The 1982 Fiesta Bowl marked 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. They certainly got two major opponents for the debut on the New Year’s stage. Penn State and USC were two proud programs, and the Trojans had Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen.
Here’s a look back on the paths the Nittany Lions and Trojans each trod through the 1981 college football season to reach the Fiesta Bowl.
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 the year before and capped it off by beating Ohio State in a bowl—ironically the Fiesta, then played on Christmas Day.
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 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. The receiving corps was led by receivers Kenny Jackson and Greg Garrity, along with tight end Mike McCloskey.
Penn State didn’t have a defense with All-American talent, but this was still the core of a group that would win Joe Paterno’s first national title one year later. 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 been one of the early upset victims and 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. It was that wave of momentum that sent the Nittany Lions to Tempe.
USC had shared the 1978 national championship with Alabama and finished #2 in the country in 1979. They slipped a bit in 1980, losing twice and surrendering the Pac-10 crown to Washington. The Trojans were looking to come back and everything revolved around Allen.
The running back set an NCAA single-season record with 2,427 rush yards, averaged 5.6 yards-per-attempt and ran for 22 touchdowns. The line that blocked for him was anchored by consensus All-American Roy Foster—between USC’s Foster and Penn State’s Farrell—the Fiesta Bowl would showcase the nation’s top two guards.
USC’s defense was loaded with future NFL talent, starting with All-American linebacker Chip Banks, along with Joey Browner in the secondary and Keith Browner up front. The one thing USC didn’t do very well was throw the football—John Mazur completed 47 percent of his throws, which was tolerable at this time, but barely. But there were also no big plays, as he averaged just 5.8 yards-per-attempt.
The reputation of the USC program still had them ranked fifth in the country to start the year and they validated that standing by blasting a pretty good Tennessee team, 43-7 and vaulted quickly to #2. After shutting out Indiana, then coached by Lee Corso, the Trojans were atop the polls and ready to play a monster September game with second-ranked Oklahoma.
Oklahoma would end up having a down year, at 6-4-1 and 1981 was the first of three seasons of relative decline. But no one knew that when they arrived in the Los Angeles Coliseum and led 24-21 late in the game. USC had kept themselves alive by taking care of the football—no turnovers, while they recovered five OU fumbles. It put the Trojans in position for one last drive and with two seconds left, Mazur scrambled and found tight end Fred Cornwell for the winning touchdown.
All was right with the world in Los Angeles, especially after USC blasted lowly Oregon State the next week. But in a home game against Arizona—an average team that finished 6-5—the Trojans slipped up and lost 13-10, following to #7.
A home game with Stanford was more challenging than the Cardinal’s four-win season makes it appear. This Stanford team had junior quarterback John Elway, the top passer in the Pac-10 and running back Darrin Nelson was another future pro and finished second (albeit a very distant second) to Allen in rushing yards among Pac-10 backs. USC won 25-17 and nudged back to fifth in the polls.
The October trip to Notre Dame resulted in a 14-7 win, although the Irish were another program in temporary decline, and unlike Oklahoma, this one was apparent when the game was played. The next game was more impressive—Washington State had risen out of the Pac-10 basement and into contention. USC stomped the Cougars 41-17 in the Coliseum. A 21-3 win over lowly Cal had the Trojans up to #3 in the polls as they traveled to Washington.
Not only was the national championship race in chaos, so was the battle for the Rose Bowl berth in the Pac-10. USC and Arizona State each had 4-1 conference records, UCLA and Washington State were a half-game back at 4-1-1 and Washington State was 4-2. But the Trojan offense no-showed in Seattle and a critical special teams blunder cost them a touchdown in a 13-3 loss to the Huskies.
Coming into the final week, there were a lot of scenarios in play for the Rose Bowl, but USC was realistically out of that race. The only way they could make it is if Washington and Washington State played to a tie in this era before overtime existed. More realistically, the 10th-ranked Trojans were playing for national ranking and most especially to deny hated rival UCLA a Rose Bowl bid—if the Bruins won, they would go to Pasadena.
The game would prove to be a classic in the long history of this series. Allen was terrific, rushing for 219 yards, including a touchdown with 2:14 left that put USC ahead 22-21. UCLA answered by getting in position to try a 46-yard field goal on the game’s final play.
Defensive tackle George Achica was a 270-pounds, while UCLA’s long snapper only weighed 170. Achica simply bulled his way into the backfield on the field goal and blocked the kick. USC had denied its rival (Washington ended up in the Rose Bowl) and would go to the Fiesta Bowl ranked #8.
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. Allen would be happy with an NFL career ahead of him that would include an MVP award, a Super Bowl MVP and eventual induction into the Hall of Fame.