1985 Penn State Football: The Comeback & The Near-Miss

1985 Penn State football was in need of a bounceback year. After winning the national title in 1982, the Nittany Lions had slipped off the radar for two years. They went 8-4-1 in 1983 and then a 6-5 season in 1984 resulted in no bowl appearance. Joe Paterno’s program revitalized with defense. Shane Conlan, a future NFL mainstay with the Buffalo Bills, was the latest outstanding linebacker in Happy Valley. Michael Zordich was an All-American safety and played for twelve years at the next level.


All the defense was necessary, because Penn State had a serious lack of firepower on offense. John Shaffer only threw for 1,366 yards, only completed 45 percent of his passes and only generated six yards per pass attempt. And he threw ten interceptions. None of his targets even mustered 300 yards receiving on the season.

D.J. Dozier was talented running back and ran for 723 yards but Penn State was clearly to win with defense. They opened the season ranked #18.

The first game was at Maryland, where the Terps were ranked #7, would ultimately win the ACC and were hungry to win this rivalry game, with the Lions having won 20 straight in the series.

It was 100 degrees on the field and the Penn State defense set the early tone. On the second play, Zordich picked off a Stan Gelbaugh pass and went 32 yards to the house. The Lions built up a 17-0 lead by the second quarter.

This was a Maryland team that had set an NCAA record the previous November when they rallied from 31-0 down to beat Miami 42-40 and the Terrapins came back again here, taking an 18-17 in the third quarter. But the Lions never let Gelbaugh get going, holding him to 12/28 for 167 yards. Penn State scraped out a field goal and then forced a turnover on their side of the field in the final minute to preserve a 20-18 win.

Penn State narrowly escaped a bad Temple team 27-25, and then had pedestrian 17-10 wins over poor opposition in East Carolina and Rutgers. It was hardly inspiring, but through attrition, they had moved up to #8 in the rankings when Alabama came to town.

The Tide was ranked #10 and ultimately finished the season 8-2-1. Penn State clung to a 12-10 lead when Shaffer was briefly knocked out, just in time for a critical 3rd-and-1 play on the Alabama 11-yard line. Matt Knizer came off the bench. Paterno called for a bootleg and Knizer took it around the end for a touchdown. It was the difference in the 19-17 win that moved the Lions to #6.

Penn State hosted decent teams in Syracuse and West Virginia and consecutive 27-0 wins were the result, pushing the Nittany Lions up to #3. They hosted Boston College, on a down season after the departure of Doug Flutie. Penn State barely escaped again, 16-12, but moved to #2. And after their 31-10 win at mediocre Cincinnati, the rise to the top of the polls was complete.

Paterno closed the year out with easy wins over Notre Dame & Pitt, 36-6 and 31-0, in each case against a team that needed the game for a winning season. The close nature of a lot of Penn State’s games didn’t give them a ton of national respect, but no one else had run the gauntlet without a loss and they were #1 in the country. The Orange Bowl, with third-ranked Oklahoma to offer as an opponent, was the venue for Paterno to try and win his second national championship in four years.

Penn State surprised everyone when they came out, marched down the field and put it in the end zone on the first possession, grabbing a 7-0 lead. But that was it for the Lion offense. Their defense put up a noble fight, but without any support, Oklahoma just kept coming.

The Sooners got a field goal in the second quarter. OU ran a classic wishbone offense with its emphasis on the option, and they had a ton of speed to get outside. With Penn State focused on containing the outside game and doing a pretty good job, Oklahoma tight end Keith Jackson got open down the middle off an option fake. He caught a 71-yard touchdown pass and the Lions never saw the lead again.  

Shaffer had a rough night, throwing four interceptions and every one of them seeming to come right when Penn State was on the verge of getting back in the game. The Lions lost the turnover battle 5-1 and the football game 25-10.

But if nothing else, Penn State was back. They went undefeated again in 1986, went to the Fiesta Bowl and won an epic national championship game with Miami. The comeback that begin in 1985 was complete.