The sportswriters and the coaches have voted. PSU is #24 in the AP poll and “others receiving votes” in the USA Today poll. Now, we have to go face the unanimously anointed #1 team in the nation, Ohio State. Do we have a glimmer of hope?
Forty-two years ago, we faced similar circumstances in Columbus. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first I need to blow some wind about the polls.
What gives? We have the same record as Texas and Notre Dame! They’re ranked #7 and #12, respectively. You can say that the Nittany Lions haven’t really beaten anybody good, but then again, neither has Notre Dame. Texas has beaten exactly whom? The answer is North Texas and Rice. Losing to Ohio State at home made them good? In that case, Notre Dame should be ranked higher, because they beat both Georgia Tech and PSU, who are both “others receiving votes” in the coaches’ poll.
That’s pretty convoluted logic, but the polls are generally not reliable until about the eighth week of the season. So, I thought a little facetious commentary would fry my brain enough so I can get to sleep tonight.
You see, the doc has me off booze and coffee. That’s usually a formula for getting a good night’s sleep. But the vagaries and inequities inherent in the college football polls and the BCS keep me up at night.
All I know is that the Lions go to Columbus on Saturday and it will be a tall order for this ragtag team to beat Ohio State, the prevailing #1 team for the first four weeks of those polls. The only thing PSU has going for it is that Ohio State made the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, meaning that the jinx is officially in. Between that and the White Out having been declared, we’ll still probably lose. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hype the game like it is a meaningful event. And I bet that there are two or three of you out there who think that our boys can win (thanks, Mrs. Paterno and Mrs. Posluszny—wives and moms are always so supportive and optimistic).
Nevertheless, stranger things have happened—I can recall one of them involving these same two teams. Some of you were around back then, but most of you probably weren’t. For those who were, let me tickle some old memories. For those who weren’t, this is a story worth reading.
It was November 7, 1964, when the unranked Nittany Lions traveled to Columbus to play the undefeated, #2 Buckeyes, who no doubt expected the little Nittany Kitties to be trembling in their shoes in the vaunted horseshoe. Our boys (well, boys who are now in their 60s) were desperately overmatched by an acknowledged national power. Penn State had already lost four games, to Navy, UCLA, Oregon, and Syracuse, carrying a record of 3–4 into Columbus. Meanwhile, Ohio State was 6–0 and thinking Rose Bowl. Buckeye head coach Woody Hayes had a score to settle, having lost at home to Penn State in 1963 by the slim margin of 10–7, and presumably, the coaching legend would have his men well prepared to anihilate these non-conference upstarts.
Back then, PSU was an Eastern Independent, several decades removed from ultimately joining the Big Ten. Our only All-America player was Maxwell Trophy winner Glen Ressler, who played both offensive guard and middle guard on defense. The quarterback was the long forgotten Gary Wydman. I can recall a few other names from that team, most of which will probably not resonate with you. I believe that the fullback was Tommy Urbanik and the center was named Andronici. Mike Irwin was a carrot-topped halfback from Altoona. Those are about all the names this Turkey’s memory can muster. One more name that was contributed by a friend and contemporary: Jerry Sandusky.
Let me digress briefly to apprise you of how things were back then on November 7, 1964. The capacity of Beaver Stadium was 46,284. The University President was Eric A. Walker. The Nittany Lions head coach was Rip Engle and Joe Paterno was his assistant. Our big rivalry games were Pitt and Syracuse. Girls had to be be in their dorms no later than 11:30 PM on weeknights and 1:00 AM on weekends. (All women had to live in dorms unless they were married or at least 21 years old, and co-ed dorms were unthinkable.) Students could smoke in class. There was still no State Store in State College; consequently, every Friday afternoon, a traffic gridlock choked the Benner Pike from the “Y” to downtown Bellefonte, where the only State Store was located, as over-21 seniors and grad students stocked up on cheap booze for the weekend for themselves and their underage colleagues. Hi-Way Pizza was brand new and Les’ Subs delivered their greasy sandwiches to dorms and frat houses in all kinds of weather. The all-new ’64-1/2 Ford Mustang was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year and it was setting all-time sales records at a list price of $1995. “Muscle cars” were all the rage and why not? Gasoline was 29 cents a gallon. Nobody worried about its price ever increasing. On the music scene, earlier, in the spring, four shaggy blokes from Liverpool called the Beatles invaded our shores and changed the course of pop music. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated a year earlier and four days before the game President Lyndon B. Johnson had soundly defeated Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater in the race for President of the United States. Meanwhile, a nascent war was expanding in a small country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, formerly known as French Indochina. The military draft was gearing up for increasingly more conscriptions to fuel that war, which would become a major, divisive social issue on the university campuses of America.
However, on game day with Ohio State, national politics and international conflicts took a back seat to the gridiron, at least in State College and Columbus. This Turkey, then a sophomore, listened to the game on the radio in his dorm room in East Halls, as there was only one “game of the week” on the dorm’s black and white TV back then, and this was not it.
I listened intently as it sounded more and more like the Nittany Lions would have a chance. I thought that their performance was too good to last. Surely, the mighty Buckeyes were merely toying with their pesky enemy. Amazingly, however, when the time keeper’s gun sounded at halftime (yes, we still used guns back then—the official time was kept on the field), the Nittany Lions’ defense had completely stifled the mighty Buckeyes, who slinked into the locker room with negative yardage and a great big goose egg on the scoreboard. Woody must have been incensed. It seemed too good to be true. But as the game resumed, the stunned Ohio State squad still could barely muster any offense, and the Lions dominated for the remainder of the game. In fact, the Buckeyes didn’t get a first down until the PSU first team defense sat down in the fourth quarter. By then, it was too little and too late. Final score: Penn State 27, Ohio State 0.
A ground swell of excitement enveloped sleepy State College. This Turkey was involved in the ensuing celebration at the main campus. We rioted in the streets. Revelers carried some poor schmuck’s Volkswagen down to the pond behind Prexy Walker’s house, now part of the alumni complex, floating it on the pond. (It had been rumored that VW Beetles would not sink if they hit the water, and we drunks felt that this experiment would provide empirical evidence to either support or refute that claim. It floated—for a while.) A Pittsburgh bound Greyhound bus parked next to the Corner Room was vandalized by rioters as passengers fled in sheer terror. The then extant “greasy construction workers” vs. “college punks” debate was set aside for the moment, as was the reform-minded ad hoc committee in loco parentis, as State College came together, bubbling over with joy (and beer).
On that particular day, the collective soul of State College was there on the field in Columbus with our brave warriors. The Buckeyes were never in the game. As this game was played before Penn State was regarded as a national power, it was perhaps the seminal event in the football comeuppance of a hitherto oft-forgotten Land Grant University in a sleepy but happy valley in Central Pennsylvania. It was David slaying Goliath. Nobody took us lightly from then on.
The Lions went on to finish that season with a 6–4 record, while the Buckeyes wound up 7–2, their only other loss being to Michigan in their end of season rivalry game. Those records are long forgotten, but this game will live on with all of us who were around back then.
Can history repeat itself?
Ponder that while I go to bed.
If you were around back then, please share your memories by adding some comments below. Thanks!