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Penn State
Football: History a lesson for PSU, Nebraska

Saturday, September 14, 2002

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Twenty years ago, Penn State and Nebraska staged one of the greatest games played at Beaver Stadium. Penn State's 27-24 victory against the Cornhuskers had everything that makes a classic -- great players making great plays, unheralded players making bigger plays, a spirited comeback from the visiting team and a last-minute, winning drive by the home team.

And, of course, controversy.

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dot.gif Matchup: Penn State (1-0) vs. No. 8 Nebraska (3-0), 8 p.m., Beaver Stadium. Nebraska is favored by 5.

dot.gif TV, radio: ABC; WEAE-AM (1250) and the Penn State radio network.

dot.gif Penn State: Coming off a 27-24 victory against Central Florida. ... QB Zack Mills was 13 for 20 for 194 yards and two TDs in the opener. ... RB Larry Johnson had 92 yards on 18 carries. ... Leads the series, 6-5. The last meeting came in the 1983 Kickoff Classic, a 44-6 Nebraska victory at Giants Stadium. ... Members of the 1982 national championship team will be honored at halftime. The FDNY rescue units will be honored before the game. ... This is the seventh night game in Beaver Stadium history. School officials believe the stadium attendance record of 109,313, set last year against Miami, could fall. ... Is 29-13 after an open date.

dot.gif Nebraska: Coming off a 44-13 victory against Utah State. ... Coach Frank Solich is in his fifth season and has a 45-9 record. ... QB Jammal Lord, the replacement for Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, will make his first start on the road. ... CB DeJuan Groce has four interceptions in the past two games and also has returned two punts for TDs. ... Is averaging 23.2 yards per punt return. ... DE Chris Kelsay has 3 1/2 sacks.

dot.gif Hidden stat: Nebraska has won eight consecutive games against Big Ten opponents with its last loss coming against Michigan in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl.


"For a long time there, people were calling it the greatest college football game ever," said Greg Gattuso, a nose guard on that Penn State team. "We heard that for a long time. It was absolutely why you play the sport."

And for those two teams that day, it was absolutely a turning point in the season and in the histories of the programs.

The victory helped the Nittany Lions on the road to their first national title. They came into the game ranked eighth. And although they lost at Alabama by three touchdowns two weeks later, seven consecutive victories, including three in a row against No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 5 Pitt and No. 1 Georgia to close out the season, were enough to give Coach Joe Paterno his elusive national championship.

Folks at Nebraska point to the game as a cruel reminder of the fragility of contending for a national championship. Nebraska came into the game ranked second, its highest ranking since 1979. The Cornhuskers had their sights set on their first national title since 1971.

The Penn State game was the only loss of the season for the Cornhuskers. They went on to win their next 10 games, including a 21-20 victory against LSU in the Orange Bowl on the same day No. 2 Penn State topped No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for the title.

Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne had to wait 12 more years to win his first national championship.

The game is still a sore spot for Nebraska today.

"The '82 game I remember well. Unfortunately, it's not a positive memory," said Turner Gill, Nebraska's quarterback then and its quarterbacks coach now. "Some issues came up, different calls and all that. The referees made the calls they felt were appropriate. That's what makes it interesting for fans. They're talking about it to this day."

The call was a 15-yard reception that Penn State tight end Mike McCloskey had at the Nebraska 2 on the winning drive. Replays show McCloskey failed to get a foot inbounds.

"When he caught it, I said, 'That's it. We're done,'" Gattuso said. "He was out of bounds. Then I heard the crowd roar. I was like, 'Wow. We got one there.'"

On the next play, quarterback Todd Blackledge found Kirk Bowman, a backup tight end, for the winning score with four seconds remaining. Bowman, who caught the touchdown pass just inches off the grass, caught two touchdowns that day, his first two receptions in his career. He had been a defensive end the year before and an offensive guard entering fall camp before being switched to tight end.

"I guess the thing I remember most was Kirk Bowman making the catch in the end zone because I think that was maybe his first or second catch he had ever made in his life at Penn State," Paterno said. "It wasn't an easy catch, either. Todd Blackledge did not put that ball on the money."

Penn State actually had dominated the game early. The Lions had a 14-7 halftime lead on the strength of Blackledge's right arm and a stout defense that stymied Nebraska's vaunted rushing attack, holding the Cornhuskers to 61 yards rushing in the first half.

Gattuso lined up against center Dave Rimington, widely regarded as one of the best college linemen. Next to him was guard Dean Steinkuhler, another all-time great. But it Gattuso who stirred things up in the trenches early.

Gattuso lined up so close to Rimington and timed his snaps so well that Nebraska's running game was stuck in neutral for much of the game.

"I had watched a lot of film before the game and played really well," said Gattuso, who was making his second career start. "I played him different than a lot of guys had played him. I was probably off sides the whole game. As soon as he would snap the ball, I would drive into him. I just remember it being a war."

Even though Penn State had the better play in the first half, there was an ominous feeling in the stadium because freshman placekicker Massimo Manca missed three field goals and two Blackledge touchdown passes in the end zone were called back because of penalties. Kenny Jackson caught an 18-yard touchdown in the third quarter for a 14-point lead, but Nebraska came charging back. The Cornhuskers scored 17 unanswered points, capped by Gill's 1-yard run with 78 seconds remaining for a 24-21 lead.

But they left too much time for Blackledge, who completed a fourth-and-11 pass to Jackson to keep the winning drive alive before McCloskey's catch.

Tonight's game will be the first between the two schools since 1983, when the Cornhuskers won, 44-6, in the Kickoff Classic. But the rivalry has carried on. In 1994, top-ranked Nebraska played No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, not No.2 Penn State, which was undefeated and untied.

The participants in today's game are well-versed on the history of the Penn State-Nebraska series, especially the memorable game 20 years ago. At Nebraska, Gill briefed his quarterback, Jammal Lord, about the game. At Penn State, assistant coaches showed players film of the game this week to show the players what it used to be like. Bob White, a former coach and a defensive end on that 1982 team, came to practice and spoke to the team.

To add to the atmosphere, 50 members of the '82 national championship will be honored at halftime.

"This is what I coach for," Paterno said. "This is a game on national television on Saturday night. It is a big-game atmosphere. Nebraska is Nebraska. We have had some great games with them."

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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