Momentum—a fascinating aspect of sport. Whether it involves just a lone boxer or a single tennis player or it impacts an entire team of dozens of football players and numerous coaches, momentum is something you want on your side.
Penn State didn’t have much of it in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl, and their opponent—the #10 Tennessee Volunteers—was too talented for the Lions to play flat against. Some called them the most talented team to ever go 9-3 on the season. If the deep and gifted Volunteer squad wasn’t enough of an obstacle for Penn State, UT also was riding a five-game bowl win streak. For much of the game, momentum was on Tennessee’s side.
But those other bowl wins didn’t come in the Fiesta Bowl, and their opponent—Penn State—owned the Fiesta Bowl. With four wins in four appearances (‘76, ‘80, ‘81, and ‘86 seasons), Penn State wasn’t about to let a Fiesta first-timer steal their stage. A huge momentum swing late in the third quarter created one of the most unanticipated and lopsided bowl victories in Penn State history.
Tennessee’s history in college football raises one key question—are they or aren’t they? Tennessee has one of the most storied programs—top ten all-time in total victories, bowl appearances, and bowl victories—but lacks in certain important categories. The Vols have no Heisman winners, very few undefeated national champions, and less historic success than other SEC conference mates. Despite their marginal status as a forever-elite kind of program, UT’s checkerboard end zones, orange-and-white uniforms, and hound dog mascot “Smokey” are easily recognizable to any fan, while the Osborne Brothers song “Rocky Top” defines the music of college football more than any other. You can legitimately argue for or against Tennessee as an elite program.
Tennessee’s coach in 1991, Johnny Majors (a former All-American for the Volunteers), was no stranger to Penn State football. He revitalized the Pittsburgh program in the seventies and won a national title there in 1976. The next year he returned home to coach Tennessee, where he had more temperate success in his first decade. His more recent teams were strong though—top five teams in the ’85 and ’89 polls and SEC champions in both ‘89 and ’90. His ‘91 team started hot but ran into tough Florida and Alabama teams on the road (both finished in the top 10). The Vols recovered with five straight wins (including a classic 35-34 win in South Bend over top 20 Notre Dame) to sit at #10 for their Fiesta Bowl duel with Penn State.
Penn State boasted of a plus-22 turnover ratio in 1991 (first in nation), so what better way to start off their bowl game? All-American safety Dale Carter fumbled the opening kickoff, and PSU made them pay with a 10-yard TD screen pass from senior quarterback (and holder of numerous school passing records) Tony Sacca to running back Sam Gash.
Tennessee evened the game on their second possession. RB James Stewart, just a freshman at the time although he went on to hold many UT records and to become a #1 draft pick, dove over the pile for a 1-yard touchdown. Even though Tennessee moved the ball well in the first half (324 yards total), the Penn State defense held them when it needed to. The Vols added just a field goal more before halftime, leading 10-7 despite dominating every statistical category.
Penn State played its best football in the third quarter this season, outscoring opponents 102-24 right after intermission, but the first two possessions of the second half didn’t reflect that statistic. After a disjointed 3-and-out for the offense, QB Andy Kelly commanded Tennessee down the field before hitting Corey Fleming (another future NFLer for UT) on a 44-yard touchdown catch-and-run. The 17-7 deficit seemed dire for the Lions.
Coach Majors misjudged his momentum though on the next possession. On fourth down, a fake punt call backfired and LB Reggie Givens tackled UT punter Tommy Hutton short of the first down. Penn State didn’t convert on that possession, but on the next punt return, O.J. McDuffie danced behind his blockers for an invigorating 39-yard run. From the UT 35-yard line, Sacca hit McDuffie on a 27-yard sideline pattern and then Chip LaBarca for a 3-yard score. Penn State knew it regained momentum, but no one could have guessed just how much.
On the Vols next drive, Tyoka Jackson knocked the ball from Kelly’s hand on 2nd down and then crawled after it to give PSU the ball on the Tennessee 14. Sacca needed just one play to find freshman TE Kyle Brady in the flat for a touchdown. On the second play of Tennessee next drive, Reggie Givens picked off Kelly and returned it to the Vols 26. Sacca hit TE Troy Drayton for an 18-yard reception before RB Richie Anderson soared through the air for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth and goal. Penn State was now up, 21-17.
On the next series, Penn State only needed one play defensively to score yet again. Derek Bochna blindsided Kelly on a corner blitz, knocking the ball loose into Givens’ hands. Givens hopped over the demolished QB and ran 25 yards to paydirt. After forcing a 3-and-out, Penn State would take far more time to score on their next touch—a molasses-like 2:05. Sacca found McDuffie on the sideline and the junior receiver sprinted to the middle of the field past the defense for a 37-yard score.
In less than eight minutes (7:53 to be exact), a 17-7 deficit became a 42-17 annihilation. That would be the final score as longtime rivals Paterno and Majors said their final farewell at midfield, momentum to rest forever on JoePa’s side.
The Rest of the Story
As the Fiesta Bowl wound down, the #1 Miami Hurricanes began their Orange Bowl shutout of #11 Nebraska, securing the national championship in the eyes of voters. The voters also were impressed of Penn State’s dominance over a highly talented Tennessee team and ranked PSU third for the season.
The next season, in Penn State’s final year of independence, the team couldn’t catch a break. Losing three games to top 25 opponents by a total of seven points, the pre-season top ten team ended up 7-5 and unranked. But 1993 would be a year where the pieces began to fall perfectly into place, laying the essential groundwork for a legendary 1994 team.
Meanwhile, the Johnny Majors Era was coming to an end in Tennesee. Majors had heart problems in ’92 but a seventh-straight loss to Alabama hurt him more. After firing Majors at the close of the regular season, Tennessee hired assistant coach Phil Fulmer to take over the job. The Volunteers returned to prominence with Peyton Manning in the mid-nineties, but won the national title after Manning went #1 in the NFL draft in 1998, Tennessee’s first national title in almost fifty years (back to legendary Robert Neyland’s day) and their last SEC title to date. The title gave Fulmer a long leash in Tennessee but a losing season in 2008 brought his tenure to an end, signaling a true downturn in the program’s history.
Tennessee might not have momentum on its side right now, but things are sure to change for that legendary program. Momentum is tricky, and the 1992 Fiesta Bowl is the perfect example. Eight minutes was all Penn State needed to steal it away.
The 22-part “The Games of Our Lives” series runs every Monday on Nittany Lions Den and is excerpted from the book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-Two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy (release date summer 2012 by Fathers Press). Next week, a game from the top 10 Nittany Lions of 1993!