(UHND.com) – When Penn State joined the Big 10 conference starting with the 1993 season, the Nitanny Lions gained all the advantages of conference affiliation, and lost the presence of Notre Dame from its schedule after facing the Irish every season since 1982. Luckily for college football fans the rivalry will be renewed when the Lions travel to South Bend September 9th.
The Notre Dame – Penn State rivalry is difficult to explain. There are no geographical ties between the two such as a Florida-Florida State or USC-UCLA rivalry and the Irish and Lions have faced each other just 17 times but still Irish fans have much distain for the Lions and vise versa. Part of this comes from both schools being the two of the last major independents in the late 80’s. The Irish as we all know remained independent and are still sans-conference these days, but Penn State bolted for the Big 10 in 1993.
Since then neither has won a national championship, although both came extremely close – Notre Dame in ’93 and Penn State the following season in ’94. Both have also seen some of their lowest points since their last meeting. Notre Dame’s have been discussed ad nauseum at times on this site while Penn State’s haven’t gone unnoticed either.
Before their resurgent season in 2005, things were very bleak in Happy Valley with back to back losing seasons on top of 4 losing seasons out of their last six. Penn State bounced back last season and capped off their near perfect season with a win in the Orange Bowl making this year’s matchup highly anticipated.
Big time matchups are no strangers when these two college football giants tangle however. Here’s a look back at the 17 game series these two have played.
The Early Years: 1913-1928
The Early Years – Rockne Schools Lions
The first contest came in 1913 with Jesse Harper leading his Irish to a 14-7 win over Bill Hollenback’s Nittany Lions in the 30,000 seat New Beaver Field. The Irish would go on to finish that 1913 undefeated (being named national champs by a few services) while the Lions would finish just 2-6 on the year.
Twelve years would pass before the Lions and Irish meet again. The two met in 1925, again in New Beaver Field, with the Irish fresh off their first national championship under Knute Rockne. The Irish brought an early season loss to Army into their contest with the Lions and walked out of Happy Valley with a rather uneventful 0-0 tie.
Rockne would face Penn State two more times, once at home and once in Philadelphia, and would finish his career undefeated against the Lions after two shutout wins by a combined 37-0 total. In 1926, a season after tying the Lions, Rockne led the Irish to a 28-0 victory in his lone home contest with Penn State.
Two seasons later, Penn State and Notre Dame would travel to Philadelphia for a showdown at Franklin Field. The Irish blanked the Lions for the second straight time and won 9-0 to give them a 3-0-1 record against Penn State and the two would not face each other again for 48 years.
1976 Gator Bowl – Irish Win Again
Dan Devine was entering his second season on the Notre Dame sidelines while Joe Paterno had already finished his first decade coaching Penn State and was entering year 11 on the sidelines (yeah, that’s right his 11th season as head coach came 30 years ago). Devine’s first season was a subpar 8-3 campaign and he brought the Irish into their Gator Bowl matchup with three losses after a 13-17 defeat at the hands of arch rival USC.
Paterno and Penn State started that 1976 season with a meager 1-3 record before rebounding to win six of the their last seven games to earn the Gator Bowl berth.
Penn State jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, but it would be their only lead of the game. Al Hunter scored the first of his two first half touchdowns with a nine yard run to give the Irish a 7-3 lead. A Ross Browner fumble recovery would lead to a Dave Reeve 23 yard field goal for a 10-3 lead.
Hunter’s second touchdown came with just over two minutes remaining in the first half. This time, the Gator Bowl MVP, would run it in from 11 yards out. The Irish would add another field goal to the scoreboard with just two seconds remaining till halftime for a 20-3 half time lead.
Penn State would score a fourth quarter touchdown to cut the lead to 20-9, but never really threatened in the second half as the Irish coasted to the victory, its third straight bowl win. The win would also propel the Irish into a 1977 season that ended with Notre Dame’s 10th National Title.
The Irish now owned a 4-0-1 record against the boys from State College.
1980’s and Early 90’s Paterno and Penn State Strike Back
1980’s and Early 90’s Paterno and Penn State Strike Back
In 1981, Penn State and Notre Dame opened up a 12 game series that would see Paterno and the Nittany Lions win 8 games and give the Irish and their fans multiple heart breaks. This all culminated in the 1992 finale that turned out to be one of the greatest games in Notre Dame history.
While his predecessors did not lose a single game to the Lions, Gerry Faust managed to lose his first three. In his first season at the helm, 1981, Faust led his unranked Fighting Irish into Beaver Stadium to face the 13th ranked Nittany Lions in his first matchup against Paterno. The Irish fought hard and took a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter, but with just under four minutes remaining, Todd Blackledge took a quarterback keeper into the endzone from a yard out to give Penn State a 24-21 vicotry. Notre Dame went on to finish the year 5-6 in Faust inaugural campaign, while Penn State closed out their season 10-2 with a victory over Southern Cal in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 1982, Faust had the Irish headed in the right direction entering the Penn State game. After a disappointing 5-6 record in 1981, Faust had the Irish sitting at 6-1-1 and were fresh off an upset of Dan Marino’s #1 ranked Pitt Panthers heading into a home contest with Penn State. The Irish were ranked 13th prior to facing the 5th ranked Lions. Penn State went on to win 24-14 starting a three game losing streak for Notre Dame. The Irish finished the season 6-4-1 and were home for the holidays, while Penn State was busy claiming its first national championship with a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia.
Notre Dame limped into the 1983 contest at 6-3 after a 21-16 loss to unranked Pitt and for just the second time during the twelve year span both teams entered the game unranked. Penn State opened its season with three straight losses a season after claiming its first title, but ended its year on an 8-1-1 stretch that included a last minute 50 yard touchdown drive in a 34-30 home win over the Irish.
Faust would get his first, and only win against Paterno in 1984. The Irish entered the contest four losses, Penn State with three marking the second and last time neither team was ranked for their annual showdown. Notre Dame clobbered Penn State 44-7 in Notre Dame Stadium. Allen Pinket had four first half touchdowns as the Irish routed the Lions in Faust’s lone win over Paterno.
In Faust’s final season on the sidelines at Notre Dame, Paterno returned the favor and crushed the Irish 36-6 in a rainy Beaver Stadium as the top ranked Nittany Lions made a statement to some skeptics in the media. Meanwhile the loss for the Irish started the unofficial search for a replacement for Faust who had the Irish at 5-6 in 1985.
There was a new attitude in South Bend in 1986 with new head coach Lou Holtz, and while their record did not indicate it, the Irish were a much improved unit at 4-4 when Penn State rolled into town undefeated with national title hopes. Notre Dame battled the 3rd ranked Lions all day and took a lead in the third quarter. Penn State would rally however and would hold off a late rally that ended with a goal line stand in the final minutes.
After the first six years of the rivalry, Penn State held a 1-5 record against the Irish.
Of all the heart breaking, last minute losses the Nittany Lions handed the Irish during this 12 year span, the most disheartening came in 1987 when the revamped Irish took title hopes into Happy Valley. Holtz had turned the Irish around and had the Irish sitting at #7 into the matchup with unranked Penn State. Notre Dame scored a touchdown in the final minute to cut the lead to 21-20, but a tie would do the Irish no good. They went for two and Tony Rice would get stuffed behind the line to end the Irish rally.
Notre Dame entered their 1988 showdown against Penn State undefeated and ranked #1 after wins over then #1 ranked Miami and #9 Michigan prior to their tangle with the Lions. Unranked Penn State came into South Bend thinking upset, they left with a 21-3 loss lead by the stingy Notre Dame defense.
The Irish were once again undefeated and ranked #1 heading into their yearly showdown with Penn State and were sporting a 22 game win streak as they headed to Happy Valley. Notre Dame took care of the 17th ranked Lions with a 34-23 win for their first back to back regular season wins over Penn State since 1928. The Irish streak would end with that 23rd victory as Miami upended Notre Dame the following week in the season finale.
For the third year in a row Notre Dame was ranked #1 (this year sporting 1 loss) when they faced Penn State, but could not extended their wining streak over Paterno’s boys to three in a row. The Irish held an early 14-0 lead, but when Rocket Ismail left the game in the second half the Irish offense struggled. Penn State would kick a game winning field goal with four seconds remaining after sophomore Rick Mirer tossed an interception with just under a minute to go. The Irish finished the season 9-3 with a loss to Colorado on the phantom clipping call.
In 1991 Notre Dame lost to rival Michigan in the second game of the year, but were rolling by November and were back in the top 5 before a disasterous two week span against Tennessee and Penn State. The 5th ranked Irish feel apart in the second half against Tennessee and lost a heartbreaker 35-34 at home before traveling to face the 8th ranked Lions. The Irish were emotionally hungover and ran into a buzzsaw in State College with Penn State romping the Irish 35-13. The Irish would win 10 games that year, but those 10 wins were three too few for a team that had the talent to challenge for the national title. Penn State went on to finish 11-2 after destroying Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl 42-17.
Series Finale – The Snow Bowl
Then came what was thought to be the series finale at the time – the Snow Bowl. Rick Mirer had returned for the 1992 season with sole purpose of winning a national title. An early season tie to Michigan and subsequent loss to Stanford ended that dream for Mirer and his teammates, but they still had unfinished business to settle with Penn State.
The Nittany Lions killed the 1990 season for the Irish who still had title hopes before the crushing loss and Mirer and his fellow classmates wanted a little revenge.
The stage was set for a classic college football game – two ranked teams with a lot of recent history playing their final regular season game in one of the most storied stadiums in all of sports and then as if plot needed anything thickening, the snow began to fall. It wasn’t a squirling storm, but it was enough to create a truly majestic atmosphere for what would become one of the greatest games to be played in the House that Rockne Built.
The game started out with the Irish moving the ball well against Penn State from the 20 to the 20, but stalling in the red zone. On their opening drive Mirer marched his troops down the field only to settle for a 26 yard Craig Hentrich field goal.
Despite the “Irish Impact” goal line stand, Penn State pounded the ball into the end zone at the end of the first quarter with a Richie Anderson one yard run. Notre Dame freshman Bobby Taylor would keep the Irish within three however by blocking the ensuing extra point – a very important extra point as we later found out.
The Lions had troubles moving the ball against the Irish in the wintery conditions, leading to just a single pass completion for Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins in the first half and just seven for the game.
Meanwhile Notre Dame continued to struggle inside the 20. With unfavorable field conditions for a field goal, Lou Holtz decided to go for it on fourth and one from the five after a Notre Dame fumble recovery inside the redzone. The attempt failed and the Irish were still down by 3. They would go on to add a field goal before the half ended however to the tie game up at half time.
The snow lightened up in the second half but the Irish struggles in the red zone continued. Notre Dame settled for a third field goal attempt by Hentrich who converted on the 37 yard attempt for a 9-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Lions tied it up at 9 with just under nine minutes remaining with a field goal of their own and took the lead after Notre Dame coughed up the ball on a Mirer to Irv Smith pass with just over seven minutes remaining.
Penn State converted the opportunity into their second touchdown and took a 16-9 lead with about four and a half minutes to go in the game. Rick Mirer would not be denied a win over Penn State this time however. Mirer marched the Irish down the field and inside the redzone for a fifth time in the game. Mirer would need some dramatics to get the win this year as the Irish faced a fourth and goal from three yard line.
Holtz called time out and used a play the Irish had reserved for two point conversions, a play Mirer and his teammates never ran in a game. When his intended receiver, Irv Smith was covered, Mirer told fullback Jerome Bettis to release from the backfield and hit the banged-up fullback who was playing on a tender ankle for the touchdown.
Like the ’87 matchup, Holtz would not play for a tie and went for the two point conversion and the win. With their two point play exhausted, Holtz drew up a play for his team to run and Mirer trotted back onto the field for his final play in Notre Dame stadium. With his principle targets covered once again Mirer was forced to look to one of his running backs – this time half back Reggie Brooks who had all of two receptions in his entire career before the play.
Mirer, forced from the pocket, lofted the ball into the corner of the end-zone where an outstretched Reggie Brooks dove for the game winning catch. A memorable ending to a memorable game and a memorable series. That series will be renewed this fall, and for most fans, it cannot get here soon enough.
The last time these two played, Notre Dame was one of the elite in college football and in the midst of one of its best stretches since the 50’ and 60’s. The Irish had won a title just four years prior to the last meeting, just missed another three years prior, and were in contention the other two seasons. Since then however, the Irish have had just two seasons were they finished in the top 10 (1993 and 2005).
Rough times have not only fallen on Notre Dame however. Penn State just missed out on a title in 1994, but had fallen on some meager times as well prior to their resurgent 2005 campaign. The Lions went 11-1 last year and were a play away from having a stake in the national title.
The brings us to this year’s showdown. Notre Dame as we found out today is ranked in the top 5 while Penn State will come in just inside the Top 20. The Irish have the tougher opener with their September 2nd trip to Atlanta while Penn State faces the mighty Akron Zips in their season opener, but no matter what happens in their openers, both of these teams are chomping at the bit to play each other.