Penn State Football: Joepa’s Top 5

In the spirit of celebrating the life of Joe Paterno, it is appropriate to discuss his top five teams over the past 46 season’s as head coach. Picking just five teams is tough, because Penn State was considered The Beast from the East for the better part of Paterno’s career, but here it goes:

#5: 2005

11-1 Record; Big Ten Champions; Orange Bowl Champions; #3 Ranking

The 2005 season was one of Joe Paterno’s greatest accomplishments over his long career. Penn State had hit rock bottom in 2003-2004, finishing 3-9 and 4-7. The 2004 offense is the worst offense I have ever seen, while the defense ranked top five in the country. To put it in perspective, the offense was so bad in 2004 that they lost to Iowa 6-4 despite starting two drives inside the redzone. They couldn’t even muster a field goal. After the season, Athletic Director Tim Curley and University President Graham Spainer visited Paterno at his home and asked him to step down. Paterno declined, but later said that if Penn State did not have a winning season in 2005, he would retire.

Michael Robinson was named Penn State’s starting Quarterback heading into the 2005 season. Robinson had played just about every

Joe Paterno and Quarterback Michael Robinson celebrate the 2005 Orange Bowl victory which capped off an 11-1 season.

skill position on offense over his first three years on the team, but was glad to finally settle in as the Quarterback.

The season started with two non-convincing wins over South Florida and Cincinnati. A slew of turnovers by Robinson had fans wondering whether or not he was the right man for the job. After a blowout win over a terrible Central Michigan team, Penn State went on the road to take on Northwestern in the first conference game of the season. Things could not have started worse for the Nittany Lions. They were sloppy and out of sync, but somehow only trailed by nine points at halftime. Penn State found themselves in a fourth and 16 at their own 20 trailing 29-27  with just a few minutes left in the game. Michael Robinson completed a 20 yard pass to Tight End Issac Smolko in what is believed to be the play that brought Penn State out of its five year funk. Robinson then led the team down the field and capped off the drive with a touchdown pass to Derrick Williams with less than a minute left in the game. Penn State escaped with a 34-29 victory.

Penn State then rolled over Minnesota the next week which set up a monster game against the #6 Ohio State Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium. The build up to this game was humongous. Students camped out at Beaver Stadium to get front row seats. This is now called “Paternoville.” The stadium was definitely filled past capacity, because I had to stand sideways the whole time, but it was worth it. Penn State stunned Ohio State 17-10 in a game that solidified Penn State’s return to their winning ways. ESPN named Penn State “The Greatest Show in College Football” and also said that Penn State had the best student section in the country. University officials stated that there was structural damage to Beaver Stadium after this game because the fans jumped to the tune of “Zombie Nation” after what seemed like every play.

Penn State lost a heart-breaker the next week at Michigan on a last second touchdown 27-25. Penn State fans still swear that the officials gave Michigan that game because they added two extra seconds to the game because Lloyd Carr complained and Jason Avant’s foot was clearly out of bounds on a long pass down the sidelines. In hindsight, that wouldn’t have mattered because there was no way Penn State would have been ranked over USC or Texas.  None the less, Penn State ran the table the rest of the season finishing 10-1 and earning an automatic BCS birth. The National Title game was the Rose Bowl that year, so Penn State was picked to play against Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles in the Orange Bowl. In a game that went to three overtimes, Penn State finally shook off the Seminoles, winning 26-23 despite missing two field goals at the end of regulation and in the first overtime.

Joe Paterno proved his critics wrong once again. The Nittany Lions had finished 11-1 and were ranked #3 in the final AP/Coaches Polls of the season.

Key Players: QB Michael Robinson; LB Paul Posluszny; WR Derrick Williams; DE Tamba Hali

#4: 1969

11-0 Record, Orange Bowl Champions, # 2 Ranking

Penn State finished the 1969 season 11-0 with a 10-3 victory over Missouri in the Orange Bowl. That win was Penn State’s 30th win in a row, yet they were denied the National Championship for the second straight season. The pollsters were swayed to vote for Texas because President Richard Nixon declared that the Longhorns were the best team in the country.

A few weeks after the season ended, the White House called Paterno and offered to have the team come meet the President because he wanted to give them a trophy for having the longest winning streak in college football. Paterno, still furious that Nixon declared Texas National Champions, told the President to shove it.

Penn State had blowout wins over top rivals Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Maryland. They also squeaked out a 15-14 victory over rival Syracuse.

The Nittany Lions were led by All-American Linebacker Jack Ham. Ham, along with Mike Reid and Dennis Onkotz, led Penn State’s powerful defense while Charlie Pittman helped anchor the offense.

Key Players: LB Jack Ham; RB Charlie Pittman; DT Mike Reid; WR Franco Harris

#3: 1986

12-0 Record, Fiesta Bowl Champions, National Champions

Penn State entered the 1986 season ranked number six in the country and poised to make another National Championship run. Linebacker Shane Conlan anchored what is now known as one of the best defense’s Penn State has ever had. Meanwhile, Tailback D.J Dozier was the lone All-American on an offense that was considered average.

The Nittany Lions started the season 6-0 with blowout wins over Temple, East Carolina, Rutgers, and Syracuse while surviving close calls to Boston College and Cincinnati. This set up a huge game against #2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide started quickly with a field goal on their second possession putting them up 3-0. That score would hold up until 10 minutes in the second quarter when Penn State Tailback D.J Dozier barreled into the endzone making the score 7-3. Later in the quarter, Fullback Blair Thomas would score for the Nittany Lions on a reverse. Yes, I think Joe Paterno is one of the only coaches in history that ran reverse plays to his Fullback. The score would be 14-3 at halftime, and Penn State never looked back. A ferocious defensive effort by the Nittany Lions held

Penn State celebrates it's victory over #1 Miami in the Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 1987

Alabama in check all day and forced five turnovers. Penn State left Tuscaloosa with a 23-3 upset over the Crimson Tide.

Penn State ran the table the rest of the year, defeating West Virginia, Maryland, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh. This set up a historic match-up with the #1 Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami was led by Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin, Jerome Brown and Jimmy Johnson, among many other future NFL stars. Joe Paterno set Miami up perfectly. The weeks leading up to the game, Paterno repeatedly stated that this team was the best he had ever seen, and that he wasn’t sure his team had enough to overcome the Hurricanes. Miami bought in. They arrived in Arizona wearing the infamous Army fatigues and refused to eat dinner with Penn State the day before the game, stating that the Japanese did not have dinner with the Americans the night before they attacked Pearl Harbor.  I guess Miami didn’t realize that Japan lost the war. The Hurricanes acted like a bunch of punks, but who could blame them? They were considered the best team in college football history at that time.

January 2, 1987: Penn State stunned Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, 14-10, while forcing seven Hurricane turnovers. The most famous play of that game occurred with 18 seconds remaining when Pete Giftopoulos intercepted Vinny Testaverde at the goal-line sealing the Penn State victory. To this day, it is still considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history. The best part is that the players on that Miami team are still complaining about that game up to this present day.

Key Players: RB D.J Dozier; FB Blair Thomas; LB Shane Conlan; OL Steve Wisniewski; DT Tim Johnson

#2: 1982

11-1 Record; Sugar Bowl Champions; National Champions

Penn State came into the 1982 season ranked # 8 in the country. This determined group of Nittany Lions looked to begin where they left off in 1981. That season, Penn State rebounded after a 31-16 loss to Alabama; finishing 10-2 with wins over Notre Dame (24-21), #1 Pitt (48-14), and USC in the Fiesta Bowl (26-10).

The season started off well for Penn State, notching blowout wins over Temple, Maryland, and Rutgers. This set up  a huge game against #2 Nebraska in Beaver Stadium. This match-up was so big that Penn State University brought in portable lights so that the game could be played at night. Penn State trailed Nebraska 24-21 with 13 seconds left in the game. In one of the most controversial calls in college football history, Penn State Quarterback Todd Blackledge completed a pass to his Receiver down at the two yard line, however, looking

Penn State wins it's first National Championship over Georgia 27-23.

back at that game, the Receiver was definitely out of bounds when he caught the ball. Fortunately for Penn State, there was no instant replay at that time. On the last play of the game, Blackledge completed  a low pass in the endzone to the Tight End, who’s nickname was ironically “Stone Hands.” Penn State won 27-24, with the entire student section rushing the field.

The celebration wouldn’t last, however. The next week, Penn State went to Alabama and got dominated by the Crimson Tide, 42-21. It looked as if Bear Bryant had once again spoiled Penn State’s chance at a National Title, just as they did in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. This Penn State team, however, was a team of destiny. The Nittany Lions won their remaining six regular season games with marquee wins over West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Pitt. This set up a classic match-up between #1 Georgia and #2 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.

Penn State had come too far to be denied now. This was, indeed, a de-facto National Championship game. (For those who do not know, in college football there was no National Championship game until the 1998 season. Each team played out their own schedule and then were assigned a bowl game. Most of the time, #1 and #2 did not meet on the field. The bowl games were played, and then the Sports Columnists from around the country picked the National Champion. It was a lousier system than the current BCS, which plays a title game.)

The Nittany Lions shut down Herschel Walker and the Georgia Bulldogs, winning 27-23, claiming their first National Championship. So after going undefeated in 1968, 1969, 1973, and being stopped at the inch-line in 1979, Penn State was finally ranked number one in 1892. Ironically enough, it came with one loss.

Key Players: QB Todd Blackledge; RB Curt Warner; DB Mike Zordich; LB Al Harris

#1: 1994

12-0 Record; Big Ten Champions; Rose Bowl Champions; #2 Ranking

The 1994 Penn State football team is probably the most dynamic team that Joe Paterno ever had. Surprisingly, it was not a conventional Paterno team. The offense led the way in 1994 rather than the defense. And oh, what an offense it was. College Football fans can recall the 2005 USC offense with Reggie Bush and Matt Lienart, two Heisman Trophy winners. This 1994 Penn State offense easily puts that USC offense to shame. These current SEC offenses can’t compare to the 1994 Penn State offense. They were big. They were fast. They dominated. The offense was headlined by explosive Tailback Ki-Jana Carter, Quarterback Kerry Collins, and Tight End Kyle Brady, among many others.

The season started with a 56-3 win over Minnesota, and the Nittany Lions never looked back. Penn State reeled off blowout wins over #14 USC (38-14), Iowa (61-21), Rutgers (55-27), and Temple (48-21). This set up a big game against #5 Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Nittany Lions stunned the Wolverines, 31-24. Penn State returned home the next week to take on #21 Ohio State. Many national sports

Ki Jana Carter blows by the Oregon defenders on Penn State's first play of the 1995 Rose Bowl.

columnists picked the Buckeyes to upset # 1 Penn State. They were dead wrong. Penn State demolished Ohio State by a score pf 63-14. The OSU defensive coordinator was so upset that he broke a window in the coaches box at Beaver Stadium.

The next game is what many fans believe to be the game that did in Penn State. The Nittany Lions led Indiana 35-13 with six minutes remaining in the game. The Hoosiers first team offense scored 16 points in garbage time against Penn State’s 2nd and 3rd defense. The final score was 35-29. As a result, the national pollsters dropped Penn State to #2. There is an on-going conspiracy that Ohio State fans are responsible for this. At that time, the majority of the pollsters came from the Ohio-Midwest area. Many Penn Stater’s believe that these pollsters (OSU nuts), dropped the Nittany Lions because they were so upset over the beatdown Penn State put on them the week before. None the less, Penn State moved on.

Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions finished the season with wins over Illinois (35-31, Penn State trailed 21-0 but came back and scored on a 91 yard drive at the end of the game; sealing the victory.) They also had wins over Northwestern (45-17) and Michigan State (59-31). Winning the Big Ten automatically put Penn State in the Rose Bowl to face #12 Oregon. The Ducks didn’t stand a chance against the explosive Nittany Lions. On Penn State’s first play from scrimmage, Ki-Jana Carter blew by the Oregon defense en route to an 80 yard touchdown. That is only half of the story, however. On that particular play, two of Penn State’s offensive linemen missed blocks, and Carter himself stumbled in the backfield, yet, he regained his composure and flew down the field like someone lit a fire underneath his rear-end. Penn State blew away Oregon, 38-20, yet was denied the National Championship, which was given to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nebraska had a nice team, but there is no doubt that Penn State would have beaten them. That offense was unstoppable.

Key Players: QB Kerry Collins; RB Ki-Jana Carter; TE Kyle Brady; WR Bobby Engram; WR Joe Jurevicius

Honorable Mentions:

1968: Joe Paterno’s first undefeated team

1973: Undefeated; Boasted Heisman winner John Cappaletti 

1978: Undefeated Regular Season; Stone-Walled by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl

1981: Had two tough losses but upended Dan Marino and #1 Pittsburgh 48-14

2008: Started the season 9-0 before falling to Iowa 24-23. I personally believe that this team could have beaten the 2005 team; but it lost credibility because of a terrible Rose Bowl performance. 


  • Jvderosier

    Great article! I agree that the ’94 team was one of the best I had ever witnessed. “never a doubt” was the call by Penn State’s play by play Fran Fisher announcer when he called the “drive” at the end of the Illinois game. As a fan we knew they would win any game.

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  • Bob Ream

    I wholeheartedly agree with the #1 selection…the 1994 team…I traveled to IL to see the come from behind Rose Bowl clinching game…then took my family along with dear friends to see the Rose Bowl (my daughter told me that was her favorite family vacation)…attended the pregame pep rally taking picture of Joe PA and Sue on stage from the top level of parking lot many yards away…mailed the picture with letter to Coach Paterno & he responded with letter dated 1/23/95 with hand written PS…which is framed and hangs in my home office…one of many priceless Joe Paterno momentos I proudly posses…I’m glad I made the effort to drive to his viewing on Tuesday…spending many hours in line speaking/crying with a few of his many followers…thank you Coach Paterno for being my hero! 

  • Jwarner93

    No offense to 1994 team but Nebraska had a pretty damn good team.  to this PSU fan, I think PSU would have had a great chance to beat Nebraska but it wasn’t obvious.  It’s a shame it was not decided on the field however.

    • Slappy

      Agree Nebraska had a great team, but can’t help to think their championship was a gift given by the National press to Tom Osborn.  “Osborn’s never had a National Champion” was all you heard from Halloween on during that season. Would have loved to see PSU v N to decide it all.

  • guest

    Number one accomplishment is JoePa’s coaching and mentoring of all the players and his passion for education, The millions of dollars he gave to the University. And ultimately the IMPACT he made during his time on earth.

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  • rich h

    uh – 1971 deserves at least an honorable mention over the 1973 team. 71 was loaded. Franco, Lydell, Hufnagel, Bannon, Joyner et el. Most explosive offense in Paterno’s career up to that pt and held several offensive records till ’94 team. Only lost to Vols end of yr; huge upset over Texas in Cotton Bowl. Personally most underrated, under-the-radar Paterno squad ever….