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Throwback Thursday: The Last Time Penn State Knocked Off A Top-Two Team

Penn Staters and college football fans across the world are still in shock. Grant Haley’s clutch blocked field goal return helped seal the most improbable of comeback victories for the Nittany Lions over the previously No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes this past weekend.

With the program having struggled over the last few years to find its identity, a win over a ranked team is a huge step in the right direction. But to beat one of our arch rivals, who just so happened to be ranked No. 2? A solid playoff contender with a historic head coach and Heisman candidate at quarterback? During a White Out game? This game has to go down as one of the greatest victories in Beaver Stadium history, and with Penn State back in the rankings for the first time since 2011, the win could help take our program to heights fans haven’t seen in almost a decade.

The last time Penn State had such a win over a team ranked top two in the country, the first George Bush was nearing the halfway point of his presidential term. It was November 17, 1990, and the Nittany Lions were ranked 18. Quarterback Tony Sacca and running back Leroy Thompson rolled into South Bend, IN with relatively low expectations from the sports world.

Notre Dame had won 32 of its previous 34 games coming into that Saturday. It won the National Championship in 1988 and finished second in the polls in 1989. Headed into their tenth game of the 1990 season, the Fighting Irish were the top-ranked team and were en route to their second title in a three-year span.

Despite being massive underdogs and falling behind at halftime 21-7 (similar to Saturday’s third quarter score, may we add), Penn State clawed back. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Notre Dame star receiver/return man Raghib Ismail was sidelined just before halftime with a thigh injury. It gave the Nittany Lions a chance. Then, Sacca and tight end Ricky Sales turned an interception on Notre Dame’s first second-half drive into seven points.

The score was 21-14 in the fourth quarter, and Sacca came up big again. A 59-yard drive on just three passes finished with another touchdown when he hit Al Golden for a Penn State score. With just more than two minutes left, the Irish were pinned at their own seven-yard line by a Penn State punt. The Nittany Lions punted from nearly midfield on fourth and short and seemed to be playing for the tie. However, Penn State safety Darren Perry had a different plan. After a Notre Dame first down, Perry picked off a pass at the 40-yard line and returned it all the way inside the Irish 20. Penn State ran the ball up the middle and wound the clock down before Craig Fayak attempted a field goal for Penn State. The true freshman kicker nailed it with just four seconds remaining, and the Nittany Lions stunned the top-ranked team in the nation 24-21 — scoring the last 17 points of the game in the process.

Hmm…sounds almost exactly like a game we’ve watched recently.

Victories over both the 1990 Irish and the present day Buckeyes are memorable, but we forgive those of you who either struggle to remember what that game was like or who weren’t even born yet. With that in mind, here’s a look back to what life was like when Penn State last beat a top-two team prior to this weekend.

In The News

The United States and the UK were involved in the Persian Gulf War after implementing Operation Desert Storm following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

East and West Germany were just two months removed from reuniting into one nation.


Margaret Thatcher struggled to keep support in the British Conservative Party during a re-election campaign and she soon resigned from her post as Prime Minister of Great Britain.

In Music

Mariah Carey’s “Love Takes Time” was enjoying its second week atop of the Billboard charts during the week leading up to November 17. M.C. Hammer’s “Pray” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” rounded out the top three songs on the weekly charts. Anything less than the best was a felony for Penn State, evidently.

At The Movies

“Home Alone” and “Rocky V” led the box office ticket sales for the weekend of November 16-18, while “Child’s Play 2” and “Jacob’s Ladder” were also successful.


NBC’s “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “Empty Nest,” “The Golden Girls,” and “A Different World,” along with the debut of “Seinfeld,” sat atop network television in 1990. ABC’s “Roseanne,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” “America’s Funniest People,” “Full House,” and “Family Matters” put it behind NBC for second most-watched network during 1990. CBS aired popular shows such as “Murphy Brown,” “Designing Women,” and “Murder, She Wrote,” and of course, the wildly popular “60 Minutes.” Fox debuted a new cartoon comedy which still airs today: “The Simpsons.”

Consumer Culture

Furbies were still all the rage in 1990 following their 1988 U.S. release. Nintendo’s Gameboy Compact and the Atari Lynx Portable Color were big hits as well. Gas prices hovered around $1.32 per gallon nationally and the top-selling vehicle was the Honda Accord — the first foreign car to be the top-selling vehicle in America. Nokia bag phones and their first handheld Mobira Cityman 900 headlined the growing popularity in the mobile phone industry.

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About the Author

Mitch Stewart

Mitch is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism from Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to being an editor for Onward State, Mitch loves to watch sports, talk about sports on PSU CommRadio, and tries his hardest to avoid the agony that being a Mets fan brings. To contact Mitch, feel free to send him an e-mail at [email protected], and if you really don't value your social media accounts, follow him and his garbage opinions on Twitter @mitchystew.


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