Miami Memories: 1970 Orange

Penn State has an exciting history with the Orange Bowl. As the Lions prepare to face Florida State in the big game this year, over the next week or so we will take a look as PSU's Orange Bowl showings of the past, continuing with the 1970 game. These are authorized and exclusive excerpts from Lou Prato's Penn State Football Encyclopedia.

The 1970 Orange Bowl

Jan. 1, 1970

Penn State 10, Missouri 3

Most Valuable Back: Chuck Burkhart

Most Valuable Lineman: Mike Reid

With the Richard Nixon controversy about who should be No. 1 still simmering (the president anointed Texas national champion before the bowls were played, even though PSU was also unbeaten), Joe Paterno prepared his team for its New Year's night game against Missouri. In adhering to his philosophy that bowl games “should be a reward and fun,” Paterno persuaded university president Eric Walker, new athletic director Ed Czekaj, and retiring athletic department dean Ernie McCoy to allow the team to be home for the Christmas holidays by making two trips to Florida.

It was an expensive deal but a special reward to the seniors who had not been home for Christmas for three years. So the Lions spent more than a week before Christmas in Fort Lauderdale before breaking off practice Dec. 23 and reassembling in Miami Dec. 26. Everything went smoothly except for an early evening altercation Chuck Burkhart - of all players - had in Fort Lauderdale with a young man from New York who picked a fight with the Lion QB outside a local hamburger spot.

Both Burkhart and his assailant were arrested and to restrain the publicity, Burkhart forfeited his bail and left town. One sportswriter critical of Burkhart's passing wrote that the quarterback had thrown a punch and missed by 10 yards. “Show them your boxing stance, Chuck,” Paterno later joked at an Orange Bowl news conference.

In Miami, Paterno closed his practices again and, as was now customary for bowl games, added something new. Missouri coach Dan Devine later said he knew Paterno was not going to change his defense and he guessed State might pass more - and he was right. Paterno and his assistants didn't believe the Lions could run inside on the underrated Missouri defense so he opened up the passing. Paterno also tinkered with the defense, which had allowed just 87 points in 10 games. He shifted from a man-to-man pass defense to a zone and worked on the techniques and formations that would stop Missouri's high scoring offensive. The Tigers offense had averaged 450 yards and 36 points per game in its nine wins and one loss. Their best running back, Joe Moore, had rushed for more than 1,300 yards and receiver Mel Gray had caught 26 passes for 705 yards. Quarterback Terry McMillan was an excellent passer and a good runner. Kansas State coach Vince Gibson, who was in Miami for the game, told sportswriters it should be a close game. “Missouri can hurt you on the big play,” he said. “Penn State is better defensively but Missouri has the edge on offense.” The pregame news conferences and luncheon appearances with Paterno and Devine were not as lively as the ones the year before with loquacious Pepper Rodgers but the atmosphere was never uptight.

After being given an Orange Bowl sports jacket at the annual Orange Bowl Kickoff Luncheon, Paterno joked that he was thinking of sending his coat “up to the White House.” Paterno also said, “I feel the team that wins (the Orange Bowl) has earned the right to be considered for No. 1 in the nation,” Devine told the gathering. “I'd rather lose to a champion any day than some rinky-dink team.”

At a spirited pep rally on New Year's morning in the ballroom of a Miami Beach hotel, Paterno introduced and joked with the new university president, John Oswald. In his best Italian, Oswald said, “I Giovanni Oswaldo, wish you, Giuseppe Paterno, and your team the greatest luck tonight. I know you will win. Numero Uno!” The fans went wild. Then, as Ridge Riley reported in his “Football Letter,” Governor Shafer told the players, “You don't have to prove you're No. 1 to the newspapers, the fans, or even to the President. Just go out there and win the game for yourselves.”

As if the insults by the sportswriters were not enough, the oddsmakers also added to the indignity by making the sixth-ranked Tigers a two-point favorite. The first time State had the ball, Burkhart came out in a shotgun formation and threw a pass. “That surprised me,” Devine later told Dick Wade of the Kansas City Star. Burkhart would go on to throw more passes against Missouri than he had against any opponent during the regular season and hit on 11 of 26 and the game's only touchdown. He would have one meaningless interception and after running Paterno's conservative game plan to conclusion he would be named the game's Most Valuable Back.

But in the end, the crowd of 77,282 and the TV audience knew this game belonged - as it should have - to the Penn State defense. Midway through the first quarter, Burkhart's passing and the running of Charlie Pittman and Franco Harris took State on a drive from the PSU 20 to the Missou 16 before the Tiger defense stiffened and the Lions settled for a 29-yard field goal with 3:44 left in the quarter.

Moore fumbled the kickoff when belted by Mike Reid and Mike Smith recovered at the Missou 28. Burkhart struck immediately for a touchdown, passing to Lydell Mitchell on the left sideline at the 24. Mitchell eluded one defender, picked up a block and dashed into the end zone to make it 10-0. Now the Lions “bend-but-don't-break” defense took over and the next four times the Tigers had possession, they were stopped on interceptions or fumbles inside State territory. John Ebersole's fumble recovery was spectacular as Missouri had moved from State's 43 to the 10 when, on third down, Ebersole caught Gray in the backfield on a flanker reverse, stripped the ball away and recovered the fumble at the Lion 22. Midway in the second quarter the Tigers went on a long drive from their own 8-yard line to the State 7.

But after Reid tackled Moore for a 10-yard loss and a pass into the end zone failed, Missouri kicked a field goal from the 23 and the half ended, 10-3.

The second half was one of missed opportunities for State's offense and almost cost the game. Neal Smith intercepted another pass on Missouri's second possession of the third quarter and picked off another one later in the half but both times the Lions gave up the ball. Midway through the third quarter, Dennis Onkotz intercepted inside the Missouri 30-yard line but on third-and-2 at the 21 Burkhart's pass to Pete Johnson was incomplete. Then, near the end of the third quarter, State took possession on its own 27 and with Burkhart throwing a 56-yard bomb to Pete Johnson, the Lions moved for a first down at the Missouri 7. A pair of offside penalties and a sack momentarily stopped the Lions but a screen pass to Mitchell and a run by Pittman up the middle put the ball at the one with a fourth down.

Paterno sent in Mike Reitz to try a chip-shot field goal from about the 10. The snap and hold were good but Reitz kicked the ball off the side of his foot and it was low and wide. “A field goal wins it,” Paterno said later.

Missouri, which could not get past the State 46 in the third quarter, finally caught a break early in the fourth when a partially blocked punt put the ball on the PSU 20. But penalties for offside and offensive pass interference plus State's ferocious pass rush pushed the Tigers back to the 36 and a field goal attempt from the 42 was short. The teams battled at midfield for nearly the rest of the game but as a heavy rain fell in the closing minutes, Missouri, with reserve QB Chuck Roper in, moved from its own 42-yard line for a first down at the State 14 with 1:42 remaining. As the crowd roared and Paterno thought about the defense he might need against a 2-point conversion, State's defense thwarted Roper's first two pass attempts and third down Roper tried to hit Gray in the end zone. But George Landis, who had shut down Gray all night despite a sore knee, made the final big play of the game by intercepting the ball at the 2 and reaching the State 42 before being tackled. Burkhart ran out the clock and the Lions were now unbeaten in 30 straight games, tying the school record set from 1920-1922.

The State defense also had set an Orange Bowl record for interceptions with seven and with Reid — named the outstanding defensive player of the game — and Steve Smear leading the way on the pass rush the Lions had held Missouri to 6 completions in 28 attempts. Missouri netted 175 yards rushing but Moore had just 36 yards on 15 carries. Pittman led the Lions with 90 yards rushing. Burkhart had lost 79 yards trying to pass and the Lions net rushing was just 60 yards.

In the dressing room, the happy players threw everyone into the showers, including Governor Shafer and some sportswriters. “A couple more games and we'll get the Big 8 title,” Burkhart crowed. “It was a miracle,” should Landis about his game-ending interception. “Penn State's Joe Paterno described it best,” wrote Joe McGuff of the Kansas City Star, “when he said: 'You won't see college teams play better defense. It was a great defensive effort.'” After viewing the films, Devine agreed, saying State had “the best defensive team I've seen in college football.” Devine told the Star shortly after the game that his Tigers made too many mistakes, but added “That's an awfully good team we played …This easily may be the best team in the country … If I voted, I might make it a two-way tie for first but I sure wouldn't put Penn State No. 2.”

Earlier in the day Texas had come from behind late in the fourth quarter at the Cotton Bowl to beat Joe Theismann and Notre Dame, 21-17, and clinched the national championship. “I don't know if we're No. 1,” Paterno said in the Lions' locker room, “But I'm up to my ears in the polls. We have as much right as anybody else to be No. 1. I can't sit back and let Richard Nixon or anyone else say someone else is No. 1. I've got to stick up for my kids.” In the final AP poll, Texas received 910 points with 36 first place votes and to State's 822 points and 7 for first place. Notre Dame was fifth behind USC and Ohio State and Missouri was sixth.

Paterno knew it was nearly impossible to have another unbeaten season in 1970. He was losing most of his defense and his winning quarterback. But he believed he had the players with the poise and pride to continue building on this new winning tradition.


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