The Six Degrees of Separation
Speaking of 61, Penn State's first appearance in the Gator Bowl was in 1961 versus Georgia Tech and featured the first African-American to play in that bowl game, a Nittany Lion two-way star, Dave Robinson. Twelve years after the infamous "We Are" chant took its first breath in Dallas by demanding that Wally Triplett be allowed to play in the 1948 Cotton Bowl, the Penn State football team took another stand for civil rights in Florida. The week prior to the game, Robinson was denied a seat in an Orlando restaurant during a team meal. In a show of solidarity, his teammates all stood and walked out together as one. Penn State won that game 30-9, thanks in part to the future Hall of Famer’s four catches for 40 yards on offense. Let’s not forget the two touchdown passes by Nittany Lion quarterback, Galen Hall. Yes. THAT Galen Hall. In the 3rd quarter, 37 years prior to LaVar Arrington's infamous LaVar Leap and 54 years before Saquon Barkley made the "hurdle" relevant once again, Mr. Robinson literally jumped over the Georgia Tech offensive line, sacked the QB and recovered the subsequent fumble. See those six degrees of separation at work here, folks?
That victory in 1961 represents the lone Gator Bowl win for Penn State out of four tries and one team-wide decision to turn down an invite in 1964, despite their 6-4 record. The Nittany Lions made a second straight appearance in 1962 and were soundly beaten by Florida 17-7. Four fumbles, with three lost, proved to be their undoing that day in Jacksonville. Penn State lost its fourth and final trip to the Gator Bowl in 1976 to Notre Dame 20-9; a defensive struggle in which neither offense gained over 250 total yards on the day.
Now we get back to the nook and cranny of those six degrees of separation. The meat and potatoes that make it easy to point out at least a few comparisons between a legend’s early years and those of a perceived up and comer. Both Joe Paterno and James Franklin ended their first regular season as head coach of Penn State with .500 records. Both coaches felt there would be major improvement heading into their second year, only to watch their Nittany Lions fall flat on their faces in the season opener with a loss. They both spent that second season plugging in new faces and youth. Freshmen and sophomores dominated the landscape. Finally, both coaches found themselves and their Nittany Lions with an invite to end their second season in the Gator Bowl. Taxslayer, to all you millennials out there.
In 1967, Penn State lost two of its first three games before JoePa started replacing his veterans with a group of younger, hungrier, Nittany Lions. Names like Smear, Onkontz, Reid, Kwalick, Pittman and Harris. Names that would eventually land amongst those of legends in the Nittany Lion history books. The young guns would reel off seven straight wins before Penn State faced Florida State in Jacksonville and raced to a 17-0 lead by halftime. In the 3rd quarter, still holding on to that same lead, Joe Paterno decided to go for it on 4th and 1 on Penn State’s 15 yard line. The play failed miserably and momentum swung in the Seminoles favor. The 1967 Gator Bowl ended in a 17-17 tie and proved to be a major learning experience in a young coach’s career. Of course, JoePa and those young guns went on to win 23 straight games after that second-half collapse in the 1967 Gator Bowl and would lay the foundation as one of college football’s elite programs.
No one in their right mind expects James Franklin to repeat a 31-game unbeaten streak, or have an undefeated season in year 3 of the FrankLion era. No one knows if names like Cabinda, Allen, Reeder, Godwin, Gesicki, and Barkley will ever go down in the history books of Nittany Lion lore. That chapter is still unwritten. And yet, through the eyes of those trusty old six degrees of separation, we can all see that even legends make mistakes from time to time. And maybe, just maybe, James Franklin and those young gun Nittany Lions of 2015 are not as far off as we think as they head into this year's Taxslayer Bowl. Gator, to all you old-timers out there.