Showing posts with label Penn State. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Penn State. Show all posts

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Penn State-Nebraska: A rivalry revived?

Under the flood lights on a crisp late-September Pennsylvania Saturday night in 1982, Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge threw a first down pass to tight end Kirk "stone hands" Bowman in the back of the endzone with just four seconds remaining on the game clock. The last-gasp effort barely found its target. Bowman needed to scoop the ball off his laces with his body moving backwards to make the grab. Somehow he reeled the ball in and his third score of the day overturned a 24-21 deceit to Nebraska, giving the Nittany Lions a precious victory that propelled them toward an eventual first AP title in school history.

One minute and eighteen seconds of clock-time previously, Penn State had begun its final offensive possession of the game sixty-five yards from goal needing a touchdown to win. A personal foul penalty against Nebraska on the preceding kick-off helped matters, but with momentum apparently shifting and the famous 'Husker Blackshirt D on the other side of the line of scrimmage a score seemed unlikely. Nebraska's junior quarterback Turner Gill had capped a scoring drive that ate precious clock in the fourth quarter's waning minutes with a one-yard TD plunge.

That score gave Big Red its first lead of a game Penn State had controlled since a fourteen-yard Blackledge pass to Bowman completed an 84-yard scoring drive after only four minutes. 1982 was the first year of his tenure that Joe Paterno truly emphasized the passing attack. Blackledge was simply too good to under-utilize. He had thrown for four touchdowns in each of Penn State's first three games and threw for three more and 295 yards on 23-of-39 attempts vs. Nebraska. His 2,218 yards with 22 touchdowns as a senior lifted him to second in school career passing totals. Such productivity made for an impossing backfield. Alongside Blackledge running back Curt Warner [who had gashed Nebraska for an incredible 238 yards the previous year] racked up a thousand-yard season en route to graduating with a career total of 3,398, which remains the school record. When Warner broke loose for a 31-yard dash to the 'Husker four-yard line in the second quarter before finishing the drive with a two-yard TD run moments later, Gill and Co. faced a major uphill battle.

The situation was far from ideal for Tom Osborne's second-ranked Cornhuskers. With a loaded backfield featuring future Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and a returning thousand-yard rusher in Roger Craig, Gill preferred to run the option rather than pass down field. When necessary Gill certainly could pass effectively. He graduated a year later standing second on Nebraska's all-time passing list. But with a rushing attack that had accounted for 677 of Big Red's NCAA-record 883 yards total offense during a 68-0 drubbing of New Mexico State the previous week, why pass? On the year Nebraska's three leading rushers alone would combine for 2,844 yards. The following season the 1983 Cornhusker backfield set what is still the school's single-season rushing record with a combined 4,820 yards. Even when compared to the unstoppable ground attacks of the early-1970s and late-1990s, the Nebraska running game of the mid-1980s constitutes a definite high watermark.

Despite their unquestionable pedigree, the Big Red backfield learned on September 25th 1982 that running roughshod over New Mexico State and lining up opposite "Linebacker U" were different matters. Joe Patterno's defense limited Nebraska to a relatively innocuous 233 team rushing yards, and actually caused Craig to leave the game at half time with a strained thigh. Never-the-less, Gill performed as required and dragged his team back into contention with the balanced approach required. The 'Husker signal-caller went 16-for-34 through the air for 239 yards, earning him media plaudits as Big Eight player of the week. With only 38 ticks remaining before halftime Gill threw a 30-yard touchdown strike to I-back Irving Frazier. Then six minutes after Blackledge restored Penn State's 14-point cushion on a pass to flanker Kenny Jackson early in the third quarter, Gill struck again with a scoring strike to Rozier. Nebraska simply refused to go away and it was hardly a surprise when Osborne's team overcame the hostile road environment to seize its late lead inside the final two minutes.

Gill's touchdown dive set up a final, decisive Penn State possession that featured both drama and controversy. Blackledge marshaled his team with apparent ease to the Nebraska thirty-four before the Blackshirts recovered to collapse three consecutive plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. With only 17 seconds remaining, facing a fourth-and-eleven situation and trailing 21-24, Paterno considered for the first time in the game [as he later admitted] going for a tie. But with his place-kicker, Massimo Manca, having already missed three attempts on the day, the Penn State coach decided to try fortune's favor with an ounce of bravery instead. The gamble paid off when Blackledge shot an absolute bullet to Jackson just a step beyond the first-down marker at the NU twenty-three. Blackledge then scrambled for six more before Penn State gained nothing on second down.

It was at that moment that the game attained college football infamy. With all of the team's timeouts expended, Blackledge went deep along left sideline to his other tight end Mike McCloskey. The Nittany Lion receiver was heading out of bounds as the ball reached him and the play ended with him well into the Nebraska bench area. Osborne and Co. could not believe their eyes when the sideline umpire signalled a catch, giving Penn State a first-and-goal from the two with those four precious seconds remaining. Nebraska coaches and players were still crying bloody-murder when Bowman fell backwards out of the endzone clutching his third TD ball of the day, giving number eight Penn State a banner victory as the clock expired.

The call, which was unquestionably wrong, had far-reaching repercussions for both teams. After having gone undefeated in 1968, 1969, and 1973 without winning a national championship, Joe paterno finally gained the AP voters' respect in 1982 despite picking up a loss. The '82 Nittany Lions finished the season 11-1 with a 21-42 road loss to Paul Bryant's Crimson Tide. Despite that loss, several key wins earned the necessary grace for Penn State to be voted number one over 11-0-1 SMU following the bowls. Penn State's opponents combined for a national best record of .687. On New Year's Day, while Nebraska only managed a narrow 21-20 Orange Bowl win over 8-2-1 LSU and SMU failed to impress en route to a 7-3 victory over 9-2 Pitt in Dallas, the Nittany Lions knocked off Herschel Walker and the number one Georgia Bulldogs in New Orleans. Wins over Notre Dame and Nebraska combined with Penn State's impressive Sugar Bowl victory to crown a national championship resume. Without a blown call in the dying seconds on September 25th, the 1982 Nittany Lions would have been just another very good 10-2 Paterno team.

Conversly, that same call caused Tom Osborne to extend his wait for a national championship by another year. The drought eventually lasted to 1994. Big Red finished the 1982 season 11-1 and placed third in the final AP poll. As a senior the following year Turner Gill led his team to a perfect 11-0 regular season and a third consecutive Orange Bowl berth before an endzone pass from the two-yard line once again proved decisive. By the final minute of the game Nebraska had clawed back from 17-0 and 31-17 defecits to reach 31-24 with possession of the football inside the Miami Hurricane thirty. In an uncanny echo of Blackledge's final drive in State College fifteen months previously, three consecutive 'Husker plays garnered little success. Facing fourth-and-eight Osborne called an option play which Gill kept himself, bursting twenty-four yards for the endzone. Down 30-31 number one Nebraska would likely have been voted national champion with an extra point and the tie. But Big Red didn't play for ties. Letting the chips ride for it all, Gill rolled right on a two-point attempt and passed to an open receiver at the front of the endzone. For 'Huskers time slowed to a creep as they watched Miami safety Ken Calhoun close the gap, stretch his body, and put fingertip to ball for a championship-winning deflection. Somehow Nebraska's prolific offenses of the early 1980s never won a national title.

Penn State and Nebraska have played one another on thirteen occasions. Once back in 1920, five times between 1949 and 1958, for a two-game series in 2002 and 2003, and for five straight seasons from 1979 to 1983. The two schools have met six times in State College, six times in Lincoln, and once in the Kickoff Classic at Meadowlands Stadium -- a game in which the 1983 'Huskers meted out bloody vengeance on the graduation-ravaged Nittany Lions for the disappointment inflicted the preceding season. Of these thirteen meetings the five games played during the early-1980s naturally define the identity of the series. Two powerhouse programs known for their old school style and understated dignity clashed with full force at the height of their respective powers. Two massive fan bases in football-obsessed states watched with bated breath as their schools placed national championship aspirations on the line to test their mettle against the best. Nebraska won the first two bouts, 42-17 and 21-7, before Penn State answered in kind 30-24 in Lincoln and so famously in that 27-24 triumph at Beaver Stadium. Sadly, Nebraska's 44-6 romp the following year was the last word on the matter for two decades.

Nebraska finished the 1979 season ranked 9th in the AP poll, Penn State 20th. The following year they polled 7th and 8th respectively. Penn State finished the 1981 season 3rd with Nebraska polling 11th. A year later the Nittany Lions were crowned national champion with Nebraska on their heels in 3rd. In 1983 Big Red finished only behind Miami thanks to their failed two-point attempt, while Penn State followed their disastrous start in New Jersey with an 8-4-1 season to finish unranked for the first time since 1976. Penn State's narrow victory in 1982 helped earn Joe Paterno a national championship. Had the Nittany Lions lost, Nebraska would almost certainly have claimed that laurel. The next year Big Red all but did just that. Simply put, Penn State and Nebraska's games between 1979 and 1983 mattered. And they were nothing if not memorable. The two programs which are perhaps more than any others virtual mirror images of one another provided matchups that built expectations without failing to deliver. It is only a shame they did not continue to play after the '83 Huskers' lopsided coming-out party at the Meadowlands.

Presently Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is considering his newly-expanded league's options for dividing its twelve members into two divisions for football. There are many issues to consider that needn't be rehearsed here. It only need be pointed out that Nebraska has lacked a true annual rivalry game against a conference foe of equal stature since the Texan invasion/hostile takeover of the old Big Eight in 1995. Penn State has perhaps never had a true annual rival. The Big Ten's grand plan to manufacture one via the uninspiring Land-grant Trophy series with Michigan State has been quite the flop. Geography is hardly good grounds for objection in a league with a footprint that now stretches from Philadelphia to a little more than one hundred miles from the Rockies. And more importantly, the Big Ten added Nebraska to increase the relevance and national exposure of its football teams.

Imagine this scenario for the last two weeks of conference play:

Michigan plays Ohio State for one division title. A few hours later Nebraska faces Penn State to decide the other. The following week the winners face off with national championship implications likely at stake.

What could possibly be more appealing and nationally relevant than that?

(Sources:; Michael Weinreib, Daily Collegian;;; USA Today CFB encyclopedia; ESPN Big Ten Encyclopedia;

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Great defensive players: Greg Buttle

Joe Paterno has defined Old School football for so long that no one can remember when he was just School. Through the first ten years of his head coaching tenure in State College his Nittany Lions enjoyed the nation’s best overall record. Better than Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes, or Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne’s ‘Huskers. Better even than The Bear’s Crimson Tide. Because no one could ever argue with Paterno’s result they never criticized his methods either. The no-name, plain-uniform program still has a behind-the-times feel today, even in the almost universally stodgy Big Ten. But Paterno wasn’t any more up-with-the-times in 1975 — except that he won, and winning is cool.

Penn State did not have an athletic dorm. Paterno always worked hard first and foremost with all his recruits to sell the school and the collegiate experience. He told one Sport’s Illustrated reporter that he considered a home visit by a football coach to be “just about the worst” reason to select which university to attend. When young men visited campus Paterno often sent them out to wander around campus alone, and always insisted on academic meetings with faculty members in their prospective departments. Paterno wanted boys to want to attend Penn State, but not in the way that most football coaches want boys to attend their school. Joe Pa cared, and still does care, that his players truly sucked the marrow out of college life. For that reason he was outspokenly opposed to the NCAA’s 1972 decision to repeal its prohibition on freshman eligibility. Paterno’s view of the injustice of that move sounded out-dated and wildly idealistic even then, having more the ring of English professor than head coach about it:

“There's so much besides football. Athletes who come to Penn State shouldn't be tied down to a football program. These should be the four greatest years of their lives. I tell them, 'Enjoy yourselves.' I consider football an extracurricular activity, like debating or the band. It should never be removed from that context. More than 90% of our players graduate on schedule.”

Still enjoying it...

That was always Paterno’s way. Somehow his Nittany Lions won ball games without cheating, cutting class, or showboating. The “noble experiment” Joe Pa began in 1966 worked — spectacularly. And it worked not only because Paterno believed everything he said about fun, the college life, learning, attitude, and a host of other subjects, but also because he loved winning football games as much as any peer. Whatever he told reporters.

The archetypal Penn State football player would be workmanlike, diligent, unassuming, intelligent, well rounded, and quietly effective on the field. And he would surely be a linebacker. Call him Greg Buttle.

If Joe Pa’s offenses opened few eyes and his philosophy on college life seemed almost medieval, his defenses made up for it by setting plenty of trends. Penn State was one of the first college programs to run a 3-4 base defense and the four-man linebacker corps at the unit’s center was characterized by remarkable lateral mobility. Big enough to come up and crush the healthiest of running games, smart enough to read offenses on the fly, and fast enough to drop into coverage in an instant; Penn State’s linebackers seemed to simply emerge in an unbroken line of succession from a single mold. Unsurprisingly for a man who sixty years after his graduation is still tied for the all-time interception record at his alma mater, Brown, Paterno has always had an eye for defensive talent. And character. Penn State coaches didn’t just retool their linebacker unit year after year with the previous fall’s most highly touted prep all-American. They frequently converted players from other positions. They also insisted that recruits pass the attitude test. Current players reported back to coaches on recruits after visits and scholarships were often withheld solely on the strength on a player’s opinion that a prospective recruit would not fit the program.

That screening process produced five consensus all-America selections for Penn State linebackers through Paterno’s first ten seasons: Dennis Onkotz twice in 1968 and ‘69, Jack Ham [a High School Offensive Guard] in 1970, John Skorupan [a former receiver] in 1972, and Greg Buttle [another former receiver] in 1975. Some of Paterno’s great ‘backers were bigger than average, some smaller. Some had played the position before, some hadn’t. That didn’t really matter. Joe Pa himself seems a misfit. An Ivy League literature student who has consistently refused pay raises in an era of ever-escalating coaching salary arms races and used no small amount of the money he has earned to partly fund the school’s library [which appropriately bears his name.]

In a profession dominated by maniacal type-A personalities Paterno is a relative renaissance man. It is quite fitting therefore that the defenses that carried his teams should have been built around young men like Greg Buttle. In addition to his outstanding football prowess Buttle was also an active Barber Shop Quartet singer and a sufficiently successful ocean rower to eventually earn enshrinement in that pastime’s Hall of Fame. For all his accomplishment, Buttle remained the consummate Penn State man and never developed an inflated ego. Paterno used to encourage his players to call him “Joe.” Like most of them, Buttle couldn’t bring himself to do so. He continued to bashfully call the living legend “Coach Paterno.” Joe Pa jokingly responded by routinely addressing his all-America linebacker as “Player Buttle.” Shortly before entering the NFL as a third round draft pick by the Jets in April 1976 Buttle joked to a reporter that he had been overwhelmed by his head coach as a young player.

“In my freshman year I never talked to him. I saw him in his shorts one day. I thought, Joe Paterno in shorts. It was like seeing a god in shorts.”

That was typical Penn State — humble, appreciative, respectful. But on the field Buttle had a legacy to maintain and showed his opponents respect only by never giving them a play off. One down at a time through his four-year career Buttle hunted down ball carries and punished them. His 165 tackles as a junior on a team that finished ranked 7th at 10-2 remain the school’s single-season record; as does his single-game high tally of 24 vs. West Virginia on October 26th 1974. His career tackle total of 343 stood as the school’s all-time record for three decades until Paul Posluszny surpassed the figure, reaching 372 in 2006 [after playing slightly more games.]

The 1974 West Virginia game typifies the spirit of Joe Pa’s greatest defenses. Standing at 2-3 Bobby Bowden’s Mountaineers were not the greatest team the Nittany Lions faced all year, but Morgantown is never an easy road trip and Penn State was never in the habit of giving opponents an easy ride whatever their record. In a hard-fought contest Paterno’s team eventually came out on top, 21-12. Three PSU linebackers kept West Virginia quite by racking up an incredible sixty-five combined tackles. In addition to Buttle’s record twenty-four, Buddy Tesner notched twenty-one while pinch-hitting backup Jim Rosecrans added twenty. It is an outstanding achievement that Buttle reached 343 career tackles on a unit in which he constantly shared stats with fellow all-conference selections and second-string youngsters capable of making twenty tackles in a game. Little wonder that he went on to a successful nine year pro career with the New York Jets. Or that the once over-awed student of Penn State’s own renaissance-man-come-football-coach should invest his time and energy after his pro career as a national spokesman for United Way.

It is utterly impossible to single out any great Penn State linebacker from the host of others. Unassuming, hard-nosed defenders made twenty tackles-a-game before Buttle in State College, and plenty have done it since. Any one of Penn State’s all-America linebackers could stand for all of the others; which I suppose is exactly why Paterno has produced so many.

One line in the PSU fight song goes: “We’ll hit that line, roll up the score…” Neither during Joe Pa’s first decade or in the nearly three full decades since has Penn State been known for rolling up scores. But Nittany Lions of the Buttle mold have hit the line down after down like no one else.

Linebacker U: search and destroy

(Sources: Keith Mano, SI; Wiki; Larry Keith, SI; ESPN Big 10 Encyclopedia; USA Today CFB Encyclopedia)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wally Triplett and the 1948 Cotton Bowl

Many of the athletes in American sports history that blazed brave trails through seemingly impregnable race barriers demonstrated almost super human singleness of mind and tenacity. Think of indomitable Jackie Robinson or resolute Jim Brown. But the first black player to break the college football color line in a former confederate state did not fit that mold. Wallace “Wally” Triplett lettered at Penn State from 1946 to 1948. He was one of three black members of the 1947 Nittany Lions that played in the Cotton Bowl, and went on to become the first black NFL draftee. Triplett refused to accept discrimination, resisting bigoted treatment directed his way whenever he could. But much the history Triplett made seems almost to have happened around him, often because of the ease with which he made friends.

The fifth of six football playing sons in a family from La Mott, Pennsylvania, Triplett’s talents produced numbers in his High School career that attracted attention. In those days of limited and expensive travel many programs scouted distant players from printed reports. When Wally received a letter from the University of Miami offering a football scholarship for the fall of 1945 he wondered if the coaches even knew he was black. La Mott was not an all-black community and such a factual oversight was plausible. Not wanting to court controversy Triplett wrote to Miami informing the football office of his racial status. Miami responded by immediately rescinding the scholarship offer. Triplett headed instead to University Park on an academic scholarship with a letter of introduction from his High School coach to Penn State coach Bob Higgins. Triplett earned a place on the team and fortuitously became a sophomore starter in 1946 when Halfback Joe Tepsic signed a baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did not explicitly set out to carve new pathways for integration and technically was not even Penn State’s first black player.

Dave Alston, the son of a black minister and valedictorian of his High School class, had removed any reluctance coach Higgins felt regarding his race with a standout season at Tailback on the 1941 freshman team. Alston’s athleticism matched his disarming charm – he reputedly ran the 100 yard dash in 10 seconds. Higgins excitedly compared him to Jim Thorpe and eagerly awaited the 1942 season. Coming off a 7-2 record in 1941, Higgins’ best in his eleven-year tenure, the Nittany Lions looked poised to finally shrug the mediocrity that defined their teams during the 1930s. But fate intervened on August 15th 1942 when Alston died from complications arising from a routine appendectomy. The tragedy over shadowed a 6-1-1 season and left Penn State still awaiting its first black varsity letterman.

Another black athlete, lineman Dennis Hoggard, joined Triplett on the 1946 Nittany Lion varsity team. But before the season even began race issues appeared threateningly on the horizon. Penn State scheduled a season finale at the University of Miami - the very school that had denied Triplett a scholarship on the grounds of his race. Like all southern schools at that time, Miami would not allow northern teams to travel with their black members. Higgins wanted to leave his black players at home and retain the fixture but the school newspaper began agitating feeling on campus against accepting southern bigotry. Higgins decided to put the matter to a team vote. Triplett and Hoggard were surprised and thrilled when their teammates voted to forego the trip, even at the cost of a potential banner victory. Triplett had become very popular and Penn State did not suffer the de facto segregation within its football team witnessed at other northern schools of the era. Triplett's 1947 roomemate, a white lineman named Sam Tamburo, became his closest friend on the team. The Nittany Lions competed ferociously and verbally berated one another on the practice field, but off it a smooth and easy team dynamic evolved in which race rarely factored.

Penn State reaped the reward of their sacrifice a year later when their unity of spirit led the Lions to a 9-0 1947 regular season, including some crushing shut-out wins. Penn State topped Syracuse 40-0 at homecoming in October, holding the Orangemen to a ridiculous NCAA record minus 47 total yards offense! The team clearly deserved a bowl invitation, but race again threatened to intervene. With the Rose Bowl selecting undefeated Big Ten champion Michigan, the best location seemed to be the Dallas-based Cotton Bowl. The Southwest Conference remained segregated and conference rules stated that black athletes could not participate in any game without the consent of both schools involved. An invite would therefore require the blessing of the host team, SMU.

The Nittany Lions had already publically demonstrated their solidarity, making known the fact that they would not travel without their black players. The team waited while the Cotton Bowl and SMU considered the merits of inviting the best available opponent against the possibility of volatile racial controversy. From somewhere the players caught wind of rumors that SMU officials wanted to meet with Penn State counterparts to discuss the matter, but the Nittany Lions felt there was nothing to discuss. Triplett remembers senior guard and captain Steve Suhey exclaiming to teammates:

“We are Penn State. There will be no meetings.”

According to Triplett, this statement evolved into the now famous “We are Penn State” cheer – one of the great spectacles of the college football landscape.

Eventually the Cotton Bowl invited Penn State, black players and all. Because no Dallas hotel would accommodate the racially integrated team the Nittany Lions stayed at a nearby Navy base. But the team was able to enjoy some of the flavor of Texas life. Heading back to the base on the team bus one night several players spotted a busy nightclub and shouted their desire to go inside. Team manager David “Red” Baron spoke with the owner, who realized his establishment could only benefit from the prestigious visitors. Triplett later recalled the man grabbing his elbow as he entered and saying:

“We aint never had no niggers in here, but you come on.”

It proved an enjoyable night, but a cautious Triplett nervously avoided talking with the white girls that flocked around the team.

When the game finally arrived it provided a spectacle more than justifying the risk of inviting an integrated northern guest. SMU’s all-American and future Heisman Trophy quarterback Doak Walker led his Mustangs on an early surge, jumping out to a 13-0 lead mid-way through the second quarter, but Penn State soon clawed their way back. Underrated quarterback Elwood Petchel led a drive culminating in a 38-yard TD strike just before halftime, but time enough remained to require a touchdown-saving tackle from Triplett on the kick return. The second half was all Penn State as SMU gained only 24 yards rushing and 15 passing.

Petchel tied the game in the third quarter when Triplett, convinced he could get open on a corner route, pleaded for a fade to the end zone. His confidence proved well founded. Triplett brought the ball safely into his chest, becoming the first black player to score a major college touchdown in a former Confederate state.

Although a missed extra point left the game an unsatisfying 13-13 tie, even a win would not have delivered Penn State a national title. Notre Dame and Michigan (who trounced USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl) both had more favored teams. Regardless, the Nittany Lions were a great team in their own right. More importantly, they demonstrated the solidarity, bravery and principle that define football at its very best.

Wally Triplett has always spoken highly of his time at Penn State, but those years were by no means easy. Even in State College, far from the codified “Jim Crow” laws that defined southern society, blacks on campus were not fully integrated and felt the sting of isolation. Unable to room in the regular dormitories in his first years at the school, Triplett lived downtown in “Lincoln Hall” - a black boarding house named after the great emancipator. Triplett refused to calmly accept racist treatment. On one occasion he trapped a professor who consistently gave him failing grades by submitting a paper written for him by a local doctor. The assignment promptly received an F. Backed by hard evidence, an official protest led the administration to later release the professor. But Triplett did not harbor bitterness. Later in life he recalled the era as a different time. Many people faced discrimination, and many took stands against it. He only viewed himself with humility as one amongst the many, a man who accomplished firsts more by the chance of timing than his own personal greatness.

No doubt if Triplett had not made the Penn State team and earned the trust, respect and loyalty of his team mates, some other black player would eventually have broken the Cotton Bowl color line. But that is irrelevant. Wallace Triplett did accomplish those firsts. He was a great athlete and a brave and upstanding man. The Nittany Lions deserve the plaudits of history for the stand the team took years before such actions became fashionable at even the most progressive non-southern institutions.

(Sources:; Scripps News on Dave Alston; Lauren Boyer, Centre Daily Times; Jordan Hyman, Game of My Life; Access Granted, video; WPSU In Motion)