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Versus | Buffalo vs. Penn State

The origins of Penn State football’s Linebacker U

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Before a second deck casts its shadow on the field, Mount Nittany peered into Beaver Stadium.

Seas of white did not drown out opposing offenses, “We Are” chants were not answered by an echoing “Penn State,” and Phil Collins’ voice did not resonate throughout the stadium during pregame warm ups. Instead, there was something else in the air.

As the calendar flipped to the late 1960s, a mixture of toughness and athleticism brewed in Happy Valley. For every forthcoming undefeated season and national championship celebration, there was an overpowering presence at the heart of the Nittany Lion defense.

Almost 50 years later, opposing offenses are still put on notice when they suit up on game days in central Pennsylvania – the birthplace of Linebacker U.

The blue and white were seeing orange for a second straight year.

Forcing three times more turnovers than points allowed, the Lions’ defense etched its name in the Orange Bowl record book after a 10-3 victory against Missouri to close out the 1969-70 season.

The Penn State defense stifled the Missouri offense, recovering two fumbles and intercepting an Orange Bowl-record seven passes. Heading into the showdown in Miami, the Tigers were among the elite offenses in the nation, scoring an average of 36.2 points per game.

“To hold them down the way we did that game, that Orange Bowl, if you wanted to see a benchmark of how good our defense was – that was the game,” said Jack Ham, a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Canton enshrinee played left linebacker, a position that often times lined up over the opposing tight end. Stationed to Ham’s right was another College Football Hall of Famer who accounted for two of Penn State’s seven 1970 Orange Bowl interceptions.

At the start of the 1967 season, Penn State would feature the first of many All-American linebackers to play under former head coach Joe Paterno.

When Dennis Onkotz played middle linebacker at Penn State, it was appropriate that a track surrounded the football field. The Northampton native played fast. And the ball skills he acquired from playing safety in high school made him a playmaker.

“[Linebacker U] started with Dennis Onkotz,” Ham said. “Before I got there, he was the pioneer that set the tone for linebackers that could make big plays.”

When Onkotz patrolled the middle of the field, opposing quarterbacks looked twice before throwing the football. The two-time All-American intercepted 11 passes in his collegiate career, which still holds as the school record among linebackers.

“If everyone did their job, I could do what I wanted,” Onkotz said. “I had the keys to the defense and got all the glory.”

After leading the defense to stops on third downs, Onkotz often remained on the field when the opposing punter took the snap. The coaching staff did not underuse his athleticism, and the middle linebacker fielded 47 punts for an average of 13.2 yards during his Penn State career.

After the 1967 season, Ham joined Onkotz to form one of the premier linebacking tandems in collegiate football history. Penn State amassed a 22-0 record when they played alongside each other during the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons.

The defense prepared for opposing offenses during the week just as seriously as shutting them down on game day.

“It was intense,” Ham said. “There was a line out there on the practice field. When you cross this line you’re going to get better on the practice field.”

As if limiting teams to 10.9 points per game during the 1968-69 season was not imposing enough, the Lions improved to holding opponents to 8.2 points per game during the 1969-70 season.

Onkotz, Ham and the Penn State defense led by example. On the field, the team did not create sideshows, but let its play do the talking.

“If you started trash talking on the field, you’d be off the field very quickly,” Ham said.

After each interception, helmet-rattling hit or forced fumble, not a name on the back of a blue jersey showboated. Performance spoke for itself.

“Whether it was the Orange Bowls we played in or who the offenses were throughout the season, there was always somebody who made the big play,” Ham said. “Dennis Onkotz made a lot of them.”

In the 1969 Orange Bowl, Penn State encountered another high-powered offense. Led by bruising tailback John Riggins, Kansas scored at least 30 points in six of its 10 games that season.

“You understand when you play against John Riggins why he became a No. 1 pick for the New York Jets,” Ham said. “He was one of the first guys around who was 225-230 pounds who was a very good athlete. He could make you miss as well as run you over. He’s probably one of the most talented running backs in my college career that I played against.”

The Penn State defense shut down the Kansas rushing attack for much of the game, limiting the Jayhawks to 1.29 yards per carry on 59 rushing attempts.

“We had a very good defensive line,” Onkotz said. “We had all of those players taking up everyone’s blocks to set me free.”

Since the defensive line was headed by All-American defensive tackle Mike Reid, the linebackers did not need to blitz much to generate pressure in the backfield. The more chaos the defensive front created, the more space linebackers had to clean up the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. 

At a point in the fourth quarter, Kansas held the ball and a 14-7 lead. Electing to bypass a field goal attempt on 4th and 1, the Jayhawks handed the ball to Riggins. Penn State stuffed the Pro Football Hall of Famer and ended the Kansas scoring opportunity.

Still trailing by seven points with 1:16 remaining, the defense busted through the line again – this time blocking a punt. The blocked punt set up Penn State’s game-winning drive, which was capped by a two-point conversion.

“If you look back collectively,” Ham said, “that defense is about as good as you’re going to get in college football.”

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