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The Worst Regular Season Losses In Penn State History

Excruciating losses come by nature of being a die-hard fan, and at Penn State there are no shortage of either — especially when it comes to Penn State football. Lucky for us, we are about to relive some of the worst losses in school history. We’ll rank them in three bleak categories: “stomach-churning,” “heartbreaking,” and “soul-crushing.” To keep things simple, we are only looking at regular season losses. Games will be judged by how Penn State lost, who it lost to, and what the repercussions were of that loss. Now that the ground rules are set, let’s get down to business.


10) Lehigh 106 – Penn State 0 (1889)

Even though no one is currently alive who remembers watching this game, I think the score speaks for itself. The most lopsided loss in Penn State history didn’t come from Ohio State or Michigan… It came from Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks spanked (excuse my French) the living shit out of Penn State. This may have been before the sport of football was really crafted into the modern game it is today, but what’s a list of the worst Penn State regular season losses without this atrocity?

Photo by: Lehigh University Epitome

9) Temple 27 – Penn State 10 (2015)

This game is buried now and won’t be talked about.

8) Toledo 24 – Penn State 6 (2000)

A very similar game to Temple, the Rockets caught what was thought to be a much more talented Penn State team flat-footed. The Nittany Lions struggled immensely on offense and fell to their first 0-2 start since 1990. It was a disgusting performance that really deserved a burial of its own. Penn State had never, I repeat never, lost to a Mid-American Conference opponent until it faced Toledo. To make matters worse, it was a home game.


7) Alabama 42 – Penn State 21 (1982)

This one hurt on a bunch of different levels. Alabama was ranked No. 4 and Penn State was No.3, the Nittany Lions made incredibly embarrassing mistakes (like blocking their own punt), and the game came immediately after JoePa’s boys had won a miraculous contest against Nebraska. Alabama ranks in my top 5 of non-conference opponents that I hate watching Penn State lose to. The all-time leader in college football National Championships, Alabama, had a great run as a main rival to Penn State in the early ’70s up through the ’90s. The Crimson Tide and the Nittany Lions had some incredible battles, with almost every matchup pitting two highly ranked teams against each other. Alabama dominated the series for the most part though, but many can say that this 1982 Penn State team should have at least put up a better fight.

6) Miami 17 – Penn State 14 (1981)

This game was very similar to the Alabama game because Penn State was upset by a Miami team that was ranked one spot lower in the National AP Poll. It’s ranked higher because, although blowout losses hurt, close losses sting; that sting takes a while to go away. It doesn’t help that Penn State was ranked No. 1 and Miami was No. 2 and that the Nittany Lions almost came back in an epic fashion. Down 17-o going into the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions battled back to within a field goal of tying the game. Everyone thought Ficken was bad in 2012, but the kicker in this game, Brian Franco, missed four field goal attempts including placements from 21 and 23 yards. To make matters worse, he had missed only one of 12 other field goal attempts that season. Oh, and we’re not done. The quarterback for Miami was a kid named Jim Kelly, who stemmed from East Brady, PA, and who JoePa actually tried to recruit as a linebacker four years prior to this game. He didn’t look like a linebacker in this game, especially when he threw an 80-yard bomb to put Miami up right before the fourth quarter started. This beating was frustrating in its own right, but with the loss of the No. 1 ranking after only 11 days of holding it, propels this game into the top ten.

5) Virginia 17 –  Penn State 16 (2012)

Everyone remembers Sam Ficken as the clutch, accurate kicker he is today, but everyone seems to forget how god awful he was back when he first started kicking for Penn State. Well, maybe they don’t forget, but they choose not to remember? Either way, I remember, and permanent scarring still exists. Just thinking about this loss makes me frustrated. Ficken was one-for-five on field goals and one-for-two on extra points. He would go on to miss a field goal that would have won the game. This was no doubt the worst single-game kicking performance in Penn State history. Bill O’Brien’s first couple games as the Nittany Lions’ head coach did not go well, and this was the pinnacle of his torturous start. It seemed like a higher power was at work against Penn State, as it continued to lose in the most ridiculous ways. The Virginia loss, although it had lower repercussions considering the sanctions prevented Penn State from playing in bowl games, still hurt just as badly, if not worse. To win would have meant silencing the haters and the NCAA, yet O’Brien’s Lions just couldn’t seem to pull it off. It was truly a wretched game to watch and I honestly feel uncomfortable even writing about it. Every time I think about it I just visualize Ficken missing those field goals. Ugh, we need to move on.

4) Miami 37 – Penn State 7 (2001)

We were so wrong… So wrong. Perhaps the worst scheduling decision in Penn State football’s history, the Nittany Lions got matched up against the most stacked team to ever play college football for their first game of the season. The 2001 Miami Hurricanes not only ended the season as National Champions, but 38 members of the team were drafted — and not only drafted, but ended up with a combined 42 Pro Bowl trips (as of 2013) among them. Miami beat opponents by an average of 32.9 points per game, the largest margin in the school’s history, and set the NCAA record for largest margin of victory over consecutive ranked teams (124–7). Penn State happened to fall victim to this unstoppable force in the most embarrassing way possible: a 30 point loss in the home opener, in front of 109,313 people, all while it was ranked as the No. 2 team in the country. It doesn’t get worse than that.


Photo: Bobby Chen/OS

3) Minnesota 24 – Penn State 23 (1999)

Oh wait, it definitely gets worse. With more than The Governor’s Victory Bell up for grabs, Penn State had a chance to make a serious run for the National Championship until Minnesota upset the No. 2 Nittany Lions. Two miracle plays helped Minnesota achieve victory. First was a “Hail Mary” by the Golden Gophers to get them past half field, then came a conversion on 4th and 16 to move them into easy field goal range. That is actually one of the definitions of soul-crushing. That field goal seemed to mentally break Penn State as it went on to lose two more games that season after starting out with an impressive record of 9-0. One of the most talented defensive teams in Penn State history, the Nittany Lions were led by future No. 1 and 2 overall draft picks LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown. Minnesota didn’t even seem to notice these two defensive gladiators as freshman kicker Dan Nystrom stuck the final dagger in the hearts of Penn State fans everywhere. Oh yeah, and did I mention it was the Homecoming game that year?

2) Iowa 24 – Penn State 23 (2008)

This one is still fresh. Even seven years later, few can argue how devastating this loss was. Former Onward State Managing Editor Kevin Horne said it best: “I cried after that game.” And honestly who didn’t? All the talk about an unbeaten season: gone. A third championship for the 81-year-old Joe Paterno: gone. Everything was ruined, because of some silly, unranked Hawkeye team. Beloved offensive weapons Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood would soon be gone, and although the 2009 Penn State team had quite a bit of success, they weren’t nearly as talented as this squad. The way this game went, everyone knew it wasn’t going to be an easy win. Iowa was playing in front of a fired up home crowd and that surely elevated the team’s play. The match was a tug of war the whole time. With five lead changes, no one knew how the game would end. When Penn State went up by nine points entering the fourth quarter, fans everywhere thought we would finally be able to either blow the game open, or at least keep our lead. With a stout defense lead by Navorro Bowman and Jared Odrick, Penn State looked primed to keep the lead and secure the victory. Of course, nothing is ever that easy. The game ended with Penn State, once again, losing on a last-second field goal.

1) Michigan 27 – Penn State 25 (2005)

Could it really have been any other game? The single worst regular season loss in Penn State history came at the hands of the one and only University of Michigan. This game actually made everything personal. The intensity of the rivalry, the hatred, everything was multiplied after this game. For those of you who are lucky enough to be ignorant of what happened in this game, here is the quick run down: Penn State, lead by dual-threat quarterback Michael Robinson, was off to its best start since 1999. It was the No. 8 team in the country and was just coming off an incredibly impressive victory against No. 6 Ohio State. Michigan, on the other hand was having its worst season since 1967. Penn State came into the Big House unsuspecting that the Wolverines were going to put up a fight. The Nittany Lions were down early but stormed back in the fourth quarter, scoring 22 points and taking the lead with 53 seconds left. On Michigan’s next drive, things got a bit out of hand. With 28 seconds left, Michigan called a timeout and head coach Lloyd Carr called the officials over. After much protest from Carr and a long conference, the officials reset the game clock to 0:30. Those extra two seconds would turn out to impact the outcome of the game like nothing else. Six plays later, with 0:01 on the clock, Michigan scored the game-winning touchdown. Everything was over. As a nine-year-old life-long Penn State fan, I was despondent. This was the first Penn State team that was actually good that I could remember watching. I was obsessed with Michael Robinson. To this day he is still my favorite all-time Penn State athlete, and should have won this game — but we did win this game. Except we didn’t. Title hopes for Penn State were again gone as fast as they came. My gut was wrenched, my heart was broken, my soul was crushed. As a nine-year-old, very few things mattered to me as much as that Penn State team did. I thought about it for weeks on end. I could barely watch the rest of the games that season. To this day I’m still unsatisfied with that Orange Bowl victory against Florida State. Penn State should have been fighting for the national title. A magical season came to a crushing end with that loss in that Michigan game. The Nittany Lions can beat them as many times as we want, but it will never help to heal the pain of that crushing defeat.

Honorable Mentions

  • Nebraska 44 – Penn State 6 (1983)

  • Notre Dame 44 – Penn State 7 (1984)

  • Iowa 6 – Penn State 4 (2004)

  • Iowa 21 – Penn State 10 (2009)

  • Ohio State 63 – Penn State 14 (2013)

  • Illinois 16 – Penn State 14 (2014)

What’s the worst loss in Penn State football history? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author

Ben Rappaport

is a junior English and Journalism major at Penn State. He loves spending way too much money on concerts and music festivals. Ben can usually be found walking around campus listening to Kanye West. A fun fact about him is he once was resuscitated from unconsciousness by Pusha T's verse on the song "Mercy." Feel free to contact him at or follow him on twitter at @Benrappp.

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