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Penn State football: Best wins over 2023 opponents – Maryland

Although many remember the historic 1986 national championship season for Penn State football, people forget it was almost derailed by an unlikely foe.



Penn State football, Maryland
Jan 1, 1986; Miami, FL; USA; FILE PHOTO; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno on the field before the 1986 National Championship game at the Orange Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners. The Sooners won the game 25-10. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Next up in our Penn State football best wins series is Maryland. The series against the Terps has been one-sided, with the Nittany Lions owning a 47-4-1 series record. However, there have been some close games in the series. The two teams have a long history, going back to their first meeting in 1917. The Nittany Lions and Terps met nearly every season from 1960 to 1993, with the series going on hiatus until Maryland joined the Big Ten for the 2014 season.

The first two conference matchups between the two were close one-point margins, with Maryland winning in State College in 2014 and Penn State returning the favor in Baltimore in 2015. Since then, the series mostly has been dominated by Penn State outside of a Maryland victory during the weird 2020 Covid-shortened season.

Two games from the 1980s stand out in this series. The first in 1985 was 19th ranked Penn State opening its season with a narrow 20-18 victory over 7th ranked Maryland. But the best win over Maryland came the following year during Penn State’s run to the national championship.

Some uncanny luck for Penn State football

Joe Paterno and Penn State football entered the 1986 contest with Maryland undefeated at 8-0. Its best victory thus far had been at then-second-ranked Alabama. The Nittany Lions themselves were now ranked second in the country. Maryland was on the opposite end of the spectrum. After winning their first three games, the Terps were losers of four of their next five. Sitting at 4-4 and having not beaten the Nittany Lions since 1961, it sure looked like the Terps would be no match for the number two team in the country.

Penn State was primarily a defensive juggernaut that season, with soon-to-be All-Americans Shane Conlan and Tim Johnson leading the way. Running back DJ Dozier was key on offense, but the Lions could sometimes be offensively challenged. This fact caught up to them against Maryland.

The Nittany Lions led only 7-0 at halftime on a touchdown by Dozier. Throughout the game, Penn State was insanely fortunate to have intercepted Maryland quarterback Dan Henning three times near the goal line. The last was returned 82 yards to set up an easy score by Dozier, giving the Lions a 14-3 lead with about eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.

A missed two-point conversion keeps title dreams alive

Despite it looking bleak, the Terps did not give up. Henning led Maryland down the field, but it looked like the drive would stall at the Nittany Lion 16-yard line. On a 4th and 7, Henning found a receiver in the back of the end zone. After a failed two-point attempt, the score was 14-9 Penn State. On its next possession, Penn State drove and netted a field goal. With just over a minute to go, Penn State led 17-9.

All Maryland could hope for was a touchdown and a two-point conversion for a tie, which would likely ruin Penn State’s national title hopes. Henning again led the Terps on a masterful drive. Eight plays netted 75 yards, hitting pay dirt again with a pass into the end zone. It was now do or die for the Nittany Lions. Their perfect season and national championship aspirations were on the line with one final play.

The Terps called a run-pass option on the two-point play. With pressure from linebacker Keith Karpinski, Henning’s pass fell wide and short. Penn State had preserved its victory 17-15, and Maryland was tormented again by a close loss to its neighbors to the north. Penn State, of course, finished the season undefeated and ended up in the famous matchup with Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. But without the victory over the Terps, that game and national championship would have never occurred.

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Shane has been a Penn State fan since he attended his first game in Beaver Stadium when he was 8 years old. A Class of 2005 alum, he has been a contributing writer for Victory Bell Rings, Saturday Blitz and now Basic Blues Nation. He also hosts The Nittany and Badger: A Big Ten Football Podcast. Shane lives near Pittsburgh with his wife and son.


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