Fifty-one years ago, I was a student at Penn State, a sophomore babe in the woods enjoying his first of many autumns of Nittany Lions football. The Ohio State upset of that year in Columbus remains an indelible memory for anyone possessing any cognitive ability at the time. Here are my enhanced recollections, which I like to re-publish during Ohio State weeks in the years when the Lions play at the Horseshoe in Columbus.
The year was 1964. 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 Ohio State 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 late 60s and early 70s) were desperately over-matched 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. Presumably, the coaching legend would have his men well prepared to annihilate 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 Glenn Ressler, who played both offensive guard and middle guard (nose tackle) on defense. The quarterback was the long forgotten fifth-year senior Gary Wydman, who was coming off an injury and whose skills were much maligned by critics in the wake of his predecessors Richie Lucas and Pete Liske. 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 Bob Andronici. Mike Irwin was a carrot-topped halfback from Altoona who would later become team captain. And yes, Walt, Joe Vierzbicki was a second-string tackle on this team. One more name: defensive end Gerry Sandusky, then a 6-1″ 200 lb junior. Those are about all the names this Turkey’s memory can muster.
Let me digress briefly to apprise you of how things were at Penn State 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 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 24/7 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; four days before the Ohio State game his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson had soundly defeated Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. 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 conscripts 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 single black and white TV (in “the TV room”) 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 timekeeper’s gun sounded at halftime (yes, we still used guns back then and the official time was kept on the field), the Nittany Lions’ defense had completely stifled the mighty Buckeyes, who slunk into the locker room with negative yardage and a great big goose egg on the scoreboard. Woody must have been incensed.
For us Nittany Lions fans, it all seemed too good to be true. Nevertheless, 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.
After the game Woody Hayes said, “It was the soundest trouncing we ever had. We didn’t seem to be able to establish anything. They were a great team today.” According to the final stats Penn State had more first downs 22-5, rushing yards 201-33, and passing yards 148-30, than the Buckeyes. Although the Buckeyes ran only 43 plays, Glenn Ressler, the man who knew where every play was going, pulled down 15 tackles.
As the final gun sounded, 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 water. (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.) Following the Volkswagen were several female students, now grandmas and great-grandmas, in varying stages of undress. 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 3.2% 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.
For the much maligned Wydman, the Ohio State game was a welcome relief. Papers described how he “turned magician with an amazing display of ball-handling.” Years later Nittany Lion coach Rip Engle said, “A football team has never played a perfect game, but at Ohio State in 1964 our team came as close to it as I ever saw”.
Following their defeat the Buckeyes regrouped to beat Northwestern, then lost to Michigan in the last game of the year. They finished at 7-2-0 but with no Rose Bowl bid. Penn State finished with wins over Houston and Pitt for an improbable 6-4-0 record. Their record for consecutive non-losing seasons would continue until 1988. The Penn State players voted to decline any bowl bid!
(You’re waiting for the preview and prediction for this year’s game, and I shall address that forthwith.)