Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Dauphin County
The 1986 season was a special one in State College, Penn. That year, Penn State won its second national championship in five years.
The Nittany Lions went a perfect 12-0, but there were some close calls along the way. That includes one that came on this day 35 years ago.
In the end however, Penn State found a way. A stopped 2-point conversion was the difference as the Nittany Lions held off Maryland’s rally, 17-15.
Setting the Stage
Penn State was a perfect 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country as it arrived at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 8, 1986. The Nittany Lions had played just one game decided by fewer than 12 points all year and were healthy favorites.
Maryland was just 4-4 as it made its way to State College to face a Penn State team that had allowed just six points total over its previous three games. In the final quarter however, the Maryland offense seemed unstoppable.
Penn State Survives
Penn State seemed to play its best defense with its back to the goal line that day. Three times, the Nittany Lions came away with interceptions with the Terrapins mounting serious drives.
The last of those was returned 82 yards by Penn State’s Pete Curkendall and set up D.J. Dozier’s second touchdown run of the day. With just over eight minutes to go, the Nittany Lions led 14-3, but Maryland quarterback Dan Henning soon caught fire.
Penn State appeared to be one play away from sealing the victory, but on 4th-and-7, Henning found Vernon Joines for a 16-yard touchdown. The 2-point try failed, but with five minutes remaining, the Terrapins were within five.
Penn State responded with a scoring drive of its own, but with 70 seconds remaining, settled for a Massimo Manca field goal. With the lead now eight, the Nittany Lions were one stop from victory.
Henning completed passes to Ferrell Edmunds and Sean Sullivan on the final march to move the ball inside the Penn State 35-yard-line. Once again however, the Terrapins faced fourth down.
On 4th-and-5 from the 27, Henning fired perhaps his best throw of the day. With a pair of Penn State defenders in the area, Henning’s dart found John Bonato in the end zone with just 14 seconds remaining. Down 17-15, Maryland had no choice but to try for the tie.
The ball remained in the hands of Henning, who rolled right. With pressure coming, he fired for James Milling, but he could not haul it in.
Despite a valiant effort from Maryland, the Nittany Lions had survived.
Maryland was unable to complete the comeback against Penn State, but settled for a tie against a ranked team the following week against Clemson in Baltimore, 17-17. The Terrapins closed the year with a 42-10 win over Virginia to finish 5-5-1.
Penn State would complete a perfect season by knocking off Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and then Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. At season’s end, the Nittany Lions were undisputed national champions at 12-0. Their closest game all year came on this day 35 years ago.