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Flashback Friday: 11/3/79 - Miami 26, #19 Penn State 10

This is the next in a series of memorable Canes games spanning the decades, as we continue to try to survive the longest offseason in sports - the college football offseason. This week, we look back at the first career start of QB Jim Kelly against a loaded Penn State squad in Beaver Stadium. Enjoy.

Jim Kelly put on a show in his return to Pennsylvania - and in his first career collegiate start.
Jim Kelly put on a show in his return to Pennsylvania - and in his first career collegiate start.

(You can watch video of the game here. H/t umsportshalloffame)

James Edward Kelly was a native Pennsylvanian true and through.  Growing up as a young boy in Pennsylvania, it seemed only natural that he would dream of playing for the pride of the state of Pennsylvania - the Nittany Lions.  And in a state whose primary programs were Penn State and Pitt, Kelly was like any other boy throwing the football around as a boy, dreaming of becoming the next John Hufnagel, the next Chuck Fusina squaring off against Bear Bryant and the Tide for the national title.

And as an all-state performer his senior season, he seemed to be perfectly suited to be next in line to don the blue and white and continue the Lions' winning ways.

On November 3, 1979, Kelly jogged onto the field at Beaver Stadium, ready to take his first snaps as starting quarterback....of the Miami Hurricanes.

Joe Paterno had been interested in Kelly - as a linebacker, something Kelly had no interest in playing.  Penn State had already recruited two quarterbacks in the class and didn't have room for the future NFL Hall of Famer.

So Kelly headed south to Coral Gables, where he sat for the early part of the 1979 season.  Miami would struggle in 1979, going 5-6 on the year.  The "jet lag kids" would also set a school (and probably an NCAA) record for miles traveled in a season at approximately 28,000.  Among the tour de Hurricanes was a stop in Tokyo for a 40-15 loss before a listless Japanese crowd in one of the most bizarre and inexplicable scheduling occurrences in the history of collegiate sports.

But at Penn State, the travel-weary Canes would experience a renaissance moment for their program.  Of the many former players I've spoken with, many, if not most, point to the win over Penn State in 1979 as the turning point of the Miami program.

And there was little reason to believe the Canes would be anything more than road kill for the stout and talent-laden Nittany Lions. Up front, the Lions were led by future NFL Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak, a 12-year veteran with the Houston Oilers.  Sean Farrell, who played for 11 seasons in the NFL with 4 teams, manned the other guard position.  Between them at center was JIm Romano, later with the Raiders and Oilers.  Irv Pankey, an 11-year veteran on the L.A. Rams' line that paved the way for Eric Dickerson's record 1984 season, was the Penn State left tackle.

If the line wasn't stout enough with unbelievable talent, the backfield included Matt Suhey and Mike Guman, both of whom would play 9+ years in the NFL.  Defensively, Matt Millen, Bruce Clark, and Lance Mehl were on the 1979 Penn State roster.

In short, this was as talented a team, in terms of individual talent, as Miami would arguably face, both at the time and in future years. 

And it was the first-time starter Kelly --- the man who threw up before the game out of nervousness when he found out he would be making his first start - who provided the firepower that led the Canes to victory.  Kelly finished 18 of 31 for 278 yards and three touchdowns.

After fizzling in the red zone, the Canes recovered the ensuing kickoff, and Kelly found Jim Joiner from 8 yards out to extend the lead to 10-0.  Leading 20-10 in the second half, Kelly culminated a Miami drive - and the day's scoring - by connecting with Pat Walker on a touchdown to provide the final 26-10 margin.

A fruitful football career had been officially launched for Kelly, and Schnellenberger's promise to turn around the program had tangible evidence of early success.