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Posted on Fri, Sep. 13, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
1982 clash between Nebraska and Penn State has stood the test of time

No sooner had Kirk Bowman cradled the low pass from Todd Blackledge to his midsection along the back line of the South end zone than the 1982 game between Penn State and Nebraska was anointed with classic status.

It's what you might expect, given the fact that the pass was caught with four seconds left on the clock and came at the end of a 65-yard drive that began with 1:18 remaining in the game and Nebraska holding a 24-21 lead. Penn State won the game, 27-24.

Any time a game ends in such dramatic fashion it gets a temporary promotion from ordinary to extraordinary or even classic. And it lasts until the following week's Game of the Year.

But the 1982 battle between Penn State and Nebraska has stood the test of time. It remains, even now, a classic. Even ESPN said so, televising it this week on ESPN Classic.

The undercard

The Nittany Lions were 3-0 and ranked eighth. Nebraska was second, having outscored its opponents, 110-7.

Penn State had opened the season against Temple, Maryland and Rutgers, unveiling a passing game that saw Todd Blackledge throw 12 touchdown passes and had people describing the new offense as "Air Paterno."

That was the upside. The downside was that tailback Curt Warner saw his Heisman Trophy dreams vaporize as the Lions went to the air for yards and points.

In the locker room following the opening game romp over Temple, in which he carried 13 times for 49 yards, Warner was visibly distraught.

The offensive line wasn't all that thrilled with new attack either, even though it was a work in progress, trying to replace guards Sean Farrell and Mike Munchak and center Jim Romano. Both guards were first-round draft choices while Romano went in the second round. That was arguably the finest interior trio the Lions have ever suited up.

"You can imagine how the O-line felt," said tackle Bill Contz, one of the holdovers from the 1981 unit. "With all that Air Paterno stuff, we felt like Joe was abandoning the running game. And here was Curt, on the verge of breaking every major rushing record (at Penn State).

"We (the offensive line) had a meeting after watching the film of the Temple game and we decided we had to do a better job, collectively. We had to become a more cohesive unit. We knew that teams would get used to us throwing the ball and force us to go to the running game."

With Warner, Jon Williams, Joel Coles and Skeeter Nichols available, Penn State certainly had the backs to run the football when the time came.

And with Blackledge throwing to Kenny Jackson, Gregg Garrity, Kevin Baugh and Mike McCloskey, the passing game was exceptional.

As it turned out later, Warner, Blackledge and Jackson were all first-round draft picks.

On the opposite sideline that night, Nebraska could match the Lions star for star and even trumped them with Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier. He had Outland and Lombardi Trophy winners Dave Rimington and Dean Steinkuhler blocking for him. Roger Craig was his fullback, Turner Gill was the quarterback and Irving Fryar was a wide receiver.

You couldn't swing a dead cat on that field without hitting an All-American, a high draft pick or a trophy winner. There may never been a greater collection of talent on the turf at Beaver Stadium than there was that September evening.

And if you're into trivia, that game marked the first game played under the lights at Beaver Stadium. Musco Lighting, a company based in Iowa, brought in portable lights for the game, which started at 3:45 and was televised by CBS.

Lights, camera, kickoff

Before the Huskers could adapt to the time change, Penn State was up 14-0 and it could have been worse. Penn State scored on drives of 83 and 71 yards and could have had more except a pair of Blackledge touchdown passes were nullified, one by a man-in-motion penalty called against McCloskey, a tight end.

Still, Bowman, a guard-turned-tight end, caught a 14-yard pass from Blackledge for the game's first score and Warner began asserting himself on the ground, getting away for runs of 31 and 15 yards before scoring from the 2.

But Nebraska cleared its head and, behind Gill's passing, drove 80 yards in the closing minutes of the quarter. Gill hooked up with Fryar for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 38 seconds to go in the half to make it 14-7.

Penn State ran its lead to 21-7 early in the third quarter when the Blackledge-Jackson combo produced an 18-yard touchdown.

In an interesting sidelight, the Musco lighting hiccuped for a time during the third period.

"It's amazing what you can recollect," Contz said. "It's been 20 years and it seems like yesterday. It was right around dusk and the lights were out for about five or 10 minutes. We were playing in the dark. I don't know how Blackledge could see his receivers."

But he could and so could Gill.

The Huskers went on a tear as Rozier scored from two yards out near the end of the third quarter and Kevin Seibel kicked a 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it 21-17.

And finally, with 1:18 to go Gill scored from the 1, ending an 80-yard drive that began when Blackledge was intercepted in the end zone. Seibel made it 24-21 and whatever chance Penn State had of winning a national championship would be determined by what happened in the next 78 seconds.

"There was no panic in the huddle," Bowman said. "Todd just came in and said, 'Look, we do this in practice every day. We've got a minute and eight seconds and we're going to march down the field and score. Let's go.' We were just focused and confident we could get the job done."

The drive

Nebraska helped the Lions get rolling when one of the Huskers committed a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff. That shortened the field by 15 yards, giving Penn State the ball on 35.

In 26 seconds, Penn State was on the Nebraska 33, thanks to 16-yard passes to Nichols and Jackson.

With 52 seconds left, Williams lost a yard and two passes fell incomplete.

That left Paterno with a choice. It was fourth-and-11 and there were 32 seconds left on the clock. A field goal would give Penn State a tie.

But with a seasoned and confident quarterback and a bevy of potential receivers, Paterno put the season up for grabs. Blackledge hit Jackson on a curl for a first down at the Nebraska 23.

On the next play, Blackledge dropped back, found all of his receivers covered and scrambled for six yards before going out of bounds. That set up the most controversial play in Penn State history.

From the 17, McCloskey ran a square-out, leaped for the pass and hauled it in. If you're a Penn State fan, you say he managed to get a foot down in bounds. If you're a Nebraska fan, it was obvious he came down out of bounds.

But what mattered was the official's call, which ruled the catch was good.

"It never dies," McCloskey said of the controversy. "I have no chance to remember anything else. Later on, it became a bigger deal. At the time, I just ran back to the huddle because we weren't finished with what we were doing."

Now, the clock was down to 9 seconds, the ball was on the 2 and the field was ringed with spectators who had poured out of the stands, wanting to be close to the action in what was shaping up to be a hairy finish.

"The security was pretty lax," Contz said. "I remember looking over on the sidelines and they were lined with people."

Penn State went to its two-tight end formation with McCloskey and Bowman, who was nicknamed "Stone Hands" because of his problems handling the velocity of Blackledge's passes.

"I was used to catching the lollipops (coaches) Jerry Sandusky and John Bove threw in practice," Bowman said. "Then, all of a sudden, you see this missile coming from Blackledge. But I never dropped one in a game."

That's because they never threw to him. The touchdown pass he caught from Blackledge in the first quarter was the first reception of his career. He was about the catch the second. He just didn't know it.

"Mike and I switched sides on that play," he said. "The coaching staff had seen something in the films. I guess they figured the backside tight end (McCloskey) would get open quicker than the strong side.

"Mike was supposed to release to the outside and go to the corner but the way Nebraska was playing its defensive ends, it made it almost impossible to release to the outside. Mike tried to go outside but the defensive end held him up and then the defensive back jumped on him."

Meanwhile, Bowman found the easier route, going inside and working his way along the back line of the end zone. Blackledge spotted him and delivered a low fastball.

Said Bowman: "I just found an opening and got behind the linebacker."

And into Penn State history. But even that catch was tinged with question marks. There were those who thought that Bowman short-hopped the ball. One of them was Rimington.

"My brother-in-law was at a software convention with him (Rimington) and they got to talking about the game," Bowman said. "Rimington took one of his business cards and wrote on the back of it, 'You didn't catch that ball.' I have it in the trophy case where I have the game ball from that game."

The aftermath

Nebraska did not lose another game that season, finishing 12-1 with a 21-20 win over Miami in the Orange Bowl. The Huskers finished third in both polls.

Penn State, on the other hand, coughed up a hairball in its very next game, losing 42-21 at Alabama. It was the 320th win of Paul "Bear" Bryant's career.

Yet Penn State fell only to eighth in the polls and scrambled all the way back to third by the time the season ended and the bowl bids came out. And when second-ranked Southern Methodist was tied by Arkansas, Penn State was invited to meet No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for all of the marbles.

In retrospect, Paterno's decision to go for the win against Nebraska instead of taking the tie, was as critical as any he made during the entire season, and possibly his career. A tie, coupled with a loss to Alabama, would have destroyed Penn State's hopes for a national title.

Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, now a member of the House of Representatives, says time has eroded much of the memory of that night in September 20 years ago.

"I just remember there were a lot of great players in that game," he said. "Both team had a lot of very talented players. That was proven by the careers they had afterward, both at the collegiate and professional levels.

"There is a lot of focus on two or three plays from that game but I don't want to get caught up in that. It was a close game and we didn't win it."

Paterno is equally fuzzy about the details of the game.

"That was so long ago I can hardly remember it to be honest with you," he said. "I know it was a big game for us and it was an important win for us.

"I guess maybe the thing I remember most was Kirk Bowman making the catch in the end zone because I think that was maybe the first or second catch he had ever made in his life at Penn State as a tight end. It was not an easy catch either. ... I remember that but beyond that, it is a couple of hundred games ago."

Yet, it seems like last season. Classics are like that.

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