The Games of Our Lives: 1977 Arizona State vs. Penn State

When you think about the greatest feats in Penn State football history, a few jump out. Seven perfect seasons—undefeated and untied. Joe Paterno’s coaching longevity and his record for wins in major college football. One of only two programs in major college athletics to never have an NCAA violation (along with Stanford).

Not too far behind any of those accomplishments is Penn State’s Fiesta Bowl record—a perfect 6-0. Some have even said that Penn State made the Fiesta Bowl the mega bowl that it is today, due not only to Penn State’s three appearances in the game’s first decade but also to their history-making match-up against Miami in the 1987 for the national championship. Hometown team Arizona State played in five of the first seven Fiesta Bowls to ensure a sellout in its early years, and the Sun Devils were Penn State’s first Fiesta opponent on Christmas Day 1977.

The back story

The ’77 Lions had tons of talent and started the season hot with three convincing wins. When unranked, 2-1 Kentucky came to Happy Valley, perhaps PSU underestimated them. They stole a 24-20 victory from Penn State, which would prove to be the Lions only loss of the season. Kentucky went undefeated the rest of the year but was denied the SEC championship or bowl participation due to a 1-year probation.

After finishing the regular season with a 15-13 win over defending national champion Pittsburgh on their home field, PSU set its sights on Tempe to play against Arizona State on their home field.

The Opponent

Ironically, in this current age of conference expansion and realignment, the 1977 Sun Devil team prepared to exit the WAC and enter the PAC-8 (to create the new PAC-10 along with Arizona in 1978). The Arizona State’s WAC schedule wasn’t rigorous—featuring just one top 20 team (BYU, whom they beat)—but they did make it through with only one loss (15-0 to Missouri in Tempe).

ASU entered the Fiesta Bowl at #15, but by 1977, they weren’t a complete stranger to national recognition. Coach Frank Kush led the Sun Devils for the 20th season and only tallied one losing record. Beginning in 1970, he logged four consecutive top 13 finishes (somewhat aided by the home bowl game to finish the season). Like Paterno near the same time period, Kush led his team to 22 straight wins from ’69 to ’71. In 1975, his squad beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl to cap an undefeated season and finished #2 behind Oklahoma. This WAC super-power was no slouch.

The Game

With Penn State’s bruising ground game and Arizona State’s explosive passing attack, fans expected lots of touchdowns under the tree on December 25th. The Christmas Day contest began with a couple of gifts from Arizona State to Penn State. PSU returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and then capitalized on a short field after a Sun Devil fumble to score another TD.

In what was probably the most electrifying play of the game, senior Jimmy Cefalo dodged and darted 67 yards on a punt return to set up a PSU field goal. Penn State junior QB Chuck Fusina had a less-than-impressive showing, and Arizona State fought back in the second quarter with the first of two Sproul-to-Ron Washington TD passes. The Lions led 17-14 at the half.

Penn State started the second half strong—a typical Paterno-in-a-bowl trend—by running all over the ASU front seven to take a 31-14 lead. But ASU wouldn’t quit. Sproul hit Washington for paydirt again, and after a Matt Bahr field goal for PSU, the Sun Devils marched in for another score, closing the gap to 34-28 midway through the 4th quarter. The unpopular Sproul threw for 336 yards on the day although PSU contained future NFL star WR John Jefferson.

On the next drive, however, Penn State killed any comeback dreams with a long drive sustained by a crucial 3rd and 5 pass from Fusina to Cefalo and then capped off by a 3-yard Suhey TD. PSU took a safety in the final minutes but held on to win the shootout 42-30. Although Penn State had an uncharacteristic 12 penalties for 126 yards on the game, the team amassed 268 yards rushing and controlled the clock, recording its first Fiesta Bowl win ever.

The Rest of the Story

Penn State finished the season ranked #5, one spot ahead of disgruntled Kentucky who had beaten PSU earlier in the season. The top 5 finish was PSU’s fifth in the past decade and eighth top 10 finish in the same period. The eight straight victories contributed by the 1977 team would be the start of nineteen straight PSU wins between ’77-’78, the third-longest streak in Paterno’s career. But more importantly, the Nittany Lions built experience and a taste for winning in a core of players (Fusina, Suhey, Fitzkee, Dorney, Cunningham, Millen, Clark) who would go undefeated in the 1978 regular season.

The 22-part “The Games of Our Lives” series contains excerpts 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 from Father’s Press).

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