Penn State's Cotton Bowl history short on games, long on significance

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Willy Triplett was a star running back for the 1947 Penn State football team.

It’s a national story now. Everyone knows it.

There’s a significance that extends beyond Penn State when the name Wally Triplett is mentioned, and the first thing that comes to most minds is the 1948 Cotton Bowl.

There’s a tale worth remembering.

Sports can be a catalyst for social change, and in late 1947, head coach Bob Higgins and his Penn State football team had a decision to make. The Cotton Bowl would be happy to host the unbeaten Nittany Lions, pitting them against No. 3 SMU, but bowl officials requested the Lions leave their star halfback in Pennsylvania.

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier only eight months earlier, and Dallas was still in the throes of segregation, like many southern cities. The 1947 Nittany Lions canceled a regular-season game at Miami because Florida wouldn’t welcome Triplett and Penn State’s other African-American player, Dennie Hoggard.

With the request made, Penn State players were asked to take a vote on whether to go to Dallas, with or without Triplett and Hoggard. There was no vote; team captain Steve Suhey famously told coaches that either they all played, or they all stayed home.

“We are Penn State,” he said, a statement that would go on to become a creed in Happy Valley.

Triplett would go on to catch the game-tying touchdown in the 13-13 tie that made the 1948 Cotton Bowl a classic, a game that ranks among the most significant in Penn State history.

Certainly, the 1948 classic is the most famous Cotton Bowl in which Penn State has ever played. It’s hardly the only one that holds a special place in its history.

On Saturday, No. 10 Penn State will head to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas where it faces No. 17 Memphis in its first trip to the Cotton Bowl game in nearly 45 years. Among current New Year’s Six bowl games, the only one the Nittany Lions have appeared in less is the Peach Bowl.

They’ve won national championships in the Sugar and Fiesta bowls. They’ve finished off an unbeaten season and played a classic Rose Bowl. They’ve lost national titles in the Orange Bowl. But, it can be argued, they forged their national reputation, their direction, in those three previous Cotton Bowls.

“Bunch of phonies:” Beaver Stadium was a 48,000-seat venue in 1971, and fans were treated to one of the most successful seasons in program history. Until, that is, the final week of the regular season.

Unbeaten and largely unchallenged, the Nittany Lions tried to close out their season against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium with a shot at a national title intact. The Vols throttled them, 31-11.

Penn State fell to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll and settled for a Cotton Bowl bid and a matchup that came two years later than most Nittany Lions fans wanted. Two years after both teams went unbeaten in 1969 — then-president Richard Nixon declared Texas the national champion — the Nittany Lions met No. 12 Texas in a game dubbed the “Redemption Bowl” during a time when college football in the Northeast was considered substantially subpar to southern ball.

“I’m sure a lot of people are thinking we’re a bunch of phonies,” Penn State quarterback John Hufnagle said before the game. “We’d been hearing all year what a light schedule we played and had a chance to prove something against Tennessee. The one good thing about it is that we have another game left, and it’s against Texas. We still have a chance to prove ourselves.”

Texas entered the game a 3-point favorite and led, 6-3, at halftime. But Hufnagle spurred a huge second half with a 65-yard touchdown pass to Scott Skarzynski, and running back Lydell Mitchell found the end zone to push Penn State to 27 unanswered points on the way to a 30-6 rout.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a bigger win, when we needed one,” Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said after the game. “I don’t know what that does to our prestige. That’s up to you fellas (in the media).”

Half for history: Things didn’t start out the way Penn State wanted to in the 1975 Classic against Baylor. It tool Paterno’s Nittany Lions 28 minutes, 51 seconds to get on the board with a 25-yard Chris Bahr field goal as they trailed, 7-3, at the half.

The second half couldn’t have went better, though, thanks to the play of a freshman from Northeast Pennsylvania.

Former Pittston Area great Jimmy Cefalo scored two second-half touchdowns — one on a 49-yard pass from quarterback Tom Shuman in the third quarter, another on a 3-yard run in the fourth — and the Nittany Lions piled up 491 yards on the way to a 41-20 victory.

The game made the Nittany Lions look, at the time, like one of the nation’s more exciting teams. Penn State’s 38 second-half points are still the most ever scored in a half in the Classic; in the first 38 Cotton Bowl games, only one team — Texas, in 1946 against Missouri — scored more than 38 points in an entire game. Cefalo had 3 catches for 102 yards and rushed 11 times for 55 yards in a breakout performance on the national stage.