by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

“It’s not always about how you begin a season, but rather how you finish it.”

That old time-worn sports bromide might not be an absolute, but darned if we don’t see examples time and time again. Most recently, and prominently, the Atlanta Braves have qualified for the World Series out of the National League, something that would have seemed pretty far-fetched for most of the summer. As late as August 4, the Braves were still sitting below .500; as late as August 13, still in 3rd place in the NL  East. A bit more than two months later, playing in the World Series. NHL fans can relate, too; how about the St. Louis Blues, sitting with the worst record in the league as the 2018-19 season hit January. Less than six months later, captain Alex Pietrangelo was lifting the Stanley Cup in Boston’s TD Garden.

The reason we like to cite these examples, which are numerous, in sport, is that they can provide great handicapping opportunities for those who can spot the emerging trends soon enough. Indeed, the difference between a winning and losing football season for many sports book patrons can come down to pegging just a handful of teams and catching their streaks early enough to cash in. Which is why for years when we used to publish a more-comprehensive version of the The Gold Sheet Extra!!!, we would feature a weekly list of pointspread streaks, down to as little as two wins (or losses) in a row. Every longer streak starts with a shorter streak; we simply wanted to identify all potential emerging sides, then try to hone in on a handful that we believe could go on extended runs...win or lose.

One of our favorite examples of such a late-season streak involved none other than Penn State, though not the Nittany Lions most have been familiar with for decades. Remember, the TGS era started in 1957, almost a decade before Joe Paterno became head coach at Happy Valley. Until taking over in 1966, he served as an assistant under Rip Engle, a coach of some repute himself, regarded as Penn State’s greatest in the pre-Paterno era. In Engle’s 16 seasons at State College, he recorded a stellar 104-48-4 record, good enough to get him inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1973.

Prior to taking the Penn State job, Engle was head coach at Brown...and not just football, but basketball as well during the World War II years. While coaching in Providence, he also tutored a young quarterback named...Joe Paterno, who after graduation would join Engle’s first Nittany Lions staff in 1950.

Engle’s Penn State featured several ranked sides, one finishing as high as ninth in the polls in 1962, featuring end Dave Robinson, who would go on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career  as a linebacker with the Packers and Redskins, and QB Pete Liske, a star in the CFL for much of the 60s before spending a few years with the Broncos and Eagles. Engle’s 1959 team, with future NFL RB Dick Hoak, finished 9-2 and won the inaugural Liberty Bowl (played in Philadelphia) against Bear Bryant’s first Alabama bowl qualifier. Engle teams from the 1950s featured another HOF performer, RB Lenny Moore, plus a couple of one-time familiar NFL names, tackle Rosey Grier and QB Milt Plum.

But we always thought the best Engle team might have been his 1964 edition...at least the team on display in the last half of that season.

Expected to contend for the Lambert Trophy, symbol of Eastern football excellence, Engle’s Nittany Lions instead kept finding aggravating ways to lose early-season games, including the first three of the campaign. Tenth-ranked Navy, featuring defending Heisman winner Roger Staubach, frustrated Engle’s team in the opener, despite the Mids being held to a mere 155 yards on offense, and Staubach completely muzzled, accounting for a measly 30 yards on the day. Though outgaining Navy by a near 2-1 margin, four turnovers would prove deadly, including a 3rd Q interception by QB Gary Wydman, returned 58 yards for a TD by the Mids’ Duncan Ingraham. Then, with a chance to go ahead in the 4th Q when trailing only 14-8, end Bill Huber dropped a potential TD pass from Wydman. Eventually another Navy interception, carried to the Nittany Lions’ 6 deep in the 4th Q, set up the final score in a misleading 21-8 scoreline favoring the Mids

Frustration continued the next week with a trip to the west coast for a September 27 battle with UCLA. Though it was a special night at the Coliseum; two weeks before the Tokyo Olympics were to begin, the entire US team, all 370 of them, preparing to fly to Japan, assembled to march into the Coliseum as they would two weeks hence at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, smartly garbed in the same resplendent blue uniforms they were to wear at the opening ceremonies. Highlighting the pre-game festivities, Rafer Johnson, a former UCLA star and 1960 decathlon winner in Rome, stood on a flag-draped podium and delivered the same Olympic oath the athletes would soon be hearing in Japan. Such formal pre-game color is something sadly missing from the modern college football experience.

Again, however, Penn State let a win slip through its fingers. Rallying from a 14-0 deficit, the Lions would claw back level at 14 on a short smash by FB Ed Stuckrath, only to see the aforementioned end Bill Huber, who doubled with PK duties, push the PAT wide. Bruins QB Larry Zeno would then hit end Kurt Altenberg for a 15-yard score to put UCLA back ahead midway in the 4th Q, before a late Nittany Lions drive, featuring a pair of fourth-down conversions, would end on a fumble by back Dave McNaughton on the Bruins’ 13-yard line. The 21-14 UCLA lead thus held, a second straight bitter Penn State defeat.

Frustration turned to anger the following week when hosting Oregon at Beaver Stadium. Nine times would the Nittany Lions fumble, five recovered by the Webfoots, whose future NFL QB QB Bob Berry would oblige by tossing a trio of TD passes as Penn State’s 7-6 halftime edge would turn into a 22-14 loss, the first time a Nittany Lions team team had ever dropped its first three games of the season. A first losing campaign since 1938 appeared in the offing. No rest for the weary, either, with a challenging game on tap at West Point against a rugged and favored Army team that had just played top-ranked Texas extremely tough in Austin.

While Game 3 of the World Series between the Cardinals and Yankees was being played 60 or so miles to the south, Engle’s team dug in for 60 minutes of trench warfare at Michie Stadium. Featuring intense hard-hitting on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with rugged Penn State middle guard Glenn Ressler (left), a future decorated Baltimore Colts lineman, clogging the Army running lanes, Penn State finally broke through in the 3rd Q with a punishing 62-yard drive capped by a 2-yard dive by HB Bob Riggle. Though, when Gary Sanker’s PAT sailed wide, the lead only stood at 6-0, still within range of the Army offense and their do-everything QB, Rollie Stichweh. Who, as if one cue, led a dramatic late drive from the Cadets’ 20-yard-line, nearly exhausting the remaining ten minutes on the clock, all of the way to the Nittany Lions’ 2..much as Stichweh had done in the waning moments of the previous December's pulsating and memorable  21-15 loss to Navy.

But the Engle defense stiffened, and when Stichweh took a snap in the shotgun formation on 4th down, he proceeded to overthrow end Sam Champi in the end zone. Engle, ever the thinker, decided to eschew the 6-0 shutout and instead take a safety on the ensuing 4th down well inside of a minute to play, reckoning the free kick from the 20 would yield better field position than a punt, backed up to the end line. That 30-or-so yard difference meant Paul Dietzel’s Cadet team would instead start at its own 47 in the final seconds, and Stichweh was soon intercepted, preserving the 6-2 win.

Though 1-3, close followers of the Nittany Lions knew their team was much better. And even after a subsequent last-minute 21-14 loss to 7th-ranked  Syracuse in another punishing battle, Penn State was not done for the season. Paterno, running the offense and under mounting pressure to convince Engle to bench starting QB Wydman for Jack White, his top compeitior in fall camp, played his gut instinct and continued to support Wydman...a move that paid off nicely

The clouds soon broke after Penn State bottomed out at 1-4 in mid-October following the Syracuse grinder. First, throttling West Virginia, then Maryland on Halloween, the Nittany Lions were on their way back, suddenly winning games and covering spreads, finally catching a few breaks and starting to dominate the opposition on the scoreboard...as they had often done on the field the first month of the season when the results didn't follow. How far back had rallied Penn State would be determined the following week at Ohio State (similar to this week’s matchup!) against an undefeated Woody Hayes side that was jockeying with Ara Parseghian’s Notre Dame for the top spot in the rankings.

Having surrendered No. 1 to the Irish, a 40-0 winner over Navy, the previous week, OSU would still receive 11 first-place votes in the next AP poll, ahead of other unbeatens Alabama and Arkansas and a nose behind the Domers. Six foes had gained a mere 451 total yards against the rock-ribbed Buckeye defense. As for those who wondered if Hayes would be overlooking the non-conference game vs. Engle’s team, and focus instead on upcoming Big Ten clashes vs. Northwestern and Michigan that would determine OSU’s Pasadena fate, Woody had his usual, curt response.”If you want to see an exhibition,” snorted the gruff Hayes, “go to a wrestling match.”

What followed in front of a sell-out crowd of 84,279 customers at the packed Big Horseshoe was one of the most hard-to-believe results of 1964 or any season. The only thing the highly-ranked, 2-TD favorite Buckeyes won all afternoon was the coin toss.

From the outset, Penn State’s physical brand of mayhem seemed to unnerve Woody’s boys, who were supposedly the ultimate proponents of power football. But the Buckeyes were getting soundly thrashed at their own smashmouth-style game. With Ressler an immovable boulder in the middle of the Penn State defense, Ohio State was stonewalled with its patented power game. Woody's punishing 215-lb. FB Willard Sander, who the week before vs. Iowa had lost yardage on a carry or the first time in his career, had nowhere to run; QB Don Unverferth nowhere to throw. The Bucks didn’t register a first down before intermission and never punched the ball past their own 35-yard line in the opening half, either. OSU had no gain longer than HB Bo Rein’s 6-yard run; the Buckeyes’ total offense in the first half was -14 yards. Twice, Hayes opted to punt on early downs, once on third down, another on second down, hoping to gain a little field position as his offense was not budging the Engle defense.

Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions unleashed a ferocious power game of their own, hammering at the OSU line with bruising FB Tom Urbanik and slashing HB Don Kunit gouging out yardage between the tackles on a succession of what appeared to be slow-developing plays that instead confounded the Hayes defense.  Able to benefit from this infantry diversion, QB Wydman enjoyed one of his better days, completing 12 of 22 passes for 148 yards (in 1964 terms, that was a pretty good passing effort).

The Akron Beacon Journal summed up the Buckeye effort thusly. “Woody Hayes brought little more than a squad of animated uniforms on the field, containing not even speaking resemblance to the determined, desire-filled Buckeyes who prevailed decisively earlier over good ones like Illinois and Southern California.” The Dayton Daily News might have done the Beacon Journal one better. “If Hayes wants to find somebody who can give him sympathy from that kind of a beating, he’ll probably have to call Sen. Goldwater.” (The game was four days after Barry Goldwater was trounced by LBJ in the 1964 election.)

Even the one Penn State error turned out to be gold for the Nittany Lions, as an Urbanik fumble into the OSU end zone in the 1st Q was alertly pounced upon by HB Dirk Nye for Penn State’s first TD of the game. When the smoke finally cleared and the merciless carnage was complete, Penn State had won the first down battle 22-5, ran 79 plays to OSU’s 37, and dominated the yardage tally, 349-63. The Buckeyes could have been flattered that they only lost by a 27-0 count, so savage was the beating. “That was the soundest trouncing we have ever had,” a downtrodden Hayes admitted after the game.

Despite the 4-4 record, by this stage of the season, Penn State was performing like a a top ten team. Maybe high top ten; maybe top two, or top one.  Houston, ripped 24-7 the following week at Rice Stadium, and Pitt, smashed 28-0 in the finale (the same Panthers who had almost beaten then top-ranked Notre Dame the very day the Nittany Lions were throttling the Buckeyes), could have attested the same. We at TGS might have been inclined to ride Penn State against any team by the end of that ‘64 season, whether it be eventual national champ Arkansas, or either Alabama or Texas, who met in a memorable Orange Bowl. Of course, none of those matchups materialized, as the Nittany Lions had played themselves out of the bowl mix (much more limited in those days) by midseason.  So we’ll never find out what might have happened, but we know what we saw that November of 1964, when Rip Engle's team was arguably the best in the country.

Is there another Penn State 1964 on the horizon in college football, waiting to burst down the stretch with a flurry of wins and pointspread covers out of nowhere? To help us better look for clues, the following current pointspread “streaks” list might provide some direction.

CURRENT POINTSREAD STREAKS: WINS....6-Syracuse; 5-Oklahoma State, Washington State; 4-Kentucky, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, UTEP, Virginia; 3-East Carolina, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, New Mexico State, UTSA, Texas A&M, UNLV; 2-Alabama, Baylor, California, Florida State, Georgia State, Miami-Fla, Ole Miss, Nevada, Notre Dame, San Jose State, South Florida, ULM.

LOSSES...7-Clemson, Missouri; 5-Indiana, Southern Miss, Tulane, Virginia Tech; 4-Troy, Washington, Wyoming; 3-BYU, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Rutgers, South Carolina; 2-Boston College, Hawaii, Liberty, La Tech, Nebraska, Penn State, Stanford, TCU, Temple, Tennessee, Texas, USC.

Return To Home Page