanche started in the second half. Penn State stunned the Pitt crowd and the entire nation with 34 more points and a 48-14 win.
In one fell swoop, Penn State moved back into the Top 10, won the Lambert Trophy as the top team in the East and destroyed the title hopes of their archrival. They were riding a wave of momentum as they accepted a bid to the Fiesta Bowl to play #8 USC.
This season was a new era for the Tempe-based bowl game. It represented the effort of the Fiesta to turn itself into a “major bowl”, as they moved their game to January 1. Penn State had actually won this game a year earlier when it was played on Christmas Day.
A spot in the final Top 10 was on the line when Penn State and USC met. There were also rumors flying as it was being reported—correctly—that the New England Patriots wanted Paterno as their head coach and that the Lion mentor was genuinely interested. In the end, Paterno of course decided to stay at Penn State and with a team like the one that took the field in this game, why not?
Fifteen seconds into the game, Allen fumbled and Penn State recovered. Warner ran in for a touchdown on the next play. It was the first blow in a day when Warner would completely outplay the Heisman Trophy winner, outrushing Allen 145-85. When USC threatened to make a game of it, Blackledge put it away with a long touchdown pass to Garrity. The final was 26-10.
Ironically that same formula—Warner outplaying a Heisman winner and a Blackledge-to-Garrity touchdown pass sealing the win—was what would play out one year later when Penn State beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. For now, in Tempe, Penn State would be happy with a #3 national finish to end 1981.