Looking back: Penn State's Homecoming heroes

UNIVERSITY PARK – Since the first Homecoming game in 1920, the Nittany Lions have won 70 of their 97 Homecoming games. Penn State also owns an impressive 19-5 Homecoming record since joining the Big Ten conference in 1993. Against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Penn State has been historically dominant, winning 25 of the 27 matchups – and outscoring the Knights 80-13 since Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014.

Each of the 97 Homecoming games has been special – players, alumni, students and fans always remember the big Homecoming games and the huge crowds. Here is a look at five of the best individual performances in Penn State Homecoming history:

Harry “Light Horse” Wilson – Running Back – 1921-1923

October 20, 1923 – Penn State defeats Navy 21-3

Harry "Light Horse" Wilson enjoyed an outstanding collegiate career and earned All-America recognition as a halfback at both Penn State (1921-23) and Army (1925-26). Wilson led Penn State in scoring for two seasons (1922-23) and scored every touchdown for the Nittany Lions in the final six games of the 1923 season before leading Army in scoring for two consecutive years.

On Homecoming in 1923, “Light Horse” had one of the greatest single performances in Penn State Nittany Lion history. With a then-record 20,000 fans on hand at Beaver Field, Wilson rushed for 123 yards and scored three touchdowns – a 72-yard run, a 55-yard interception return and a 95-yard kickoff return. The Nittany Lions handed Navy their only loss on the season with a dominating 21-3 victory.

Following his football career, Harry Wilson earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters after flying 45 combat missions as a pilot commander in the Army Air Corps in World War II.

Lydell Mitchell – Running Back – 1969-1971

October 11, 1969 – Penn State defeats West Virginia 20-0

October 23, 1971 – Penn State defeats Texas Christian University 66-14

Penn State's season and career touchdowns record-holder, Lydell Mitchell was a game-changing running back that led the Nittany Lions to a 29-4 record in his three years in Happy Valley. In 1971, Mitchell earned first-team All-America accolades and finished fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting after breaking three NCAA season records – most touchdowns (29), most rushing TDs (26) and points scored (174). Mitchell ran for 1,567 yards in 1971, a school season record that stood for more than 30 years.

As a sophomore for the undefeated 1969 Nittany Lions, he had 115 total yards and a touchdown to propel Penn State to a 20-0 victory over the 17th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers. As a senior in 1971, he was the driving force of a Penn State offense that racked up 632 total yards – a school record that stood until 1991 – against Texas Christian University (TCU). Mitchell ran for a homecoming record of 5 touchdowns in the Nittany Lions’ 66-14 blowout of the Horned Frogs.

Blair Thomas – Running Back – 1985-1989

October 18, 1986 – Penn State defeats Syracuse 42-3

October 10, 1987 – Penn State defeats Rutgers 35-21

November 4, 1989 – Penn State defeats West Virginia 19-9

No Mount Rushmore of Penn State running backs would be complete without Blair Thomas. In his career, Thomas ran for a then-record of 3,301 yards and 21 touchdowns before being selected as the second overall pick by the New York Jets in the 1990 NFL Draft.

He was an unbelievable talent, but at the Homecoming game he was downright unstoppable. As a sophomore member of the 1986 National Championship team, Blair Thomas ran for 132 yards on only three carries – including the longest run in school history at the time when he burst through the line for a 92-yard gain in the first quarter – in a 42-3 Homecoming rout of the Syracuse Orangemen. The following year, Thomas ran for 117 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-21 victory over Rutgers. In his final Homecoming game, Thomas carried the ball 32 times for 151 yards in a 19-9 win over 13th-ranked West Virginia.

Ki-Jana Carter – Running Back – 1992-1994

November 6, 1993 – Penn State defeats Indiana 38-31

October 30, 1994 – Penn State defeats Ohio State 63-14

In only three seasons at Penn State, Ki-Jana Carter compiled 2,829 yards rushing on only 395 attempts – averaging an unbelievable 7 yards per carry – and scored 34 touchdowns. Along with quarterback Kerry Collins, Carter helped lead the 1994 Penn State football team to an undefeated record and a berth in the Rose Bowl. In 1994, Carter was a consensus first-team All-American and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Perhaps most famously, Carter darted for an 83-yard touchdown on the first offensive play of the Rose Bowl victory over the Oregon Ducks before being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals with the first pick of the 1995 NFL Draft.

In two Homecoming victories over Indiana and Ohio State, Ki-Jana Carter rushed for 275 yards and six touchdowns.  In 1994, Carter and the Nittany Lions embarrassed the No. 21 Ohio State Buckeyes 63-14, handing them their worst loss in 48 years. Carter ran for 137 yards and 4 touchdowns on only 19 carries against the Buckeyes. The previous year, Carter ran for 138 yards and two touchdowns in a not-as-close-as-it-looks 38-31 victory over the 17th-ranked Indiana Hoosiers.

Saquon Barkley – Running Back – 2015-present

October 8, 2016 – Penn State defeats Maryland 38-14

At the end of this season, everyone will talk about Saquon Barkley’s place among the greatest Penn State players of all time. At this pace, he may have reserved the spot at the top of that list. He already owns the Penn State record for career receiving yards as a running back and all-purpose yardage in a game. By the end of the season, it is likely that Barkley will also eclipse Penn State’s career rushing record held by Evan Royster (3,932), career all-purpose yardage record held by Larry Johnson (5,045) and all-time rushing touchdown record held by Lydell Mitchell (38). The only other things the Nittany Lions hope he can add to his resume are another Big Ten Championship, a National Championship and a Heisman Trophy.

After an ankle injury held him out of Penn State’s 29-7 Homecoming victory over Indiana as a true freshman in 2015, Barkley made sure to make up for it in 2016. In Penn State’s 38-14 Homecoming win over the Maryland Terrapins, Barkley ran over, around and through defenders, gaining 202 yards on 31 carries. His 45-yard touchdown run late in the 3rd quarter ended any hopes for a Maryland comeback.

In what is likely his final Homecoming game at Beaver Stadium, Barkley has a chance to build his illustrious, record-breaking career along with his Heisman Trophy campaign in front of some of the best fans in college football.

Kickoff for Penn State’s 2017 Homecoming and Military Appreciation Game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights is set for noon on Saturday.

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