As we inch closer to another showdown in the Arizona desert and a game that has a rich tradition full of Penn State woven throughout its history, it’s impossible not to recognize the past and what this game represents to us. It’s been two decades since we’ve been extended an invitation, but some would say without us, this bowl would have never reached the level of prestige it’s held since the mid-80s. Of course, the biggest game that’s etched into our memory is the ’86 National Championship versus Miami. Thirty-one years later, the 14-10 victory over the Hurricanes remains one of the most watched college football games of all time. It also holds strong as the benchmark of what all Penn State football squads are measured. We won it all in 1982, but on January 1, 1987, in the Arizona desert, we took on the bully and won.
For those in search of a little divine intervention beyond one of our greatest games of all time, the 26-10 victory over USC in the 1981 Fiesta Bowl served as a springboard for where we ended in 1982. It also served as the first time the bowl itself was played on New Year’s Day, traditionally reserved for the ‘Big Four' of the Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Cotton Bowls at that time. Dig just a little deeper and it was only one year prior, in 1980, that Penn State came storming back from a 19-point Ohio State Buckeye lead to claim our 2nd Fiesta Bowl win. Yes, THOSE Buckeyes and yes, 19 points for those still suffering from this year’s 4th quarter in Columbus.
In 1977, Penn State’s first trip to Arizona was a 42-30 shootout win over the Arizona State Sun Devils. A year later, despite three prior undefeated seasons, Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions played Alabama in their first National Championship game. The 1979 Sugar Bowl may have found us on the losing end of a 14-7 thriller, but if you’re into fun theories, that makes two Fiesta Bowls out of three that put us in the title game the following season. Just food for thought if you’re still stewing over those four points that kept us out of this year’s playoffs. As icing on the cake, the 42-17 romp over Tennessee in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl and the 38-13 rollover Texas in 1997 complete the Nittany Lions 6-0 unblemished record in Arizona.
Sadly, the end of what I dubbed ‘The Season of Great Expectations' back in August is in sight, but it ends in such a memorable place for all of us that bleed blue and white. An undefeated record in the desert and a chance to end the year on a high note hang in the balance. Not to mention, an opportunity for Penn State to put the brakes on a two-year bowl game skid; albeit both lost by a grand total of only10 points. The Fiesta Bowl may not have been the destination we all hoped and wished for in the beginning, but the closer we get I can’t imagine a finer landing spot than Glendale, Arizona if a shot to win it all wasn’t meant to be. Who knows, if history repeats itself again, this might just be the beginning of even bigger things to come.