Some reflections as Lions start new season

ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State’s Terry Smith steps away from Georgia Tech tacklers Willie Clay and Marcus Coleman (22) as he gains 25-yards on a pass completion from quarterback Tony Sacca in the first quarter of the Kickoff Classic on Aug. 28, 1991. The Lions’ win over the defending co-champs boosted their national title hopes until losses to USC and Miami.

There’s something special about the opening of a football season.

All the preseason talk is thankfully over, curiosity is high, September cool usually fills the air — OK, today may be rainy — and optimism reigns as everybody’s undefeated, including Akron.

Penn State is 107-21-2 all-time in openers, and it’s actually surprising that the Nittany Lions have suffered 21 losses since they typically haven’t gone out of their way too often to match up with teams of their equal.

Witness today in what should be lopsided outcome.

Fans are accustomed and don’t grouse too much about a steady diet of Mid-American Conference openers. It’s occasionally dipped to Indiana State and Coastal Carolina. Next year will be Appalachian State, which can be dangerous.

Scheduling an automatic win for the opener is an accepted practice because most schools do it.

The Joe Paterno Era generally alternated Rutgers and Temple or teams of that caliber but occasionally agreed to a Kickoff Classic, for better (USC in 1996) or worse (Nebraska in 1983).

When the program was laying its foundation, in the 1930s under Bob Higgins (the Suhey brothers’ grandfather), Lebanon Valley was the most frequent opener, although Higgins’ 1947 unbeaten team — Penn State’s first bowl team since the 1923 Rose appearance — debuted with Washington State at a neutral site, HersheyPark Stadium.

Well into the 1950s, with Rip Engle now in charge, Penn State, like most college teams, weren’t even opening the season until the last week of September or sometimes even the first week of October.

That was, of course, before the schedules expanded to 10, 11 and now 12 games and ESPN took over.

So now that we’ve meandered though the mini-history lesson, following are Penn State’s top five openers from this viewpoint.

Quality opposition was a prerequisite for consideration.

• 1. 1985, Byrd Stadium: Penn State 20, Maryland 18 — The Lions came off a 6-5 year and were actually underdogs as the Terps were ranked No. 7. Mike Zordich’s early interception return for a touchdown helped PSU jump to a 17-0 lead, but the Lions squandered it in near 100-degree temperatures and, following a late Maryland fumble, needed Massimo Manca’s late-game winning field goal. The win sparked Penn State to a pair of unbeaten regular seasons.

• 2. 1991, Giants Stadium: Penn State 34, Georgia Tech 22 — This was the Lions’ second appearance in the Kickoff Classic, the first a 44-6 loss in 1983 to Nebraska, which was still smarting from a 1982 loss via a bad call at Beaver Stadium. On this night, however, Penn State looked tremendous against the defending national co-champions. Penn State bolted to a 34-3 lead behind five touchdown passes from Tony Sacca and standout efforts from O.J. McDuffie and Richie Anderson and went on to finish 11-2, losing at USC and Miami.

• 3. 1999, Beaver Stadium: Penn State 41, Arizona 7 — The Lions came in ranked No. 3, featuring their star-studded defense led by LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown, the top two picks in the 2000 draft. Arizona, though ranked No. 4, was no match and its coach, Dick Tomey, said his team was heavy-legged and should have arrived earlier for what was billed as the “Pigskin Classic.” Chafie Fields blazed twice for touchdowns and Justin Kurpeikis blocked the fourth punt of his career to help trigger the rout. The team proved to be much better early than late in this season, losing their last three regular-season games.

• 4. 1996 Giants Stadium: Penn State 24, USC 7 — Another Kickoff Classic, and this one kick-started a 11-2 season that ended in the Fiesta Bowl with a 38-15 rout of Texas. Curtis Enis was unstoppable, rushing for 241 yards and three touchdowns.

• 5. 2016 Croke Park Stadium, Ireland: Penn State 26, Central Florida 24 — James Franklin’s coaching debut at PSU ended with him leaping into the arms of Sam Ficken after the latter’s game-winning 36-yard field goal as time expired. Christian Hackenberg completed 32-of-47 for a school-record 464 yards, eight to Geno Lewis for 178 yards and 11 to DaeSean Hamilton for 165.

It’s doubtful anything that happens today against Akron will bump these top five, but there will be plenty of other opportunities for the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions to make 2017 a memorable season.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com. He will respond to brief comments in Gameday.

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