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Horns of a Dilemma: Looking back at the 1972 Cotton Bowl

Penn State needed to make a statement when it faced Texas in the 1972 Cotton Bowl. Penn State historian Lou Prato looks back on one of the biggest games in program history.


The following story is adapted from two books written by the author, “The Penn State Football Encyclopedia” and “Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in Penn State Football History.”


If there is one game in the Joe Paterno era that any of his 46 teams had to win, it was the 1972 Cotton Bowl against Texas. This was the game that finally gave Paterno’s Nittany Lions the respect and prestige they had sought since the 1969 Orange Bowl victory over Kansas. The 409 victories, five undefeated seasons and two national championships that Paterno amassed during his tenure were largely the fruition of what happened in Dallas on Jan. 1, 1972.

After three decades, one can point to other “must win” games that were crucial to Penn State’s rise to the pinnacle of college football. But if the Lions had lost this one, it would have set the program back for years and, perhaps, caused Paterno to accept a lucrative early offer from professional football and leave Penn State. Yet, the consequential game and its definitive result might never have occurred if not for another unusual series of events that involved Texas Christian, Notre Dame and a demoralizing season-ending loss at Tennessee.

Paterno knew he had a good team in 1971 after what had been the best spring practice since he became head coach. Although he wouldn’t admit it, he also had a favorable schedule that included only two teams in the preseason Top 20 – Syracuse and Tennessee – and several mediocre Eastern rivals. For the first time since 1962, the Lions would be playing the three military academies, and one of those games against the Air Force at Beaver Stadium would help define the regular season. Most sportswriters also tabbed the Lions as a Top 20 team, with The Associated Press ranking them No. 12, Syracuse No. 13 and Tennessee No. 8. Texas was No. 3 behind Notre Dame and defending national champ Nebraska.

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PSU defensive end Jim Laslavic pulls down Texas quarterback Eddie Phillips.
PSU defensive end Jim Laslavic pulls down Texas quarterback Eddie Phillips. (Pattee & Paterno Library Archives)

The offense was built around three seniors: quarterback John Hufnagel and running backs Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris, whom Paterno called “the two best backs I’ve had at Penn State.” His prime defensive concern was the secondary, so he switched highly touted sophomore running back John Cappelletti into a starting position at defensive halfback and also made him the prime returner for punts and kickoffs. Paterno also recruited his first kicking specialist and his first junior college player, Al Vitiello, who had set junior college place-kicking records at Nassau (N.Y.) Community College.

The Nittany Lions opened the season in near-80-degree heat at Annapolis, clobbering Navy, 56-3, with Mitchell scoring five touchdowns and Vitiello kicking eight extra points. Seven days later in the rain at Iowa, Penn State crushed the Hawkeyes, 44-14, as Mitchell ran for a near-record 211 yards and one touchdown and Harris rushed for 145 yards and four scores, moving the Lions to No. 9 in the AP rankings. They slipped to No. 10 after almost losing the home opener to heavy underdog Air Force. Vitiello’s 22-yard field goal with 4 minutes, 7 seconds remaining and late interceptions by Cappelletti and Gregg Ducatte allowed them to escape with a 16-14 victory.

Perennial Eastern rivals Army and Syracuse provided the fodder for Penn State to quickly rebound, as the Lions defeated the Cadets, 42-0, at Beaver Stadium and shut out the Orange, 31-0, at Archbold Stadium. They were now up to No. 7 in the polls. What happened the next week against unranked Texas Christian before a homecoming crowd in University Park would presage the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on New Year’s Day, but nobody realized it at the time.

For the first time, a Paterno-coached team would be up against the multifaceted wishbone offense that had helped make Texas the national champion in 1969. TCU’s new coach, Jim Pittman, had switched to the run-oriented wishbone and brought a 2-1-1 record into Beaver Stadium. As a near-record crowd of 51,893 watched, along with scouts from the Orange, Cotton and Sugar bowls, Penn State shocked TCU, 66-14. The Lions’ defense limited the wishbone to 129 yards, and the offense piled up a school-record 633 total yards, including 485 yards on the ground. Mitchell finished with 177 yards and four touchdowns (tying Charlie Pittman’s seasonal record of 14), while Harris had 104 yards and one TD. Vitiello set a school record with nine extra points, as Penn State scored its most points since a 75-0 win over Fordham in 1947.

West Virginia had lost 12 consecutive games to Penn State, but coach Bobby Bowden convinced Mountaineers fans that this was the year. His team had won six of its first seven games, and he had the wild WVU homecoming crowd psyched up for the Nittany Lions. West Virginia’s defense kept it close until late in the third quarter. A controversial fumble recovery by Penn State of its own muffed punt return with the score tied, 7-7, led to two touchdowns as the period was winding down, and the Lions went on to post a 35-7 victory that Paterno admitted was “deceiving.”

Mitchell ran for 209 yards and five touchdowns on 24 carries, and the Lions hammered Maryland, 63-27, at Beaver Stadium the following Saturday. Mitchell set three more school records, surpassing Lenny Moore’s career and single-season rushing yardage marks and snapping Pete Mauthe’s single-season scoring record of 119 points set in 1912. A week later, Mitchell scored four touchdowns to break the national college record set by Arizona’s Art Luppino in 1954. However, again, the Lions needed 28 points in the fourth quarter to beat feisty North Carolina State, 35-3, with four bowl scouts looking on in Beaver Stadium. The Lions dropped from No. 5 to No. 6 in the rankings with two road games left, Pitt and Tennessee.

Game day against Pitt was Saturday, Nov. 20. That was also bowl selection day, and for the first time invitations would be allowed at 6 p.m. rather than the following Monday. No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma were headed for a Thanksgiving Day showdown, and media speculation early in the week had the winner playing No. 4 Alabama in the Orange Bowl and the loser going to the Sugar Bowl against No. 5 Auburn. The Cotton Bowl wanted to match Penn State or No. 8 Georgia against the Southwest Conference winner, either No. 12 Texas or No. 17 Arkansas, although both had already lost two games. The Gator Bowl tried to come up with a dream game between Penn State and No. 7 Notre Dame that would put the bowl on the same level in prestige and payoffs as its New Year’s Day counterparts. But before Saturday, Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian said that once-beaten Notre Dame would not play in any bowl.

The Lions took care of business at Pitt Stadium, scoring 35 points in the first half en route to a 55-18 victory that dropped the Panthers to 2-8. In the locker room, Cotton Bowl officials Wilbur Evans and Field Scovell issued their formal invitation. The players voted and university administrators accepted. “We haven’t even put Tennessee into the contingency,” said Bob Scannell, dean of Penn State’s Physical Education School, which ran the athletic department. “I’m sure Joe will take care of that.”

Joe didn’t, or, rather, his team didn’t. Even before the nationally televised game between No. 5 PSU and twice-beaten, 12th-ranked Tennessee, many sportswriters were again questioning the caliber of the Nittany Lion team and mocking what they labeled its soft schedule. On the morning of the game, the Chattanooga Times headline declared, “Penn State: Powerhouse or Imposter – We Find Out This Afternoon.” Tennessee would be the Lions’ true test, everyone said. It was a test, all right, and the Lions flunked. Hufnagel and the special teams units had a horrible day, and the Lions lost, 31-11. “We played lousy,” Paterno said. “This isn’t the end of the world.” It almost was. The Lions plunged to No. 10, and the naysayers crowed for weeks, predicting another embarrassment against Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News called Penn State the “Paper Lions.”

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Dave Joyner (left) and Lydell Mitchell both played key roles in the Lions' victory over the Longhorns.
Dave Joyner (left) and Lydell Mitchell both played key roles in the Lions' victory over the Longhorns. (Pattee & Paterno Library Archives)

Getting his team ready for Texas was not easy for Paterno. A new NCAA rule for postseason games prohibited teams from returning home for Christmas if they had started practicing in the South beforehand. So, even without a field house, Paterno decided to practice in the freezing cold and snow of University Park. When the team arrived in Dallas on Dec. 26, they were still unsettled, and the boisterous confidence of Texas fans didn’t help, with one prominent sign near the team’s Fairmont hotel headquarters blaring “Kick The Hell Out of Penn State.” The first couple of workouts in Dallas did not go well, and the team seemed listless and uninspired. Paterno displayed his concern openly.

When Franco Harris showed up late for practice, Paterno reprimanded him in front of the entire team. The next day, Harris was three minutes late and Paterno publicly demoted him to the second team. It was a disciplinary action that seemed to anger some of the players rather than stimulate them. “Looking back, I think I handled that wrong,” Paterno admitted later. As Paterno dejectedly talked more pessimistically during public appearances, the players just shook their heads. They didn’t care for his psychology. Some of them got mad at him for implying they were not working hard and couldn’t handle the Texas wishbone. “I don’t believe anyone can stop the wishbone,” Paterno had said. “Of course, we’d like to contain it, but we haven’t had much luck at that even in practice.” Paterno continued that refrain at a news conference, saying, “It will take a miracle for us to win.” Texas coach Darrell Royal replied, “I think Joe’s peeing on my leg.”

Texas was favored by six points and kicked off on a rainy, 50-degree afternoon before an announced crowd of 72,000, including former President Lyndon Johnson. The Lions drove to the Texas 37 before a penalty hindered their momentum and forced them to punt. The rest of the first half was a defensive battle, although the offensive units of both teams reached the other’s red zone at least once. With 1:15 left in the first quarter, Texas took the lead on a 29-yard field goal by Steve Valek.

Early in the second quarter, linebackers John Skorupan and Tom Hull forced a fumble that fellow linebacker and co-captain Charlie Zapiec recovered at the Longhorns’ 20-yard line. The Lions reached the Texas 6, and Vitiello booted a 21-yard field goal to tie the score. With less than 30 seconds remaining and Penn State driving at the Texas 32, the Longhorns intercepted a Hufnagel pass at the 17 and returned it to their 40. On the last play of the half, Valek kicked a 40-yard field goal, giving Texas a 6-3 lead and the momentum for the second half.

The Penn State locker room was calm. No panic and no fiery speeches. As Paterno walked by co-captain Dave Joyner, the All-America tackle smiled and told him, “We got ’em where we want ’em.”

The players were confident. Texas had used its famed wishbone offense to control the ball for 17 minutes and picked up nearly 200 yards. But as the first half progressed, the Lions had throttled the wishbone, just as they had learned to do in the TCU game.

With Texas getting the second-half kickoff, the partisan crowd anticipated a rout. Moments after the kickoff, three plays changed the game.

Texas quarterback Eddie Phillips fumbled the wet ball at midfield, and Penn State defensive end Jim Laslavic inadvertently kicked it downfield, with Zapiec recovering at the Longhorns’ 41. Penn State quickly took the lead, 10-6, on a 1-yard touchdown by Mitchell. The Texas team and its fans were stunned.

The Lions’ defense forced Texas to punt on its next possession. On the first play from the PSU 35, Hufnagel found junior split end Scott Skarzynski in the clear, 15 yards behind the Longhorns’ safety, and hit him for a 65-yard TD and a 17-6 lead. Skarzynski said later, “I was so far open... my grandmother could have made the play.”

It was the play of the game and the end for Texas. Vitiello kicked a 37-yard field goal later in the quarter and added a 22-yarder seven minutes into the fourth period, setting a Cotton Bowl record with three. The Lions controlled the ball for nearly 13 minutes in the final quarter, scoring another TD on a 64-yard drive, with Hufnagel going the final 4 yards on a fourth-down keeper. Penn State won, 30-6, becoming the first opponent in 80 games to hold high-scoring Texas without a TD.

Mitchell, who had gained 146 yards on 27 carries, was named the game’s top offensive player, and end Bruce Bannon the top defensive player. Zapiec was given the game ball. The wishbone had netted 159 yards rushing and 83 yards passing, while the Lions had gained 239 yards on the ground and 137 through the air.

“Nobody stays in one defense and stops them,” Paterno told reporters. “We kept moving around a lot and changing up on them, and trying to guess with them. We made a lot of good guesses. … We moved from a five-man front to a six, we staggered the tackles right and left, and a lot of things.”

The Lions whooped it up in the locker room, tossing Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp into the showers with Paterno. Penn State had “stormed through, over and around the Longhorns for a resounding 30-6 victory,” wrote Sam Blair in The Dallas Morning News. “When it was over, not a soul was making jokes about the so-called Eastern style football, which the Lions supposedly play. ... Rarely, if ever, has a good Royal team, supposedly operating under normal strength, been subjected to such a licking.” Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Times-Herald wrote, “The vaunted Wishbone T offense... was most ineffective. This was due partly to poor execution on the part of the Steer offensive unit... and partly to a rather savage Penn State defense.”

The Lions finished No. 5 in the final AP poll and set school single-season records for scoring (454 points), rushing (3,347 yards) and total offense (4,995 yards) – records that were not broken until 1994. Mitchell and Vitiello also set several team records, with Mitchell also establishing NCAA single-season marks for TDs (28), rushing TDs (26) and points (174).

“The Cotton Bowl game is one of the greatest victories in Penn State history,” Paterno said years later. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a game that we had to win more than this one. There was so much that had been done that was ready to go down the drain if Texas had beaten us.”

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