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It’s a fun time revisiting Penn State football’s finest hour

With live sports on hold due to the coronavirus, many media outlets, including the Mirror, are digging into their archives to provide meaningful content and filling up newspaper pages and TV time slots.

Penn State fans got a treat the other night when NBCSN (NBC Sports Network) replayed the Nittany Lions’ 14-10 victory over Miami in the national championship game from Jan. 2, 1987.

It remains, without question, the greatest night in Penn State history.

Though admittedly lacking Miami’s star-studded talent, the Lions rode their defense and special teams, especially punter John Bruno, and frustrated the Hurricanes into a performance neither side will ever forget.

The Lions intercepted Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde five times, including Pete Giftopolous’ game-clinching pick at the goal line in the waning seconds that sealed Penn State’s second national title in five seasons and, barring the 1994 snub, its last.

The game drew 70 million viewers and still stands as the most watched game in college football history as it matched No. 1 vs. No. 2 and, after Miami arrived in combat fatigues to enhance its image, was hyped as good guys vs. bad guys.

NBC was able to bump it to Jan. 2, a Friday night — a day after traditional New Year’s Day bowls such as the Rose, Cotton, Orange and Sugar — and the ratings bonanza elevated the Fiesta Bowl to the major status it enjoys today.

Jimmy Johnson, a touchdown favorite, considers the loss “the most devastating I’ve been around in my life” and the “worst game I ever coached.”

Mike Tirico provided pre-game, halftime and post-game context for NBCSN, enhanced by former Lion quarterback John Shaffer from his New Jersey home.

In addition to watching to make sure Penn State won, I jotted down some notes:

n Along with Testaverde’s five interceptions, the Hurricanes dropped five passes — two by Michael Irvin, who also fumbled away a big gainer. The ‘Canes also committed nine penalties and fumbled four times, losing two.

n After tripping despite open field with his first pick, Shane Conlan returned his second 30 yards and set up the game-winning touchdown. He made a leaping catch, followed blockers to the sideline, weaved inside and leaped to the 5 in what may be the single best and most important defensive play in school history.

n Conlan’s greatness was nearly matched by Trey Bauer and Duffy Cobbs. Conlan left twice for an injured knee and returned both times but was also spelled nicely by Keith Karpinski.

n Tim Johnson nearly decapitated Testaverde on his second-and-goal sack in the final minute.

n Shaffer only completed five passes but he showed his winning savvy to cap the Lions’ only drive by alertly scrambling 4 yards for their first TD. “I used my 6.0 flat 40 speed,” he told Tirico.

n The Lions managed 20 yards on their first five possessions and just 162 overall, and the broadcast actually edited out a couple of their series, like in the old, old days when Ray Scott would say on late-night PSU replays, “We move to further action.”

n Miami’s Alonzo Highsmith was the best offensive player on the field (119 rushing yards, 33 receiving), and Johnson still regrets not running from the red zone (four passes in the last four plays) when Penn State was dropping into coverage.

n The TV crew was made up of Charlie Jones, former Lion player and Miami broadcaster Jimmy Cefalo and Bob Griese. Jones mentioned several times that Miami should have stuck with the run.

n Penn State’s offensive line was well overmatched, but the blocking of Chris Conlin, Keith Radecic and fullback Tim Manoa paved D.J. Dozier’s touchdown that was the margin of victory.

n Tennessee had beaten Miami, 35-7, in the 1986 Sugar Bowl, and Joe Paterno wanted that game tape so he called Johnny Majors, who refused due to a friendship with Johnson, one of his past assistants at Iowa State. Paterno challenged his Lion staff to come up with the tape, and PSU eventually got one.

n With 18 seconds left, fourth down at the PSU 5, neither team called a final timeout, and both ended the game with one.

n Johnson visited the Penn State locker room after the game and congratulated the Lions, Paterno and the Penn State program. Though “there was a lot of cross talk before the game, they were classy,” Shaffer said. “We respected them before but a lot more afterward.”

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com. He covered the 1987 Fiesta Bowl for the Mirror.

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