(Sample from the book Building A Champion: Johnny Majors and the 1973-76 Pitt Panthers, available at http://www.lulu.com.)
Under Joe Paterno, Penn State enjoyed the lofty status of being the “Beast of the East” for years, winners of a record 12 Lambert Trophies, including the last five in a row and eight of the last nine. However, such a mantle was being seriously threatened in 1976, as the Nittany Lions were having a bit of an off year.
Ranked #10 in the Associated Press preseason poll, Penn State opened with a narrow 15-12 win over Stanford, and then the Lions lost three straight games, 12-7 to #2 Ohio State, 7-6 to Iowa and 22-6 at Kentucky, which dropped Penn State out of the poll altogether. Moreover, they had three regular season losses for the first time in six years.
Fortunately, the Lions rebounded from a dismal 1-3 start to win six straight games. All were rather comfortably, save for a 31-30 scare at Temple on October 30.
During the season, Penn State’s lack of depth at some positions forced Paterno to use several of his prized freshman recruiting haul that had seven Parade Magazine prep All-Americans, including all three from Pennsylvania, defensive lineman Bruce Clark of New Castle in western Penn. and running backs Mike Guman from Bethlehem Catholic and two-time Parade honoree Matt Suhey from local State College, who ranked second on the state’s prep career rushing charts with 4,557 yards in his three seasons and was a third generation Nittany Lion. In addition, freshman Matt Millen saw plenty of action next to Clark as linebackers. They all gained valuable experience, and they helped the Lions show a bit of a different look of late
Penn State had a balanced offense that amassed 3,520 yards, with 2,045 on the ground spread among several players. The leading ball carrier was junior halfback Steve Geise with 500 yards and three touchdowns, while the two frosh combined for 900 yards with 11 touchdowns, Suhey with 463 yards and five touchdowns and Guman with 437 yards, six touchdowns and a team-high eight overall. Sophomore quarterback Chuck Fusina passed for 1,140 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games. Junior tight end Mickey Schuler had a team-high 19 receptions for 265 yards with three touchdowns, while junior flanker Jimmy Cefalo had a team-high 280 receiving yards on 13 catches with one touchdown.
Ranked #16, Penn State (7-3) accepted an invitation to their ninth bowl game in the past 10 years in the Gator Bowl opposite #13 Notre Dame (8-2). But first, the Lions headed to Pittsburgh to face their in-state rivals.
The ’76 Penn State-Pitt game marked the first time in 39 years with a #1 team. Once again it was the Panthers, much to Paterno’s dismay.
Despite Paterno’s successful 11 seasons as head coach at Penn State, which included three undefeated and untied teams in ’68, ’69 and ’73, he and the Nittany Lions never achieved a #1 ranking at any point. No Penn State team ever had for that matter.
Meanwhile, before Johnny Majors and Pitt could set their sights on a bigger prize, they had to first officially become the best team in the East. To do that, the Panthers had to overcome a rival, and many barriers.
Pitt had to beat Penn State, something the Panthers hadn’t done in over a decade (since ’65). They had to beat a coach they had never beaten. They also had to win a game on a field where they had never won, at Three Rivers Stadium, scene of the Lions’ 7-6 victory over Pitt, which was coincidentally the last time the Panthers lost.
Having owned Pitt of late, Paterno and Penn State would love nothing more than to continue its dominance in the series and spoil their rival’s perfect season. To do so, the Nittany Lions would have to beat a #1 team for the first time ever, having failed three previous times. Whether or not Paterno’s ’76 Lions had the personnel and firepower to win was another matter. Nevertheless, Penn State had very little to lose.
In contrast, Pitt had everything to lose. With the #1 ranking, Sugar Bowl invite and national title aspirations, the pressure to win was incredible.
If any Pitt team could handle the pressure, it was the ‘76 Panthers. They were different. It wasn’t just because they were undefeated; it was more because of what they had to overcome to remain undefeated.
On offense, Pitt was down various starters at different times, such as a tackle, center and fullback/halfback. However, it was truly rare to have three different quarterbacks play a prominent role in a team’s season, even more so for a #1 team. Starter Robert Haygood was lost for the season in the second game, Matt Cavanaugh guided the Panthers to five wins when he wasn’t injured with a hairline ankle fracture for three games, and former walk-on Tom Yewcic directed Pitt to three victories as a starter, and thereby earned a scholarship from Majors.
It certainly helped that star halfback Tony Dorsett was having his greatest season in a brilliant four-year career. He was leading the nation with 1,722 rushing yards, scored 19 touchdowns on the ground and 20 overall, and without question, there was some hardware coming his way in the near future.
However, as accomplished a player as Dorsett was, and as decorated as he was going to be, there was one thing he had yet to do in his career. He had never beaten Penn State, a school that recruited him heavily out of Hopewell High as a defensive back and lost out in the end for his services. Three times Dorsett went up against Paterno and the Lions, and three times he came out on the losing end. Dorsett had one last chance to beat Penn State.
Paterno called Dorsett, “One of the greatest athletes who ever played college football”. It was high praise from someone that coached four standout running backs such as ’69 All-American Charlie Pittman, Franco Harris, approaching his fourth 1,000-yard campaign in five NFL seasons with the Steelers, ’71 All-American Lydell Mitchell, Penn State’s career rushing leader and an NFL 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in ’76 with 1,019 so far for the Baltimore Colts, and ’73 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti, second on the school’s all-time rushing chart.
Majors offered that Penn State was, “The most improved football team in country”. He also said, “Both teams have outstanding personnel, both have potent weapons offensively and both teams, I think, have defenses that play with pride.”
In addition, both teams had almost two weeks to prepare for the game.
While there was already plenty of drama, there were rekindled reports from two years earlier that Majors was going to leave Pitt for his alma mater Tennessee after the season. Under seventh-year coach Bill Battle, the Volunteers had lost ground each season and were just 5-5 heading into their finale on Saturday, November 27 at Vanderbilt, Battle’s last game. The Tennessee people made no secret that they wanted Majors, who was a star running back for the Volunteers during the 1950s, and finished second in the ‘56 Heisman Trophy voting. He was certainly hoping that the situation wouldn’t be a distraction for the Panthers.
For the third straight year, the Penn State-Pitt game was in Pittsburgh, however, once again it wasn’t at Pitt Stadium. The game took place at Three Rivers Stadium, a “neutral” site and home to the NFL’s two-time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six straight games and 7-4 on the season.
Amid a slight rain, a crowd of 50,360 filled the venue the Friday night after Thanksgiving. Millions more tuned in for the national telecast on ABC.
The last two trips to Three Rivers, Pitt wore its home uniforms, but they changed tactics and wore road white jerseys, while Penn State wore its home blue jerseys.
The Nittany Lions changed their defense a bit and added some wrinkles, as they planned to line up head-on against Pitt’s linemen and protect the weak side with an extra linebacker, something they hadn’t done during the season. In addition, senior linebacker Kurt Allerman, who had a team-high 79 tackles, was switched to the inside as Paterno broke up his frosh combination of Clark and Millen for the sake of more experience on the field.
When the game got underway, Pitt kicked off. Carson Long, who in the ’75 game missed an extra point and three fourth quarter field goal attempts that proved costly in the Panthers’ heart-breaking one-point loss and had to live with such agonizing memories for 12 months, saw his problems against the Lions continue when his kick go out of bounds.
The Pitt defense took the field. It featured a strong pass rush from a trio of stellar performers in tackle Randy Holloway, leading the team with 14 sacks, middle guard Al Romano, with 106 tackles including nine sacks, and Don Parrish, and linebackers Jim Cramer (a team-high 119 tackles) and Arnie Weatherington (106 tackles). In addition, there were some changes, as end Ed Wilamowski suffered a pulled groin against West Virginia, thereby breaking up the front five linemen for the first time during the season, so sophomore reserve monster back Dave DiCiccio learned a new position in just a week and a half to fill in. The unit did its job.
Then it was Penn State’s turn, and they showed early that they benefited from the extra time to prepare and the changes. Having missed the last two games and still hobbled, Pitt’s Elliott Walker was in the starting lineup at fullback, but the Nittany Lions defense focused a lot of its attention towards Dorsett, playing his last collegiate game in Pittsburgh. The Lions were able to fight off the talented Pitt offensive line to keep Dorsett in check, in part due to the play of senior defensive end Ron Crosby and freshman linebacker Rick Donaldson coming up to provide support. As such, Penn State sent the Panthers an early message.
The next two times Pitt had the ball, the Lions continued to hold Dorsett in check. Through three possessions, he had only six yards on five carries.
Moreover, sophomore Scott Fitzkee’s punting proved a bright spot for the Lions. He kept Pitt in a hole most of the first quarter with punts of 49, 38 and 51 yards.
Later, Penn State started at the Pitt 45, and Fusina, out of nearby Sto-Rox High School just up the Ohio River from the Stadium, drove the Lions to the 21. From there, he flipped a lateral screen pass to 236-pound sophomore back Bob Torrey, who took it into the end zone for the game’s first score with 3:01 left in the opening period to cap a six-play, 45-yard drive. Junior Tony Capozzoli added the extra point for a 7-0 Penn State lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Panthers fell on the ball at the two. A pair of runs gained seven yards, and then on third down Cavanaugh passed to Gordon Jones for 53 yards to move into enemy territory at the Lion 38. Unfortunately, Pitt went backwards, and Larry Swider punted 42 yards.
Penn State was unable to move from the 20, and Fitzkee booted a 45-yard punt to the Pitt 35.
However, a two-yard loss and 15-yard penalty moved the Panthers backwards, and Swider again had to punt.
When Fusina dropped to pass, J.C. Wilson intercepted at the Pitt 46 and returned it 10 yards to the Lion 44. It was the first big break of the game.
Five plays into Pitt’s first possession of the second quarter, Cavanaugh threw a pass for Dorsett, but Donaldson intercepted at the Penn State 8 to end the threat.
When Fusina and the Lions couldn’t move, Fitzkee punted to the State 41.
Cavanaugh ran for two yards and passed to Jones for 26 yards to the Lion 13, where Dorsett swept left for two yards and then went around the right end for five more. From the State 6, Cavanaugh ran an option to the left and pitched to Dorsett, who easily swept around the end and simply outran the defenders to the end zone for a touchdown with 9:54 left in the half. Long’s conversion kick was true, a big plus for him that elicited a makeshift bow, and the game was tied, 7-7.
Long’s kickoff was taken by Rich Mauti at the Lion 13 and fumbled at the 20, where undersized Pitt freshman walk-on Glenn Meyer recovered, a former linebacker at nearby Shaler High but at 5’8” and 175 pounds was considered too small for major college football. When the offense was unable to move far, Long’s kicking woes against Penn State continued as he missed a 31-yard field goal attempt.
Later, the Lions got the ball at the 20 and went to the ground game, and mostly behind runs by Geise and Torrey they moved across midfield and down to the Pitt 30. Then Paterno reached into his bag of tricks and had sophomore split end Tom Donovan take a reverse and attempt a pass for Cefalo, the razzle-dazzle fooled the Panthers momentarily, but when the rainbow pass came down, half the Pitt secondary was waiting and it fell incomplete.
It seemed like only Penn State’s mistakes kept them from a lead during the period. At halftime, the score was tied, 7-7, and there was a definite tension in the stands in addition to the light rain that fell.
Penn State’s defense was the big story in the first half. They slowed the Panthers to only 51 rushing yards and put clamps on the best back in the land, as Dorsett was held to a mere 51 yards on 16 carries. As long as the Lions could keep him under control, the more likely their chances for an upset appeared. For the record, Hutton gained five yards while Cavanaugh had minus-five yards, but he also passed for 121 yards.
Offensively, Penn State managed 122 total yards, 72 through the air and 50 on the ground, mostly behind Geise, who gained 41 yards on eight carries.
In the locker room, Pitt was a calm and confident group, but Majors still decided to change things up for the next 30 minutes. The coaches devised an unbalanced offensive line attack to prevent the Penn State defense from keying on Dorsett and, to a lesser degree, Walker, and it included moving the split end and flanker on the tight end’s side, which would provide an extra blocker on sweeps. Then, since holes briefly opened up for the fullbacks, Majors planned to move Dorsett up from his tailback position in the I-formation to fullback, the first time he would ever line up at that position in his four years at Pitt, and Walker would be at tailback.
The Panthers took the second half kickoff and marched down the field, however, Cavanaugh was intercepted by junior linebacker Joe Diange at the State 20.
Four plays into the Lions possession, Fusina threw long for Mauti, but Bob Jury intercepted on the Pitt 13 and returned it 27 yards to the 40.
Using a slew of backs, the Panthers drove to the State 15 in nine plays. However, Bob Hutton fumbled at the 13, and sophomore safety Joe Diminick recovered for Penn State.
The Pitt defense held firm and allowed nothing in two plays, so on third down Penn State used a quick-punt to boot the ball away, which went to midfield.
Pitt’s new offensive alignment then caught the Lions by surprise. Able to look for quick cracks to get the yardage, on first down Dorsett went up the middle and dragged some defenders for a gain of seven yards. On second down, he picked up three more to move the chains. Then Cavanaugh lined the Pitt offense up, with Dorsett right behind him. They ran a quick trap up the middle and the Penn State nose guard went the wrong way, so Dorsett took the handoff and burst through the hole so fast that the linemen had no chance, he high-stepped a few prospective tacklers, cut to the left, picked up a fine block by Jones at the 20 and then kicked in the afterburners to leave the secondary grabbing at nothing but air en route to the end zone for a 40-yard go-ahead touchdown that sent the partisan crowd into a tizzy. It was a spectacular run from a special player, and Majors’ tactical changes paid immediate dividends. Not to be lost, Dorsett’s touchdown gave him 21 for the season and also the NCAA career record for points, 356, breaking the old mark of 354 set by Army Heisman winner Glenn Davis in the mid-1940s. Long’s extra point gave the Panthers a 14-7 lead.
On its next possession, Pitt continued to run the football down the Lions’ throats, while the Penn State sidelines desperately tried to make some adjustments. But Dorsett ran wild, as he went up the gut and also found room to roam against the bewildered Lions defense, which clearly wasn’t ready to deal with such a tactic.
After another Penn State punt late in the quarter, Pitt took over at the Lion 45. On first down, Dorsett slipped free and sprinted for a gain of 10 on the final play of the period. It gave him 91 rushing yards in the quarter and exactly 6,000 in his career to obviously become the first back ever to reach the milestone.
Nevertheless, Pitt carried its slim seven-point lead into the final period.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Dorsett spun away and broke free of a would-be tackle in the backfield and flashed around left end for a gain of 18 yards to the Penn State 17. That gave him 1,884 rushing yards on the season and a new NCAA record to move past Ed Marinaro’s former mark of 1,881 set at Cornell in ’71.
A third straight carry by Dorsett picked up five yards and moved the ball to the Lion 12, and just four yards shy of the school’s single season all-purpose mark, he got a breather. From there, Walker, lined up at fullback, took a handoff up the middle and burst for a 12-yard touchdown run with 14:05 showing on the game clock, his first touchdown since the Navy game. Long’s kick made it 21-7, and the Panthers could sense a long-awaited victory.
On the first play of Penn State’s ensuing drive, Fusina threw another interception, his third of the game.
Dorsett gained the five yards necessary to give him at least 1,965 total yards of offense to erase Pitt’s 50-year-old all-purpose mark of 1,964 yards by Gibby Welch in ’26, but the Panthers couldn’t parlay the turnover into a touchdown, as they stalled at the Lion 30. On came Long, who kicked a 47-yard field goal to make it a 24-7 game, and immediately afterwards, the conservative senior behaved more like a freshman when he leaped into the air like a frog and did a somersault to celebrate getting a hex monkey off his back.
The 17-point margin essentially shut the door on Penn State’s hopes. It was especially so considering how tough the Pitt defense was playing.
The Panthers weren’t finished though. With three minutes remaining, Long lined up for another field goal attempt, and this time Pitt, taking out years of frustration, tried the big play. It was a fake, and Swider unloaded a pass into the end zone that Pete Harris batted down, whose brother was Steelers’ great Franco.
When the final gun sounded, Pitt had a convincing 24-7 victory.
It took Majors and Pitt four years to do it, but they finally beat Paterno and Penn State. The Panthers were finally the best team in the East, and a Lambert Trophy was in their future, a first in 21 years and only the fourth ever (’36, ’37, ’55).
Pitt finished the regular season 11-0 for the first time in school history, which set a new school record for wins. It also marked the first undefeated season in 39 years, since legendary coach Jock Sutherland’s ’37 team went 9-0-1 and won the national championship, and it was the Panthers’ first perfect season in 59 years, since legendary coach Pop Warner’s ’17 team went 10-0.
When Majors moved Dorsett to fullback, even for a couple of plays, it changed the whole momentum of the game. As such, the Panthers were able to surge to 17 second half points.
Afterwards, Majors offered, “We needed to get us going. We had three or four big plays off that formation and I think that was the difference in the ball game. We worked on that at the beginning of the week in case we needed something to catch them off balance.”
All told, the Panthers had 20 first downs, 417 total yards and 278 yards rushing. As usual, Dorsett was the biggest part.
Dorsett did it all, slanting off tackle, high-stepping through the middle and speeding around the ends, to run rampant for 173 yards on 22 carries in the second half, and he finished with 224 yards on 38 carries and two touchdowns, his fourth 200-yard game of the season. It was a performance that most believed clinched the Heisman Trophy, if Dorsett hadn’t already won it. In the process, he extended, set or tied no less than seven NCAA records, the most obvious being rushing yards in a single season (1,948) and career (6,082), which meant that he held or shared 14 major college records, and his 2,021 total yards set school marks for offense and all-purpose yardage. Most importantly, Dorsett left a permanent mark on Penn State and finally walked off the field victorious.
“Tonight made it all worth while,” Dorsett said flashing a grin. “To tell you the truth, I never even thought about the Heisman when I went out there tonight. The only thing on my mind was beating Penn State. I realize there are other people who have played against Penn State four years, but there’s no way any of them can feel any better about this win than I do.”
Dorsett was the most productive running back in college football history, and possibly the greatest. The only thing left was the Heisman, and he appeared about as sure a thing as there ever was to win it.
Hutton and Walker each rushed for 29 yards, the former on seven carries and the latter on five tries with a touchdown. Meanwhile, Cavanaugh completed 8-of 16 passes for 141 yards, and Jones had game-highs with four receptions for 111 yards.
The mighty Pitt defense also did a great job, especially in the second half. They permitted 241 total yards, 106 on the ground and 135 through the air. The Panthers had four interceptions to tie for a season-high with the Notre Dame and Miami games, two by Jury, which gave him a school-record nine on the season, and one each by Jeff Delaney and Wilson. DiCiccio was an unsung hero with six tackles, three solo, and a quarterback sack that lost 18 yards.
It also had to be a particularly satisfying game for Long, the NCAA record holder for kickers with 259 points, given what happened a year earlier.
Majors yelled over the dressing room noise, “I’m so happy for the whole school, the city of Pittsburgh and this football team. But I’m particularly happy for Tony Dorsett and Carson Long. They deserve to have great games against Penn State.”
Needless to say, Paterno did not anticipate such a weak response from his defensive line. From a quiet dressing room he offered, “Tony Dorsett is some kind of back. I didn’t think we’d see him at fullback tonight. I didn’t think they could run up the gut like that against us.”
Crosby’s 13 tackles, along with two assists, were tops among Penn State defenders. Junior end Bill Banks contributed 10 tackles.
Geise led the ground game with 60 yards on 13 carries, most of it in the first half. Fusina was 8-of-16 passing for 120 yards with four interceptions.
Next for Penn State (7-4) was a date with Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, Pitt was headed for the Sugar Bowl to play for the national championship. Before doing so, Dorsett was going to be in New York.
Of more pressing matters for the Panthers’ football team was Majors’ status. He still had two years left on his existing contract that was extended in ‘74, and the big question appeared to be would he stay or would he opt for the Tennessee job that was probably open in a few days?
November 26, 1976 1st 2nd 3rd 4th F
#16 Penn State (7-3) 7 0 0 0 7
#1 Pittsburgh (10-0) 0 7 7 10 24
PSU – Bob Torrey 21-yard lateral pass from Chuck Fusina, Tony Capozzoli kick (PSU 7-0)
PITT – Tony Dorsett 6-yard run, Carson Long kick (tied 7-7)
PITT – Dorsett 40-yard run, Long kick (PITT 14-7)
PITT – Elliott Walker 12-yard run, Long kick (PITT 21-7)
PITT – Long 47-yard field goal (PITT 24-7)
STATISTICS PSU PITT
First Downs 12 20
Rushes-Yards 41-106 65-278
Passing Yards 135 141
Total Yards 241 419
Passes (C-A-I) 9-19-4 8-17-2
Fumbles Lost 3-1 2-2
Punts-Average 8-41 5-45
Penalties-Yards 1-5 2-20
PSU: Geise 13-60, Guman 10-33, Torrey 7-30, M. Suhey 4-24, Hostetler 1-4, Fusina 6-(-48)
PITT: Dorsett 38-224, Hutton 7-29, Walker 5-29, Cavanaugh 15-6
PSU: Fusina 8-16-120-4, Hostetler 1-2-15-0, Donovan 0-1-0-0
PITT: Cavanaugh 8-16-141-2, Swider 0-1-0-0
PSU: Mauti 1-27, Torrey 2-26, Fitzkee 1-25, Donovan 1-23, Shuler 5-16, Cefalo 1-15, Geise 1-3
PITT: Jones 4-111, Corbett 3-20, Taylor 1-10