The Seasonal Narrative Of 1986 Penn State Football & A Championship Season

The 1986 Penn State football team came into the season focused on nothing less than the national title. They had gone undefeated in the 1985 regular season, but an Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma ended their year in disappointment. The Lions were loaded in 1986 for another run at college football’s mountaintop and in a history-making bowl victory, they got there.

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A defense that ranked third in the nation in points allowed was the heart of the team. Shane Conlan was a consensus All-American at middle linebacker, and defensive tackle Tim Johnson also got some national recognition. Ray Isom and Duffy Cobbs, a pair of hard-hitting defensive backs led the secondary.

The Lion offense was seen as the weak point, but they did average 28.3 points per game in 1986, 17th in the country. The reason they were underrated was the lack of a passing game. John Shaffer had a lot of good qualities—toughness, character and leadership—but throwing the football was not one of those good qualities. Shaffer only threw nine touchdown passes in 1986 and running back D.J. Dozier led the team with 26 catches.

What Penn State could do was run the football. Dozier ran for over 800 yards and averaged nearly five yards a pop. Blair Thomas was an electric change of pace, who ran for over 500 yards at better than eight per carry.  Tim Manoa, the big bruising fullback added 546 yards, and Steve Smith was another nice runner at third-string. They ran behind a line anchored by All-American guard Chris Conlin.

Joe Paterno’s team was ranked sixth in the preseason polls and opened the year with an impressive 45-14 win over Temple. This was an Owl team that had Heisman runner-up Paul Palmer in the backfield and finished 6-5. Penn State followed that by going to Foxboro to play Boston College, an eventual eight-win team and won 26-14. The pollsters were unimpressed and dropped the Lions to #7.

An easy 42-3 win over lowly East Carolina followed and then a run of three games against teams that would finish with five wins each began. Penn State opened this stretch by crushing Rutgers 31-6 and ended it by burying Syracuse 42-3. But in between they struggled at home to beat Cincinnati 23-17. It gave ammunition to skeptics and the Lions were still stuck at #6 in the polls when the season’s biggest test came.

Penn State went to second-ranked Alabama on October 24. The Tide had an outstanding running back in Bobby Humphrey, who ran for over 1,400 yards in 1986 and went on to a pro career with the Denver Broncos. Humphrey did nothing against the Lion defense, carrying 12 times for 27 yards. PSU intercepted ‘Bama quarterback Mike Shula twice.

Meanwhile, Penn State got a consistent, if unspectacular running effort of their own. Dozier carried 15 times for 63 yards, while Thomas was a big difference-maker, turning his eight carries into 57 yards. Shaffer was 13/17 for 168 yards and most important, was mistake-free. After spotting Alabama a field goal, Penn State took over in the second quarter. They got touchdown runs from Dozier and Thomas, added three field goals after halftime and cruised to a 23-3 win.

The doubters were silenced and the Lions soared to #2 in the polls, trailing only Miami. Penn State went to West Virginia a week later and spun a 19-0 shutout. But the next two weeks, at home against Maryland and on the road at Notre Dame, would test the heart rates of the Lion faithful.

Maryland was a .500 team, but they were coached by Bobby Ross and this was during a general period when the Terps were a regular ACC contender. The game went scoreless through the first quarter before Dozier ran nine yards for a second-quarter TD. It stayed 7-0 into the third quarter when Maryland drove to the 1-yard line. But in a stand that would be significant, they had to settle for a field goal.

With the score still 7-3, the Terps again drove inside the 10-yard line, before defensive tackle Pete Curkendall made a huge play, coming up with an interception and returning it all the way to the Maryland 9-yard line. Dozier, who finished the day with 111 yards, cashed it in for a TD and the game looked secure at 14-3.

Only it wasn’t. The Terps immediately responded with a touchdown and in another big play, missed the two-point conversion. A Lion field goal that made it 17-9 in the fourth quarter assured them of at least a tie in these pre-overtime days.

But a tie would still be damaging, albeit not fatal, to the national title push. And when Maryland drove for yet another touchdown, that’s what Penn State was staring at as the Terps lined up for the two-point play. In a game defined by big Lion defensive plays in close, Cobbs made the last one when he batted the pass away and preserved the 17-15 win.

The pollsters still punished Penn State by dropping them to #3. Michigan, who was committed to the Rose Bowl if they won the Big Ten, was #2. While the Lions could still get a shot at top-ranked Miami in a bowl game, they no longer had clear control of their own destiny.

It was time to go to Notre Dame, where the Irish were struggling with a losing record in Lou Holtz’s first year. But it was also clear Notre Dame was making progress and this stage, against an undefeated team with Vice-President George H.W. Bush in attendance, was the place to validate that for a national audience.

Penn State got some breaks—a kickoff return for a touchdown by ND’s Tim Brown was nullified by a penalty and Brown dropped a third-down pass in the end zone. The Lions led 24-13, with Shaffer hooking up with wide receiver Ray Roundtree on one touchdown pass and another 34-yard play that keyed a TD drive.  But with just under twelve minutes to play, Notre Dame came back.

The Irish scored a touchdown, though the Lions again made a big two-point stop and kept the game at 24-19. But the normally stout defense was being picked apart by ND quarterback Steve Beurlein and soon the Irish had 1st-and-goal on the six-yard line in the game’s waning moments.

It was a situation that, in retrospect, was a foreshadowing of the defensive sequence that would ultimately win this team a national championship. On first down, Brown got the ball on a swing pass, but Isom dropped him for a three-yard loss. On second down, defensive tackle Bob White came barreling up the middle and sacked Beurlein at the 18-yard line.

Penn State was now in command, but Beurlein nearly took it back on third down. He threw a perfect pass to tight end Joel Williams in traffic, but Williams was heavily covered and the ball glanced off his fingers. A well-timed hit by Lion defensive back Gary Wilkerson prevented the touchdown catch. On fourth down, a good pass rush prevented a throw to the end zone and the game ended 24-19.

More good news came in the form of Minnesota’s upset of Michigan. Penn State was back at #2 and in the driver’s seat to play Miami in a winner-take-all battle for the national championship. The Lions sealed their second straight undefeated regular season with a 34-14 win over Pitt.

With neither Penn State nor Miami obligated to play in a specific bowl, a bidding war ensued to get the 1 vs. 2 game. The Fiesta Bowl, which had moved its game to New Year’s Day in 1981, won the battle and solidified its standing as a major bowl game. The key to the bid was moving the game to prime-time on January 2 when it would have exclusive coverage on a Friday night.

It would be, and still remains, the most-watched college football game in history. And it was worth the stakes. In the years since this game, documentaries have been made on everything from the football game to the cultural divide it seemed to spark.

Miami’s players came off the plane in Phoenix wearing military fatigues. Penn State’s wore coats and ties. At a steak fry for both teams, Lion punter John Bruno made a racial joke that, while meant to be harmless, was tacky. Hurricane players walked out, although it was later revealed they had planned to walk out anyway.

On the field, Miami was a virtual Who’s Who of future NFL talent, led by Heisman-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde, wide receiver Michael Irvin, defensive back Bennie Blades and defensive tackle Jerome Brown. Conlan was the only comparable talent on the Penn State side.

But the Penn State defense was ready. Using a dazzling array of coverages that the long wait between the end of the regular season and the bowl game allowed, the Lions confused Testaverde. By the early fourth quarter he had already thrown three interceptions and looked generally tentative in his decision-making.

Miami’s only touchdown had been set up by a turnover and was promptly answered by a 74-yard Penn State drive that ended with Shaffer scrambling into the end zone. The Hurricanes missed a big field goal in the third quarter, though a 38-yard kick in the early fourth gave them a 10-7 lead. They got the ball back and it looked like PSU’s lack of offensive explosion was finally coming home to roost.

Enter Conlan. The linebacker intercepted a Testaverde pass at the Miami 40-yard line and raced toward the end zone, finally being tripped up at the 5-yard line. Dozier took it in for the go-ahead touchdown and a 14-10 lead.

The Hurricanes finally got something going offensively, converting a 4th-and-6 with three minutes to play deep in their own end. Testaverde hit four more passes and suddenly it was 1st-and-goal on the nine-yard line. It was the finish to the Notre Dame game all over again, only now against a team with more weapons than one cared to think about it, including a running game with Alonzo Highsmith that Penn State had been unable to stop all night.

A short pass to Irvin put the ball on the five-yard line. On second down, Irvin broke free in the end zone, but before Testaverde could release the ball Tim Johnson had come up the middle for the sack. An incomplete pass set up a fourth-down play for the national championship. Penn State got its fifth interception of the night, this one from linebacker Pete Giftopolous and the 14-10 upset was secure.

The storyline, leading up to this game and for 25 years after, was “Good vs. Evil”. The revelations in late 2011 about the crimes against children by PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky have called that into question. For the record, I find it monstrously unfair that anyone other than Sandusky has been blamed for his actions and my conclusions come from reading the Freeh Report in its entirety.

Nonetheless…it’s impossible to deny the role Sandusky personally played in this victory. His masterful defensive gameplan won him national acclaim in the days following the Fiesta Bowl and made him one of the most prominent assistant coaches in the country. Whatever one thinks of the behavior of Miami’s players and the enabling behavior of head coach Jimmy Johnson, none of it was anywhere in the ballpark of pedophilia.

Good vs. Evil? I think that storyline has been debunked. But that doesn’t mean Penn State as a whole has anything to be ashamed of.  They had good kids, a clean head coach and on one magical night in Tempe, played a game for the ages.