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Game of the Year of the Day, 1959: Syracuse 20, Penn State 18

Ben Schwartzwalder’s Syracuse Orangemen: one of the 50 best* of all time.

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The date: November 7, 1959

The matchup: No. 4 Syracuse (6-0) at No. 7 Penn State (7-0)

The stakes: The battle for the mythical national title was a giant mess with few teams playing outside of their respective region, but the winner of this one would emerge as the East’s representative in the title race.

The back story: Schwartzwalder’s slow building process was beginning to bear major fruit at Syracuse. After just one ranked finish in his first seven years, the Orange(men) finished eighth in 1956 and ninth in 1958, and with sophomore Ernie Davis emerging as the perfect complement to Ger Schwedes, he had exactly the pieces for the “run, and then run some more” offense he so very much valued.

After dealing with some brief adversity in the season opener, a 35-21 win over Kansas, the Cuse had caught fire, outscoring Maryland, Navy, Holy Cross, and WVU by a combined 147-12. Meanwhile, Rip Engle’s Nittany Lions were on their way to their best season in five years. PSU had already won at Missouri and Army and had handled No. 13 Illinois, 20-9, in Cleveland (of all places). They would go on to take down No. 4 Alabama in the Liberty Bowl as well. But to earn a possible claim of a national title, they would need to beat the best Syracuse team of all time.

Thanks to special teams, they nearly did.

The game: From 50 Best*:

The No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country would both lose that day, meaning the ‘Cuse-PSU winner would have a sudden claim to the top spot in the polls. The moment was not lost on the crowd of 32,800, the largest to fill Beaver Stadium to date; as many as 10,000 more ticket applications were turned down. (Penn State was in the process of expanding its stadium. It didn’t expand it soon enough.)

A year earlier, college football adopted a two-point conversion option: After scoring a touchdown, you could choose to either attempt a one-point kick or line up with your offense and try to score a two-pointer from the 3. As Syracuse took a commanding 20-6 lead early in the fourth quarter, nobody was thinking about that rule change much. But they would soon enough. [...]

On the ensuing kickoff after Davis’ touchdown gave the Orangemen a 20-6 lead, Roger Kochman fielded the ball near the right sideline, weaved toward the middle of the field to meet up with his blockers, cut back to the right at the 30, then outran everyone else to the end zone. PSU missed an attempted two-point conversion, but it was a game again, 20-12.

Moments later, PSU’s Andy Stynchula burst through the Syracuse line and blocked Bob Yates’ attempted punt. The Nittany Lions recovered at the 1, and Sam Sohczak scored with 4:15 left. Penn State suddenly needed only a two-point conversion to tie the game. PSU faked an option left, and quarterback Richie Lucas handed the ball to Kochman on a counter. He was stuffed on the 1. Syracuse got the ball back and completely took special teams out of the equation by rushing for enough first downs to kill the clock and escape with a 20-18 win.

The box score:

1959 Syracuse-PSU

How many times has a special teams play triggered an upset? Because it almost derailed Syracuse’s amazing season here. (A kickoff return touchdown is also what allowed Kansas to stick around for a bit.) Cuse and PSU split the turnover battle, and the Orangemen won the yardage battle, 348-135. But the double dose of Kochman’s return and the blocked punt nearly spoiled everything.

It didn’t, though. And from this moment forward, Syracuse resumed playing like a title-worthy team. The Orange beat Colgate and Boston U. by a combined 117-0, went out west and destroyed UCLA, 36-8, then took on former No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl and survived a bitter slugfest, 23-14.

Schwartzwalder would put together another couple of nice seasons with Davis, and Davis would famously win the Heisman in 1961 and become the No. 1 pick in the 1962 NFL draft before succumbing to leukemia in 1963.

Penn State, meanwhile, would finished ranked each year from 1959-62 before trailing off a bit in Engle’s last few seasons. Assistant Joe Paterno took over in 1966.