Penn State’s heading to the Fiesta Bowl for the seventh time in program history — undefeated to date as James Franklin’s ninth-ranked team travels to face the Washington Huskies December 30.
While the Nittany Lions prepare for their return to the game for the first time since 1997, let’s take a look back at all six of those Penn State victories:
1977: Arizona State
Penn State’s first appearance in the Fiesta Bowl came after a season that saw Joe Paterno’s squad finish with a 10-1 record.
The team’s only loss of the season came at the hands of Kentucky in October — derailing any chance of the program’s first national title. Despite this, the Nittany Lions rebounded to rattle off seven straight victories to end the season and clinch a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
Then-No. 8 Penn State was matched up with No. 15 Arizona State in the Fiesta Bowl at the conclusion of the regular season. Played at Sun Devil Stadium, it was an away game in all but name for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State’s strong defense was tested against an explosive Arizona State squad, but ultimately, the team picked up a 42-30 victory over the Sun Devils. Penn State tailbacks Steve Geise and Bob Torrey combined for 218 yards and two scores throughout the evening. The Nittany Lions blocked a punt and forced a fumble in the first quarter to jump out to a 14-point lead and set the tone for the rest of the game.
1980: Ohio State
The tenth annual Fiesta Bowl was a tale of two halves for Penn State.
After finishing the 1980 regular season with a 9-2 record, Penn State earned a spot in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, a team the Nittany Lions did not see much of before they joined the Big Ten.
After Penn State tailback Curt Warner opened the scoring with a 64-yard touchdown on the team’s first play from scrimmage, the Buckeyes responded by scoring 19 unanswered points (Sounds vaguely familiar). A late field goal brought the Nittany Lions within nine at halftime.
Joe Paterno’s team came out flying in the second half, scoring three touchdowns and shutting out Ohio State’s offense to pick up a second Fiesta Bowl victory in as many games.
Penn State was right back in the Fiesta Bowl one season after knocking off the Buckeyes, but this time, the team squared off against USC.
The Nittany Lions were in the top five through much of the 1981 season, even earning the No. 1 spot in the country at one point, but were knocked off by Miami (FL) on Halloween. Two weeks later, Alabama came to Beaver Stadium and upset Penn State, ending any Nittany Lion hopes of a national championship in the process.
After knocking off No. 1 Pitt in the final week of the season, Penn State was awarded its second consecutive Fiesta Bowl berth, this time taking on No. 18 USC. For the second time in as many seasons, Curt Warner ran for a touchdown on the first play of the game, setting the tone for a resounding 26-10 victory over the Trojans.
A Todd Blackledge pick-six tied the game, but Penn State scored 17 unanswered points to pull away from USC. A late safety was the cherry on top of a complete effort from the Nittany Lions and capped off their second straight Fiesta Bowl victory.
The 1987 Fiesta Bowl will certainly go down as the biggest Penn State has ever played.
After the heartbreak of losing the national championship game to Oklahoma one season earlier, Penn State entered the 1987 Fiesta Bowl boasting a perfect 11-0 record. Its opponent, No. 1 Miami (FL), was also undefeated going into the game, a fact that did not intimidate Joe Paterno’s team.
Led by legendary head coach Jimmy Johnson and star quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the Hurricanes were the favorites to win a game that was dubbed “The Battle For No. 1.” The Heisman Trophy winner collapsed on the biggest stage — throwing five interceptions to help Penn State win its second national title in program history.
Miami took control of the ball with 3:08 remaining in search of a go-ahead touchdown, but Penn State linebacker Pete Giftopoulos accepted a gift from Testaverde and caught the game-clinching interception on the goal line with 15 seconds left.
Penn State took on Tennessee in the 21st annual Fiesta Bowl in 1992, beating the Volunteers after a rally in the second half.
Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelley threw a 44-yard touchdown to Cory Fleming midway through the third quarter to give his team a ten-point lead heading into the home stretch of the game, but it was then-No. 6 Penn State that took over from then on.
Penn State quarterback Tony Sacca threw three touchdowns alongside a Reggie Givens pick-six to help the Nittany Lions score 35 unanswered points en route to a 42-17 victory. Three different receivers — Chip LaBarca, Kyle Brady, and O.J. McDuffie — caught touchdowns from Sacca during the rally. As a result of his pick-six, Givens was named the defensive player of the game.
Joe Paterno’s final Fiesta Bowl appearance came in 1997 when his team used another second-half comeback to pick up a victory, this time over Texas.
The Nittany Lions entered the game with a 10-2 record, but struggled in the first half against the Longhorns. Although the defense managed to limit Texas’ potent offense to 12 points, Penn State only scored seven of its own in the first 30 minutes of play.
However, the third quarter proved to be the difference in the game; the Nittany Lions outscored Texas 21-3 with touchdowns from Aaron Harris, Curtis Enis, and Anthony Cleary. Enis’ third score of the game late in the fourth quarter extended Penn State’s lead to 38-15 and was the icing on the cake of an excellent comeback effort.
The victory gave Joe Paterno a perfect 6-0 record in Fiesta Bowls throughout his career, three of which were in come-from-behind fashion.
History favors the Nittany Lions in this year’s Fiesta Bowl. We’ll find out if history continues to repeat itself when the Nittany Lions kick off against the Washington Huskies at 4 p.m. December 30.