Remember the old joke, "Who has an IQ of 90? Penn State's football team." That used to get a lot of laughs at Pitt—after somebody explained it. Well, the joke's been updated. Now they tell the one about how after last season Penn State sat down and voted on where it wanted to go. The offense voted for Miami on a bowl trip, but the defense wanted to go to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Only maybe this time they aren't kidding.
Take Dennis Onkotz, one of this year's linebackers. He's a biophysics major who won't watch football on television because, he says, it looks too brutal. "He's so smart," says his coach, Joe Paterno, "he scares me." Then there's Mike Reid, one of the defensive tackles. He's just been invited by the Utah Symphony Orchestra to play Anton Rubinstein's Piano Concerto in D-Minor. He's the only longhaired pianist in the world with a shaved head. Neal Smith, the safety, is an engineering major who came to school on a slide rule, not a scholarship. He just wandered in from Port Trevorton, Pa. one day and asked if anybody minded if he played between math problems. The rest are just as bright—future high school teachers and dentists and lawyers—and, in that brutal world, just as unbeaten.
Of course, it hasn't always been easy, going unbeaten. Like last Saturday, when Syracuse rose from the near-dead and carried a 14-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Since last spring Syracuse has lost its first eight halfbacks. Two flunked out, one quit, one transferred and the rest were injured. "We're down to people who are so slow I think they are deformed," observes Ben Schwartzwalder, making starting tailbacks out of third-string fullbacks.
Well, you can always throw the ball.
"Yeah," counters the Syracuse coach with that delightful dry humor, "we've got a slick quarterback who spots the open linebacker very well."
And so Syracuse, which lost to Kansas, which has lost to everybody else, didn't figure to score 14 points against Penn State in three months. Yet that's the way it stood, two touchdowns to none, as they began the final 15 minutes of the game.
"Up to that point," said Joe Paterno later, "Syracuse was playing like us—and we weren't. We were the ones making the mistakes."
In winning 10 games last season and its first four this year, Penn State's defensive intellectuals had set up 169 points with 40 pass interceptions, 22 fumble recoveries, two safeties and five blocked punts. "They aren't a football team," said one bowl scout, "they are a Salvation Army." Only if you don't drop something in the tambourine, they'll pick your pocket.
But in the first 45 minutes against Syracuse, the Penn State defense had only three bright moments. Two were blocked field goals, which turned out to be very bright moments indeed. But the brightest of all came late in the second quarter with Syracuse leading by its 14 points and with a fourth down at the Penn State three. With that big a lead that early in the game, Schwartzwalder elected to go for the touchdown rather than a field goal.
"They had already blocked two field-goal attempts," he reasoned, and rightly, "and if we score there it's all over."
Only Syracuse didn't score. Wingback Greg Allen swept to the right and there was nothing in front of him but a diving Neal Smith's outstretched left hand. Allen tripped over it. "When we didn't score," said Schwartzwalder, "I was sick."
At the moment there were few who thought it mattered. If Syracuse has problems with its offiense, it has none with its defense which, going against Penn State, ranked sixth in the nation. "I told our kids at halftime," said Paterno, "that I didn't know if we could score enough points, and if we didn't I wouldn't be unhappy. But I would be unhappy if everybody didn't go out there and give it all they had. You have to remember that not once, in the three years any of our players have been here, have we been behind by two touchdowns. It was something new to them."
Late in the third quarter Penn State's muggers really went to work. Their streak—23 straight without a loss—and their No. 5 ranking were near collapse, and they weren't happy. Steve Smear, their other great defensive tackle, slammed into Al Newton, who scored Syracuse's first touchdown. Out popped the ball, and George Landis—who had blocked both field-goal attempts—fell on it at the Syracuse 12. Here was a chance, but Syracuse gave up 9½ yards and no more, and it was still 14-0.
As the final period began it was clear Penn State was going to need a lot of help. And so—zap! Smear hit Allen, who fumbled, and Jack Ham recovered for the Lions on the Syracuse 32. Zap! Syracuse was accused of pass interference, and Penn State had the ball at the four. Lydell Mitchell scored from there without heavenly interference to make it 14-6. Penn State went for two points and missed and zap! Flag on the play. Syracuse was accused of holding. "You're lucky that somebody doesn't punch you in the nose," said Syracuse's Don Dorr, the accused, to Field Judge Marlin Brandt, the accuser.
"I may go down in history," said Paterno happily, "as the coach who got the most second chances on a two-point conversion."
For his second chance this time, he sent in the 58 Sweep, a straight power sweep to the fullback, with Franco Harris carrying and getting the two points. Now it was 14-8.
And zap! Syracuse, which had been punting long and well all day, suddenly got off a short kick, and Penn State had the ball on the enemy's 39. Harris got three, and Paterno sent in the next play, a 56 Counter, and Harris went 36 yards to score. Zap!
"Should have called that play sooner," said Paterno.
Now all Penn State needed was for Mike Reitz to kick the extra point, which he did, and there was no need for Syracuse to be offside. The final was Penn State 15, Syracuse 14, and four zaps!
State's winning streak was still alive, and with medium-rare teams like Pittsburgh, Maryland and Boston College ahead, the streak should last at least until bowl time. That is unless someone else comes up with a lot of zaps of their own.