Losing was never an option for Penn State and Joe Paterno’s 1986 national championship team. Finishing the season with an unblemished 12-0 record after defeating No. 1 Miami en route to their second national championship in four years, the “Duel in the Desert” was one for the ages.
Most of the talk leading up to the battle in Arizona was about a Vinny Testaverde-led Miami team and an explosive offense. It was labeled by the media as David versus Goliath. Good versus evil.
According to Pennlive.com, “They had Testaverde. They had [Bennie] Blades. They had [Alonzo] Highsmith,” Penn State starting nose tackle Mike Russo said. “They had all these big name players. We certainly had our share of very reputable names, but at the end of the day, it was the chemistry and the camaraderie that gelled us together as a unit. Instead of having a team of individuals, we had a true team.”
The Nittany Lions picked off Miami’s Vinny Testaverde five times to help secure the victory 14-10.
Team captain, linebacker and future Buffalo Bills star Shane Conlan intercepted Testaverde twice during the title game and set up future Minnesota Vikings, D.J. Dozier’s game-winning touchdown by returning a fourth quarter interception to the five yard line.
The final interception of the night was hauled in by linebacker Pete Giftopoulos inside the Penn State five-yard line as Testaverde took one last shot at the end zone on fourth and goal. Giftopoulos ran the ball out the 10-yard line before he fell to the ground, securing the victory.
The 1986 Nittany Lions are one of five Joe Paterno led teams that finished the season unbeaten. They also include the 1968 (11-0), 1969 (11-0), 1973 (12-0) and 1994 (12-0) squads.
The team was built by defense and held nine opponents to 15 points or less, while also winning four games by six points or fewer.
That year, Penn State finished the regular season by beating Maryland (17-15), Notre Dame (24-19) and Pitt (34-14). The Lions also defeated No. 2 Alabama, 23-3, just the third loss by the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 25 years.