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Game of the Year of the Day, 1972: Tampa 21, Kent State 18

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Earle Bruce’s 1972 Tampa Spartans: one of the 50 best* of all time.

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Paul Orndorff
Tampa athletics

The date: December 29, 1972

The matchup: Tampa (9-2) vs. Miami (Ohio) (6-4-1)

The stakes: The 1972 Tangerine Bowl title!

The back story: The Tangerine Bowl would eventually become the Citrus Bowl and start frequently hosting high-level SEC, Big Ten, or ACC teams. But in the 1970s, it was a mid-major showcase pitting the MAC champion vs. a random foe. In the years leading up to 1972, it was basically an opportunity for Toledo to finish incredible seasons with blowout wins (56-33 over Davidson, 40-12 over William & Mary, 28-3 over Richmond).

In the years after 1972, the Tangerine Bowl became an annual home for Miami (Ohio) to defeat local power conference teams — Florida in 1973, Georgia in 1974, South Carolina in 1975. But in between, in late 1972, 20,072 attendees witnessed a strangely awesome amalgamation of elite talent. Not all of it was elite football-playing talent.

From 50 Best*:

On one sideline, you had three future coaching greats and one of the best linebackers of all-time. On the other, you had Mr. Wonderful, Sloth, and a future NFL receiver playing quarterback. The 1972 Tangerine Bowl was one of the more noteworthy, star-heavy minor bowls ever played, even if nobody had any idea at the time. [...]

9-2 Tampa had suffered a midseason letdown in what was otherwise a dream season; the Spartans committed a host of mistakes in losses to Kansas State and Louisville, but they rebounded to handle rivals Florida A&M (26-9) and Miami (7-0), and they destroyed Vanderbilt in the season finale to lock up a Tangerine berth. They featured future No. 1 pick (and movie star) John Matuszak, future professional wrestler Paul Orndorff, and future 49ers receiver Freddie Solomon. And they were led onto the field by Earle Bruce, who would leave for Iowa State after the season and eventually succeed Woody Hayes at Ohio State.

The Spartans’ bowl opponent, Kent State, was led by Don James, who would spend two more seasons there before taking the Washington job and eventually winning a national title with the Huskies. On the Golden Flashes’ depth chart were future NFL hall of famer Jack Lambert, future Missouri wins leader Gary Pinkel, and a heady safety named Nick Saban.

This is one of the sport’s great hindsight games, a “Huh, wow, how about that?” tidbit. It was also a pretty good football game.

The game: From the Orlando Sentinel:

The caption: "PAUL ORNDORFF HOME FREE FOR TAMPA TD NO. 2: Kent State defenders Dan Rector (56), Alonzo Curry (27), Jack Lambert (99) watch as play goes for 35 yards and score to make it 14-0"

For a half Friday night, it didn't look like Tampa needs a pro team. It looked like Tampa had one.

But anemic Kent State stepped into one of Clark Kent's old phone booths midway and came out like Superman to convert the 27th Tangerine Bowl from a game to a classic.

Before a record crowd of 20,062 on a perfect night for football, the Spartans had just enough left to preserve a 21-18 victory in a contest they had led 21-0 when it was a mere 24 minutes old.

The threatened rout never came near unfolding as Coach Don James' Mid-American Conference champions came off the floor to score one in the third period and twice more in a fight-enlivened fourth. At the end, the gutty Golden Flashes were denied a tie or victory only by two missed point-after tries and a two-point conversion attempt which also failed.

Special teams doomed Kent State, not only with the missed kicks, but also with an early muffed punt that set up the first of two Orndorff touchdown catches. Tampa went up 21-0 on a short Solomon touchdown, but a 76-yard touchdown pass got Kent on the board, and a 78-yard punt return made it 21-18.

Tampa held on to win. With 103 rushing yards, Solomon was named offensive MVP while Lambert was named defensive MVP.

The box score:

Tangerine Bowl box score

This game had a bunch of late action (and even saw a near-fight when Pinkel unleashed a monstrous hit on a late-game onside kick attempt), but ... 11 turnovers? Yeah, it was sloppy.

Kent lost because it had seven of those turnovers. The Flashes outgained the Spartans, 392-384, but it’s hard to overcome that many giveaways.

This was indeed a hindsight bowl. It set the table for a lot of interesting stories, but it also became even more interesting — interesting enough to get into 50 Best* — when Tampa dropped its football program a couple of years later. The state of Florida had finally begun integrating its college rosters at the time, and Miami, Florida State, and Florida would all experience golden times in the 1980s and 1990s. Tampa maybe hopped off the train just a bit too early (especially considering Miami really wasn’t any further along than Tampa in 1972).