Glory Days: Redemption in the desert

Nittany Lions reminisce on the 35th anniversary of their Fiesta Bowl triumph.

Fiesta Bowl program

The Penn State football team went 6-5 in 1984, losing badly to rivals Notre Dame and Pitt to close out a disappointing season. Just two years removed from the program’s first national championship, the players were frustrated, and ready to move on.

They were also confident the frustration wouldn’t last.

At the end of the ’84 season, the players made the collective decision to decline playing in a bowl game. In fact, says running back D.J. Dozier ’01 H&HD, they went a step further: They vowed they wouldn’t play in another bowl game unless it was for another title.

“I mean, you think about the audacity,” Dozier says. “But that was the character of that team.”

The following year, the Lions made good on their promise and played in the national championship game, losing 25-10 to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The year after that, they again completed a perfect regular season and readied for a bowl that would decide the 1986 championship, a game that would cap the years of redemption for Dozier and the team’s other fifth-year seniors and secure a distinctive place in college football lore.

Thirty-five years after Penn State defeated Miami 14-10 in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl to claim what remains the school’s last football national title, the players who endured the disappointments of 1984 and 1985 recalled the team’s return trip to the summit and what it felt like to take down a heavily favored group of Hurricanes that provided a stark contrast to the Lions in both image and style of play.

“Having a taste of being that close to the championship, it does something to you,” Dozier says. “It gives you confidence, but it also gives you a bitter taste. Using that bittersweet experience really bodes well for being able to do it a second time around.”

The Lions were sufficiently motivated by those previous disappointments, but the Hurricanes provided them with more incentive in the days leading up to the game. Miami’s players walked off the plane wearing military fatigues, setting a tone for the week and making more than a few Penn State players raise an eyebrow

 “Their whole thing was ‘This is war,’” recalls linebacker Trey Bauer ’87 Lib ’89 MEdu. “No, it’s not. It’s a football game.”

At a steak fry the night before the game, members of both teams spoke to a crowd of a couple thousand fans in what amounted to an informal roast. Some of the Hurricanes took exception to comments made by Penn State punter John Bruno ’86 Bus about head coach Jimmy Johnson and his players, so the entire team walked out. Dozier was sitting next to offensive lineman Chris “Bucky” Conlin ’87 H&HD, who simply shrugged and said, “Good – there’s more food for us.”

“That’s sort of how we looked at their antics,” Dozier says. “None of it bothered or intimidated us. If anything, it got us more focused.”

The ’86 Lions were the prototypical Joe Paterno team: ball-control offense, steady special teams, and a ferocious defense. With a month to prepare for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde and a dynamic Miami offense that had averaged 38.1 points per game, they were confident they had the talent to stymie the Hurricanes. But they also wanted to be ready for anything.

“Normally, you’d have anywhere between 25 and 40 different defenses,” Bauer says. “For that game, we had 150. … The coaches knew we could handle it because we’d played a lot of football together.”

Penn State might not have used all 150 defenses that night in the Arizona desert, but the game plan, which frequently dropped seven or eight men into coverage, flustered Testaverde, who threw five interceptions. The Penn State offense might not have been as off-balance as Miami’s, but had three turnovers of its own and struggled to get much of anything going against a swarming, athletic Miami defense.

“That was the toughest defense I’ve ever gone against in college without a doubt,” Dozier says. “They were big. They were quick. They were aggressive. They had great players at almost every position. It was a pro team.”

The Lion offense wound up with 162 total yards on 59 plays, but took advantage of the few opportunities it had. With slightly more than eight minutes left in the game, Penn State had a goal-to-go from the 6-yard line following a Shane Conlan ’86 Lib interception return, and Paterno had an offensive wrinkle ready.

“The play itself wasn’t that special, it was just the formation we presented it in,” Dozier says. “It was a formation that no one had ever seen a Penn State team line up (in), or at least shift into. When the play came into the huddle, I smiled, because I knew that the Miami defense, especially the middle linebacker in particular, was going to be completely confused as to what to do.”

The play was a simple 46 slant, with Dozier having the option of going inside or outside. The slightest hesitation by the linebacker, thanks to the pre-snap tight end shift, gave him the hole he needed, and Penn State led 14-10.

“We had been in a scrap like that the year before, and we knew it was gonna be the same,” says defensive lineman Bob White ’86 Lib ’93 MEdu. “We went into it thinking it was gonna be a 60-minute contest.”

Penn State still had to hold off the Hurricanes, and Miami had a first-and-goal from the 9-yard line with a minute to play. With 18 seconds left, Testaverde dropped back and looked for receiver Brett Perriman in the end zone, but Pete Giftopoulous grabbed the pass instead, and the Lions had their second national title.

The game, viewed by 73,000-plus in person and in nearly 22 million homes on television, is one few Penn State fans will forget. The players who lived it made good on their bold promise from two years earlier and accomplished what they had not been able to the year before.

“Everything that we had experienced up to that point played into what we needed in giving that experience to go out and do what we did,” White says. “It was all part of it in terms of the molding of each of us as individuals, but also molding us collectively as a team. You can just backtrack your steps, and it was all connected, all tied together.”