Week 8: Written by Ryan Nanni
I really try not to bring up Appalachian State beating fifth-ranked Michigan in 2007 excessively. Still, today, I really don't have a choice. This game was a first in so many ways: the first live game broadcast on the Big Ten Network, the first time a team in the top five of the AP dropped out of the rankings entirely in one week, and the first Michigan loss to an FCS opponent.
But it wasn't the first time an FCS team beat a ranked FBS program.
That distinction belongs to Cincinnati, who opened the 1983 season on the road in Happy Valley, where they beat No. 20 Penn State. And where Appalachian State needed two blocked field goals and two fourth-down stops to beat Michigan, what really made this possible for the Bearcats was a decision by a Hamilton County judge about 11 months before the game even kicked off.
"FCS," as you may know, wasn't a term in 1983. Teams in Division I were split into two groups, starting in 1978: Division I-A, which we now call the FBS, and Division I-AA, the predecessor to the FCS. Over the first few years of the I-A/I-AA setup, entire conferences moved down a rung, including the Ivy, the Southern, the SWAC, and most of the Southland.
Cincinnati, who'd been an independent since 1970, wasn't interested in moving to I-AA. Their recent history as a college football program had been mixed – an 8-3 season in 1976, back-to-back 2-9 years in '79 and '80 – but they could usually put together a decent schedule with a big-name opponent or two.
In early 1982, the NCAA told the Bearcats and five other schools that their eligibility to stay in I-A was up in the air. The issue, at least for Cincinnati, was attendance: Division I-A teams had to average 20,000 fans per game. Though the Bearcat athletic department thought they'd cleared that threshold, the NCAA, just weeks before the 1982 season was supposed to start, announced that audited numbers showed Cincinnati was just short and would be an I-AA team that fall.
Understandably, the school was pissed, and they sued, arguing that the NCAA wasn't applying its own rules correctly. Within a week, they got a temporary restraining order from Hamilton County Judge Fred Cartolano, which kept the I-AA move from happening immediately. Cartolano settled the matter for the entirety of the 1982 season with a compromise of sorts in October. Cincinnati would stay in I-AA that year, but they had to appeal the decision that got them bumped down at the next NCAA convention in January 1983.
The Bearcats felt great about that deal. Back in February, they'd moved most of their home games to Riverfront Stadium, usually occupied by the Reds and the Bengals. Riverfront had twice the capacity of Nippert Stadium and was much newer to boot. By the time Cartolano issued his October ruling, Cincinnati's average attendance was around 26,000, and they had upcoming road games against Miami and Alabama to help the numbers.
It really looked like the two-pronged plan had worked: Cincinnati's lawyers had staved off demotion while their fans had shown up consistently enough to eliminate the NCAA's attendance issue.
And when they heard Cincinnati's appeal in 1983, the NCAA agreed: the Bearcats did indeed meet the qualifications to play in Division I-A.
The Association decided that Cincinnati simply couldn't get away with avoiding their year in I-AA by using the dirty trick of "going to the judicial system." So they declared that, as a retroactive temporary classification, the Bearcats would spend 1983 as an I-AA team – and then bounce right back to I-A on January 1, 1984. Cincinnati entered the following season as what we'd now call an FCS team, and their first opponent just happened to be the reigning national champions, Penn State.
You may recall that I previously said Penn State entered this game ranked twentieth. That wasn't the media disrespecting the champ. However, the Nittany Lions had seen the starting quarterback and running back from the 1982 team taken with top-ten picks in the NFL Draft. Penn State had played one game already, a Week 0 matchup against Nebraska at Giants Stadium, and the Huskers dominated, winning 44-6.
Still, most columnists picked Penn State to win by 20 or 30 points. While the Bearcats had won in the courthouse and at the turnstile in 1982, they'd only gone 6-5 on the field, and their coach had just left to take the Kansas job. (The new guy was Watson Brown, Mack's brother.) And the Nittany Lions had won 12 of their last 13 home games.
So, what actually happened in the game? Penn State's Kevin Baugh fumbled a punt return in the second quarter, and Cincinnati recovered at the Nittany Lion 38. The Bearcats turned that short field into a touchdown and kicked off to Baugh. Baugh fumbled (again), and Cincinnati recovered at the 38 (again), and the Bearcats scored a touchdown (again).
That was all the offense needed; Penn State lost 14-3 and had a miserable day on offense, calling on three different quarterbacks who went a combined 7 of 25 for 112 yards and three interceptions. The Bearcats burned up 37 minutes of clock and played well enough on third and fourth down that Penn State just couldn't claw back into the game.
Playing a Cincinnati team that was Division I-A the year before and the year after, Penn State made unfortunate history by becoming the first-ranked team to lose to an I-AA opponent. The Bearcats deserve the credit for the win; an Ohio judge and the NCAA's extreme commitment to pettiness deserve it for the I-AA timing.