Looking back: Fiesta Bowl history, Part IV

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State’s fourth trip to the Fiesta Bowl wound up being one of the biggest games in the history of the program.

Just one season removed from a heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Penn State entered the Fiesta Bowl with a perfect record of 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Miami was also 11-0, but ranked No. 1.

The Hurricanes were led by Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde. The game was dubbed the “Duel in the Desert.”

It was a crazy game. Miami outgained Penn State, 445 yards to 162 and had 22 first downs compared to the Nittany Lions’ 8. But the Hurricanes turned the ball over seven times, including five Testaverde interceptions.

There was no scoring in the first quarter. In the second, Miami broke through on a 1-yard TD run by Melvin Bratton. Penn State QB John Shaffer evened things out with a 4-yard touchdown run with 1:14 left in the half.

The game was knotted at 7-7 in the fourth quarter when Miami got a go-ahead 38-yard field goal. The Hurricanes’ lead was 10-7. After the field goal, Penn State’s Shane Conlan grabbed his second pick of the night and returned it to the Miami 5-yard line. Following a fumbled snap, D.J. Dozier hit paydirt from 6 yards out to give the Nittany Lions a 14-10 lead they would not relinquish.

Everyone remembers the end of the game and with good reason.

Miami began its last drive on its own 23 with 3:07 left in the game. A fourth-down completion to Brian Blades went for 31 yards and moved Miami into Penn State territory.

With a minute left, Testaverde hit Michael Irvin at the Penn State 10. The connection put the Hurricanes inside the 5 with 45 seconds left. However, the Penn State defense stepped up, getting a sack and forcing an incompletion before Pete Giftopoulos picked off Testaverde in the waning moments of the game.

Giftopoulos said that the Nittany Lions never panicked.

“We had some great leaders – (seniors) Shane Conlan, Timmy Johnson, Bob White,” he said. “They were key character people. To not see any fear in their eyes helped me as a junior and helped the other players to play the game. ... Nobody was losing it in the huddle, nobody was screaming. Everyone was like, 'Here's the play; let's do it.’”

It was the second National Championship for head coach Joe Paterno.

Penn State improved to 4-0 in Fiesta Bowls with the win.

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