College Football Classic: 1997 Fiesta Bowl Texas vs. Penn State


The football history of Penn State vs. Texas didn’t begin on the football field at all. Ironically, this rivalry started in the White House.

The Lions and Longhorns battled not on the field but in the polls way back in 1969. After the 1968 Penn State team went undefeated but was denied a national championship, the perfect 1969 Nittany Lion team hoped for better fortunes in the polls. Unfortunately, undefeated Texas benefited from an interesting blend of television programming and political posturing.

ABC sports convinced Texas and Arkansas to move their regular season game to the first weekend in December, promising the two Southwestern Conference powers that they’d draw larger ratings as a season-finale than in October. To heighten the hype, President Richard Nixon and other Texas politicians promised to appear at the game. When Texas and Arkansas rose to No. 1 and No. 2 in the country (respectively) in late November, Nixon dubbed it the national championship game, even going so far as awarding a plaque to the winner himself.

Texas came back from a 14-0 deficit to beat Arkansas by a point, solidifying their grip on the top ranking long before they beat Notre Dame in the New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl. Pollsters followed lockstep—ignoring PSU’s 30-straight games without a loss and Orange Bowl victory over Big 8 champion Missouri. Four years later, Paterno would vocalize Penn State’s lingering animosity towards the ’69 Longhorns and the President’s role in helping them in a graduation speech: "How could Nixon know so much about college football in 1969 and so little about Watergate in 1973?"

No national championship aspirations were on the line in the fifth meeting between Texas and PSU but dominance in the series was (PSU won in ‘72 and ’89; UT in ’84 and ’90). The Longhorns were favored in the Fiesta Bowl despite a ho-hum 8-4 record for them and a strong 10-2 mark (and a No. 7 ranking) for the Nittany Lions. Paterno prodded his underdogs along to maintain his Fiesta Bowl excellence (5-0 all-time).

The Opponent

Football in Texas has always taken on biblical proportions. Love for the game seemed to gush up from the very soil, like the oil which made the state so wealthy. Their passion was so fierce that schools like the University of Texas and their Southwestern Conference counterparts seemed to battle amongst themselves in isolation from the rest of the country. The Longhorns, despite numerous undefeated seasons and dozens of league titles, never won the hearts of voters enough to win a national title until 1963.

While Texas might have the fattest wallet and the fullest athletics program, they aren’t head and shoulders above the rest on the football field, historically or presently. Second all-time in victories and second all-time in bowl appearances, Texas’s four national titles seem like an inordinately low amount (ranking them 8th in the AP poll era for number of national titles and much lower all-time in that category). Still, Bevo the Longhorn steer, Smokey the Cannon (shot after every score and kickoff), the Red River Rivalry (with Oklahoma during the Texas State Fair, formerly the Red River Shootout) and the “Hook ‘em Horns” hand sign are a few of college football’s most recognizable traditions. (Sadly for college football fans, their 118-year Thanksgiving Day rivalry with fellow state power Texas A&M ended in 2011 after bitter haggling over conference affiliations.)

In 1977, Coach Fred Akers picked up where the legendary Darrell K. Royal left off for the next decade, notching numerous top-10 finishes and fielding Texas’s first Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell. Some lean years followed Akers’ tenure for the Longhorns, but coach John Mackovic won both the final SWC championship (1995) and the first Big 12 championship (1996). The latter victory landed them in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl as their conference’s representative.

Texas has a remarkable streak of players drafted into the NFL (extending since 1938), and the 1996 team had its share of pro prospects as well. All-Americans Dan Neil (four-year starter on the OL for UT and eventual two-time Super Bowl champion with the Denver Broncos) and Bryant Westbrook (No. 5 pick to the Detroit Lions and then seven years in the NFL at defensive back) gave them star power on both sides of the ball, but the astounding part of the ’96 Longhorns was their backfield.

Running back Ricky Williams, a San Diego high school superstar, made an immediate impact at Texas, rushing for over a thousand yards as a freshman. And things only got better from there. Following a solid sophomore campaign, Williams pounded out 1,893 yards as a junior and then 2,327 as a senior, more than enough to win him the Heisman Trophy (UT’s second historically) in 1998 and to impress the New Orleans Saints, who took him fifth overall in the 1999 draft. Williams had a rocky life off the field—including drug suspensions, crippling depression, premature retirement, and bankruptcy—but finally seemed to stabilize in late-2007 fulfilling much of the promise he once had. He’ll go down in football history as one of the most talented and eccentric players ever.

Penn State steamrolled through their first five games (including a Kickoff Classic game over USC, 24-7) until they traveled to Columbus. The No. 4 Nittany Lions were dismantled 38-7 by No. 3 Ohio State (who, led by future NFL Hall of Famer Orlando Pace, went on to win the Rose Bowl and finish the season No. 2). They’d lose a heartbreaker to top-20 Iowa two weeks later in Happy Valley (20-21 after a Tim Dwight punt return TD) but recovered to thump No. 11 Northwestern at home and No. 16 Michigan at the Big House. PSU entered the Fiesta Bowl ranked seventh in the country at 10-2.

The Game

Texas tried to open up their passing attack early. On the game’s second play from scrimmage, Penn State’s Mark Tate picked off James Brown and returned it to the Texas 26. The Lions made Texas pay for the mistake five plays later when QB Wally Richardson hit Curtis Enis on a 4-yard TD pass. Getting back to the reliable ground game, Mackovic dialed up a hearty diet of Holmes and Williams, who plowed through PSU’s D. The D toughened up in the red zone though and held kicker Rich Dawson to a 27-yard field goal. Penn State led 7-3 after the first quarter.

Two three-and-outs by the PSU offense put undue pressure on the Lions defense in the first half. Having tired out the Nittany Lion defense, Texas stampeded down the field later in the second quarter until Ricky Williams found the end zone. The two-point conversion failed, but Texas led 12-7 at the half.

Outgained 242 to 95 in the first half and losing the time-of-possession battle by a 2-1 margin, the Penn State offense needed a spark in the second half. And a spark they got. Freshman Kenny Watson returned the opening kickoff 81 yards, allowing the Lions to plow their way through the red zone until RB Aaron Harris rumbled in from 5 yards out. Enis caught a two-point conversion from Richardson to put PSU up 15-12, but a numerically-advantageous field goal lead wouldn’t matter in the end.

A 33-yard fake punt pass to Bryant Westbrook kept the Longhorns next drive going until Phil Dawson could tie things up with an impressive 48-yard field goal, his third of the game. Penn State’s next drive though was flawless. Richardson had two completions on two attempts, and Enis pounded 40 yards on just four carries, his last a 2-yard touchdown leap to put the Lions up 22-15.

On the first play of PSU’s next drive, freshman Chafie Fields took an end around 84 yards to set up a 1-yard fullback dive by Anthony Cleary. Penn State’s three third-quarter drives all ended up with touchdowns; the Lions headed into the final stanza with a 28-15 lead.

PSU’s WR Chris Campbell returned Texas’s first punt of the 4th quarter 32 yards. Then, Penn State drove deep into Texas territory and ate up precious minutes of the clock before Brett Conway split the uprights with a 23-yard chip shot.

While the defense had frequently been overshadowed during the Collins/Carter/Brady/Engram years, the 1996 version was resurgent. Particularly against Texas, the PSU defense excelled, holding future NFL superstars Ricky Williams and Priest Holmes to just 73 rushing yards on the day.

Penn State, on the other hand, steamrolled its way to 330 yards on the ground, with a final Enis 12-yard run over an exhausted Longhorn defense to finish off the scoring. The 38-15 tally would stick till the end, moving Paterno to 6-0 all-time in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Rest of the Story

Despite the impressive victory, Penn State didn’t move up in the polls after pounding Texas. Penn State held at No. 7, in a year when the Florida Gators beat Florida State in a Bowl Alliance championship game rematch (FSU won the regular-season battle) to give coach Steve Spurrier his only career national title.

Although two-year starter Wally Richardson would graduate after 1996, Penn State had enough returning on both sides of the ball to warrant a No. 1 pre-season ranking. Penn State hoped backup QB Mike McQueary would have the moxy to lead a talented team—headlined by Heisman-hopeful Enis and standout WR Joe Jurevicius—to another Big Ten title and perhaps a national title.

Texas’s immediate future was headed in a different direction. Despite superstar backs Holmes and Williams, the 1997 team fell to UCLA 66-3 and plummeted to a 4-7 record, ending John Mackovic’s coaching career. The Longhorns hired Mack Brown away from the University of North Carolina, and he began to rebuild the Longhorns into the superpower they are today. The pipeline of instate talent that Brown funnels into UT each year is unparalleled nationally; a BCS national title in 2005 (with Heisman runner-up Vince Young) and another title game appearance in 2009 (with Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy) are proof of Texas’s excellence under Brown.

"The Games of Our Lives" series by Ryan J. Murphy is excerpted from the book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-Two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Generation (due for release by Father's Press, summer 2012).

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