The Golden Era: 1970 to 1987
In those 18 seasons, the Nittany Lions did the following:
- Compiled a combined 172-41-1 record. That's averaging over nine and a half wins and just north of two losses per season.
- Went bowling 16 times, earning a 10-6 record. For comparison, Michigan went 4-9 in the postseason during those years.
- Churned out their lone Heisman trophy winner - John Cappelletti - in 1973. Read more here.
- Enjoyed two of their five post-WWI undefeated seasons, in 1973 and 1986. Since '86, they've only repeated this feat once.
- Snagged their only pair of National Championships, in 1982 and in the aforementioned 1986, seven years before they joined the Big Ten.
It's worth noting that in both '82 and '86, Penn State beat a team ranked #1 as well as a team ranked #2 at some point during their championship campaign. In '82, they squeaked by #2 Nebraska in the fourth game of the season, aided by an errant call in the final seconds of the game. Trailing 24-21, Penn State's offense was around Nebraska's 20-yard line with about 15 seconds left on the game clock. Nittany Lions quarterback Todd Blackledge aired a pass to tight end Mike McCloskey who had found a gap in the Cornhusker's secondary near the two-yard line. However, McCloskey wasn't anyone near being in bounds - he admitted to as much in 1998 - and a lack of instant replay gave Penn State the ball yards away from the end zone. On the next play, Blackledge tossed the game-winning touchdown pass - which "may have been trapped" - to finish the comeback. Watch the controversial play below.
After the close victory, the Nittany Lions suffered their lone loss in '82 in their next game to a #4 ranked Alabama team - who finished the season out of the top 25 - by a score of 42-21. Penn State would win out from there, capping the season with a 27-23 win over top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. However, Nebraska only lost to Penn State in 1982, and due to that close loss and the Nittany Lions's lack of competence against an underachieving Alabama team, the Cornhuskers have a solid argument for earning a share of the '82 title instead of the #3 ranking they received. Interestingly, the opposite situation happened in 1994, when both teams finished undefeated - Nebraska at 13-0 and Penn State at 12-0 - yet Nebraska won the National Championship. I suggest reading this piece by Corn Nation for a little more context on those two years. It creates a fun connection between these two schools, and it's too bad they aren't in the same division to duke it out every year.
In '86, Penn State earned a little payback against #2 Alabama, beating them 23-3 in the seventh game of the season. And then in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, they snuck by top-ranked Miami 14-10 in a game that saw the Hurricanes outgain the Nittany Lions 445 yards to 162. However, Miami turned the ball over seven times, including five interceptions by their Heisman-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Testaverde's fifth and final interception came on 4th-and-goal with 18 seconds left in the game.
Independent Spirit: 105 cumulative years of no conference
Prior to joining the Big Ten in 1993, Penn State spent 105 of their first 106 seasons as an independent, That one blip occurred in 1891 when the short-lived Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Football Assocation (PIFA) formed with Penn State, Bucknell, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Haverford, and Swarthmore. PIFA lasted for a single season, the Nittany Lions won the conference championship, and that was that.
Due to Penn State's free spirit, they currently can claim only two conference championships: a Big Ten title in 1994 and the aforementioned PIFA title. Their 2005 and 2005 Big Ten titles were vacated.
Nickname that I didn't know about: Linebacker U
Much like Purdue is known as the "Cradle of Quarterbacks," Penn State is known as Linebacker U due to producing solid, successful linebackers. I direct you to this site with a magnificent-spinning-rainbow star to view a list of the linebackers considered part of this club. Some of the more recent successful linebackers from Penn State include Paul Posluszny (won the Dick Butkus Award in 2005 and Chuck Bednarik Award in '05 and '06), Dan Connor (left Penn State as their all-time leading tackler and won Bednarik in '07), Michael Mauti, and Gerald Hodges. Mauti and Hodges were both drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2013 after solid senior seasons. Hodges was named second-team All-Big Ten with 109 tackles (8.5 for loss, 1 sack) and a pair of interceptions on the season while Mauti won the Butkus-Fitzgerald Award for best Big Ten linebacker with 96 tackles (4 for loss, 2 sacks) and a trio of interceptions.
Camping before home games: Nittanyville
Starting in 1993, Penn State started handing out non-seat-specific student tickets (sound familiar to any students who suffered through the mess when Michigan tried the same last year?). Therefore, it was first come, first serve for the seats in the Beaver Stadium student section. Through time, students began camping out overnight at Gate A to ensure a primo seat on game day (Michigan didn't allow this last year). The number of campers grew so large that in 2005 the community adopted the name 'Paternoville.' Even though they renamed the gathering to 'Nittanyville' in 2012, nothing else has changed. There's an official website for 'Nittanyville,' which includes information relating to how one goes about registering their group to the history of the community. Even though I don't think I'd like camping outside the Big House come late Fall, this is pretty awesome and helps the annoyance of non-seat-specific tickets.
So that's about it for Penn State football. There's more traditions I haven't touched on, so read this for a look at the odds of what will stick with new head coach James Franklin. I like Franklin, so I don't see him ruining anything he shouldn't, such as the team arriving on blue busses before home games.