It has been 50 years since Montclair State University defeated Hampden-Sydney, 7-6, to win the Knute Rockne Bowl. Despite the passing of decades and several great teams that have represented Montclair State, the 1970 squad stands alone.
The team’s victory in the Knute Rockne Bowl capped off a 9-1 season, and their record was not the only thing that set them apart. Despite not being one of the biggest or fastest teams, Montclair State had the best defense in Division II. The unit surrendered less than 50 points in their nine regular-season games and they shut down several high-powered offenses throughout the season. On the other side of the ball, their offense was the perfect sidekick, relying on a strong run-game and quick passing attack.
Don MacKay, the former Montclair State football defensive coach, recalls the fighting spirit that led his team to victory that year.
“The guys wouldn’t acknowledge they weren’t as big or as fast or as strong,” MacKay said. “They just never took no for an answer.”
This “never say no” attitude was instilled by a strong coaching staff that preached playing smart and disciplined football. Head coach Clarence Anderson and Tim Sullivan ran the offense, while Tom Testa and MacKay coached the defense.
MacKay, the only coach still living to date, came straight into coaching from the U.S. Marine Corps and brought a tough military mindset that made his team believe they could accomplish anything they put their minds to. Considering most coaching staffs today carry up to a dozen coaches, it is remarkable to think that four men were able to lead a successful team.
Alex Kaplanovich, team safety from the 1970 lineup, remembers the determined attitude of his teammates.
“They were guys you wanted to play for because you never wanted to let them down,” Kaplanovich said.
Montclair State’s first major test came on their second game of the season when Delaware State and their star running back, Steve Davis, made the trip up north to New Jersey. Davis was one of the leading rushers in all of Division II football that year, and he went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers the following season.
The Red Hawks defense rose to the challenge and essentially shut Davis down. The play of the game was made by linebacker, Bobby Jensen, who tackled Davis on a fourth-and-1 play, to preserve the lead. Davis finished the game with just 37 yards on 17 carries in the 10-7 Montclair State victory.
“The stop that Bobby Jensen made, I thought [it] was the play of the season,” MacKay said. “Without that play we probably would’ve lost the game and maybe not have gotten the bowl invitation.”
Montclair State dominated throughout most of the regular season, outscoring their opponents 247-45, with four shutouts on their way to a New Jersey Athletic Conference title. The team was rewarded with an invitation to the Knute Rockne Bowl which served as college football’s Division II eastern regional championship. Their opponent was the Hampden-Sydney Tigers, a team with the number one offense in the country, led by the nation’s top rusher, Tracy Powers. Although the game happened 50 years ago, those who were on the field inside of the old Atlantic City Convention Hall remember the game as if it happened yesterday.
Once again, the team’s brilliant defense led the way and held Hampden-Sydney scoreless through the first three quarters. Montclair State defensive back, John Brunelli, caught more passes from the Tigers’ quarterback than most of the Tigers’ receivers. He recorded three interceptions, pushing his season total to nine and securing a school record. In the fourth quarter, Hampden-Sydney finally found their way to the end zone to cut the score to 7-6.
Instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game, the Tigers decided to go for the win and lined up for a two-point conversion. Immediately pressured by defensive end, Mike Van Zile, the Tigers quarterback rolled out to the right and threw a pass, which was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted in the end zone by Kaplanovich. The play would prove to be the pivotal moment in Montclair State’s 7-6 victory.
“It was a challenge to us, and it took a complete team effort from our entire defense to shut them down,” Kaplanovich said. “I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and [to have] come down with the ball.”
Winning the Knute Rockne Bowl was the perfect ending to an incredible season. What made this team so special was not just the dominant defense or winning the east regional championship, but the special bond shared between the players and coaches that holds strong 50 years later, as proven by Jensen’s sentiment.
“Whenever the guys from that team get together, the word ‘love’ is used a lot,” Jensen said. “My biggest takeaway from that year was not being champions, but just being a part of that team.”
Despite not being the most talented group, the camaraderie between the players and coaches, paired with their tough and disciplined mindset, gave them the confidence to beat every team they played.
“When we went out on that field, we never expected to lose,” Kaplanovich said. “We were going to win, regardless of who we played.”