Penn State hadn’t seriously competed for the national championship since their dramatic title in 1986. Two years after that, Joe Paterno had suffered the first losing season of his illustrious career. A seven-win campaign in 1989 put the Nittany Lions back on the right track and then they went 9-2 in 1990, including an upset of then-#1 Notre Dame in November. The 1991 Penn State football team continued on that path and finished the season ranked in the top five.
Wide receiver O.J. McDuffie was the key to one of the nation’s best offenses. He caught 46 balls and averaged 17.2 yards-per-catch. The junior eventually became a first-round draft pick in the NFL. Tony Sacca was the man throwing him the football, and Sacca finished with a 21-5 TD/INT ratio. Running game duties were shared between Richie Anderson and Terry Smith, each getting better than five yards a pop on average.
A ballhawking secondary led the defense. Darren Perry intercepted six passes and was second-team All-American. Lee Rubin picked off five more balls. Penn State finished the season ranked #11 in scoring D. Expectations were high coming into the season, with a #7 ranking in the preseason polls.
They would get an opportunity to back that up right out of the gate, with a late August game against defending co-national champion Georgia Tech in the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford. The Lions got 145 all-purpose yards from Anderson and Sam Gash ran for 80 more. Sacca went 13/24 for 206 yards and set a school record with five touchdown passes.
Penn State capitalized on a mistake-prone performance from Georgia Tech, who turned it over five times. The Lions led 34-3 with four minutes left and won a not-as-close-as-it-sounds, 34-22 decision. They nudged up to fifth in the national polls.
The Cincinnati Bearcats weren’t a good team in 1991, but even so, Penn State still managed to catch some eyes nationally, when they dropped a mind-boggling 81 points on Cincy and the defense spun a shutout. The Lions were seen as a legitimate national title contender when they went to USC.
This would prove to be the worst USC team in over thirty years and remains their worst of the post-World War II era. Which makes the events of September 14 seem all the more inexplicable. Penn State committed ten penalties. Sacca was sacked five times. He went an erratic 18/40 for 236 yards and threw a couple interceptions. Penn State lost 21-10 and the national title hopes took a big blow.
Nor was their time to lick their wounds because BYU, with defending Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer was coming to Happy Valley. The Lions rebounded with a decisive 33-7 win. They had their letdown with a so-so performance against subpar Boston College, but still escaped with a 28-21 win, then followed it up by beating hideous Temple, 24-7.
The stage was set for a big trip to Miami on the afternoon of October 12. The Hurricanes were ranked #2 and a win here would put the Nittany Lions back in the national championship race. It was also the first time the schools had played since the Fiesta Bowl that settled the 1986 national championship.
Penn State hung in well against a team that would share the national title in 1991, but they couldn’t protect the quarterback. Sacca went down eight times. He still went 24/38 for 263 yards and had a chance to pull it out. The Lions trailed 26-20 and reached the Hurricane 44-yard line with a little over a minute to play. Sacca threw one to the end zone that was intercepted and that was the ballgame.
They were ranked #10 when the next polls came out and while a national title was not going to happen, the possibility of the first major bowl bid since that ‘86 championship season was very much on the table. Penn State’s offense responded by kicking into high gear—they rolled up 135 points in wins over Rutgers, West Virginia and Maryland, the first two of which enjoyed winning seasons in 1991.
That set up a visit from 12th-ranked Notre Dame in mid-November. Penn State’s offense kept humming. They dropped 35 on Notre Dame in a blowout win. A season-ending road trip to Pitt was a little more competitive, but another 30-plus day from the offense was more than enough. The Lions won 32-20, capped off their second straight 9-2 season and got a bid to the Fiesta Bowl.
Penn State was ranked #6 going into the bowls and was facing Tennessee. The Vols had also beaten Notre Dame, one week prior to the Lions doing so and were one of three SEC teams that concluded the regular season ranked in the Top 10 (conference champ Florida and Alabama being the others).
Trailing 17-7 midway through the third quarter, the Lions put one of the most explosive outbursts ever seen in a big game. Linebacker Reggie Givens intercepted a pass and took it to the house. A fumble recovery set up another quick touchdown. Sacca threw three touchdown passes. All of this took place in a span of less than eight minutes, as Penn State scored 35 points and pulled away to a 42-17 win.
The final polls ranked the Nittany Lions third in the nation. They had more than fulfilled the most reasonable hopes of the preseason. To the surprise of most observers, they didn’t keep the momentum going. 1992 was the final year for the program as an independent and was an up-and-down season. But the stability of the Big Ten got the program back on track. They were back in the Top 10 by 1993 and then ripped off a perfect season in 1994.