Photo via YouTube/NBC broadcast
Finding a way to win when not playing your best is a hallmark of national championship teams. That’s what Penn State did on this day 35 years ago.
Throughout the day, the Penn State defense was playing in its own territory and when it mattered, it came up big, especially late. A late stop preserved a 24-19 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend.
Setting the Stage
Penn State was a perfect 9-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country as it made its way to Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 15, 1986. To that point in the season, the Nittany Lions had not allowed more than 17 points in any game. They however, were coming off a hard-fought 17-15 win over Maryland in which they preserved the victory by stopping the tying 2-point conversion.
Under first-year head coach Lou Holtz, Notre Dame arrived with a 4-4 record. The Fighting Irish however, were playing well. After a 1-4 start, they had won three straight and were close to making it four against the Nittany Lions.
Penn State Holds On
For Notre Dame, the story was mistakes. Quarterback Steve Beuerlein passed for a career-high 311 yards, but had two critical fumbles in the first half. One thwarted a potential scoring drive and the other set up a Penn State score. The Fighting Irish also had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown negated by penalty.
In the second half however, Beuerlein did his best to atone for the miscues. His 14-yard touchdown pass to Tim Brown capped a 93-yard third-quarter drive and gave Notre Dame a 13-10 lead.
Penn State would respond. A pair of touchdown passes from John Shaffer to Ray Roundtree put the Nittany Lions ahead for good. They would conclude the scoring for Penn State, which managed a field goal and a short touchdown run from Steve Smith in the first half.
Buerlein wouldn’t go quietly
Down 24-13 with less than 12 minutes to play, Beuerlein capped a 64-yard drive with another scoring toss to Brown. With less than three minutes to go, Notre Dame would get the chance to win it.
On a drive that began at his own 20-yard-line, Beuerlein completed five straight passes to move the Fighting Irish to the Penn State 6. As it had all season however, the Penn State defense clamped down.
The next two plays went for loss. Brown was tackled for loss on a pitch before Beuerlein was sacked by Penn State’s Bob White. On third down, Buerlein had tight end Joel Williams open in the end zone, but Williams could not hold on.
On fourth down, Beuerlein checked down to Mark Green, who was tackled well short of the end zone. The tackle ended the drive and the comeback.
For Notre Dame, the loss kept the Fighting Irish from notching their biggest win of Holtz’s first season. Notre Dame finished just 5-6 in 1986 with four losses, including three to ranked teams, by five points or less.
Joe Paterno’s Penn State team would blast Pittsburgh the following week before holding off Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to win its second national championship in five years. There were plenty of close calls along the way during the 12-0 campaign. One of those came on this day 35 years ago.