Penn State had played three ranked opponents during the season (#3 Nebraska, #9 Missouri, and #4 Pittsburgh), and had only won the second one. They were looking to beat a ranked opponent to finish their season in their first Fiesta Bowl appearance since 1977. Ohio State had finished 2nd in the Big Ten Conference after losing to Michigan which dropped them from #5 to #11. This was their first Fiesta Bowl appearance.
Curt Warner would start the scoring with a 64-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage, giving the Nittany Lions the early lead. Not to be deterred, Art Schlichter threw a touchdown pass to Doug Donley, but the extra point failed, narrowing the lead to only 7-6. But the Buckeyes responded again with a Gary Williams touchdown catch from Schlichter to give the Buckeyes the lead, though the PAT missed once again. Schlichter threw another touchdown pass to Donley to increase the lead to 19-7 (the PAT being successful this time). Herb Menhardt kicked a 38-yard field goal to make it 19-10 at halftime. It seemed Schlichter and his team were poised to win the game, due to him throwing 15 of 22 for 244 yards and three touchdowns while Penn State had just one early touchdown. But the second half is when the Nittany Lions came alive. Todd Blackledge, despite throwing 8 for 22 for only 117 yards the whole game, scored early in the third quarter on a 3-yard run to narrow the lead to 19-17. Schlichter went 5 for 13 in the second half for 58 yards with two interceptions and zero touchdowns as the Buckeyes were shut out. In the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions turned on the running game, as Jonathan Williams scored on a four-yard touchdown run that gave them the lead, and a few minutes later Booker Moore piled on with a 37-yard touchdown run as the two teams played to a standstill from then on as Penn State won 31-19.
The Nittany Lions would go to two more Fiesta Bowls before the decade ended, winning one of their two titles at Tempe. The Buckeyes would wait four more years for their next Fiesta Bowl appearance, in 1984. As of 2017, this is the only bowl meeting between Penn State and Ohio State. The two teams now compete in the Big Ten Conference, and have met each other on a yearly basis since 1993.