Memo to the NCAA: if you want to find out why Penn State has the nation's best record over the past 10 years, check the linebackers. Coach Joe Paterno has been using the same four guys since 1966. The reason you haven't been aware of it is that over the years they've used aliases—Dennis Onkotz, Jack Ham, John Skorupan and Ed O'Neil are just a few—but around secluded University Park, Pa. they are always known as Fritz, Hero, Mike and Backer. Hero and Fritz are outside men. When they come bearing down on a quarterback, it's a blitz. Backer and Mike operate from the inside and their charge is known as the blow.
Last week in College Park, Md. the four linebackers were blitzing and blowing all over the field, causing and recovering fumbles, intercepting passes and making tackles. And the Nittany Lions needed all of it, plus three field goals by Chris Bahr, to edge Maryland 15-13, their eighth victory in nine games.
The Lions have turned out five All-America linebackers since 1968 and there are nine former Nittanys playing that position in the NFL. Penn State linebackers, like Southern Cal tailbacks, Ohio State fullbacks and Alabama quarterbacks, are to college football what Detroit is to the internal combustion engine. The best of the current collegians is 6'2½", 232-pound Greg (Backer) Buttle, a champion rower in the summer, a barbershop-quartet singer on Wednesday nights and, on Saturday afternoon, "as good a linebacker as we've ever had," in Paterno's opinion. Which counts. Except for his membership in the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartets, he is cut from the Penn State mold: big, fast, strong, tough and smart. And like most of the others, he played a different position in high school. Ham, for instance, was an offensive guard who got the last scholarship Paterno offered in 1967, while O'Neil was a quarterback and Skorupan, like Buttle, a receiver. As for Buttle's musical talent, that came from his mother. His father is an FBI agent, but Buttle says, "my job is more dangerous."
Buttle and the other three—Jim (Mike) Rosecrans, Kurt (Fritz) Allerman and Ron (Hero) Hostetler and, indeed, the entire Penn State defense, were at their daring best Saturday, coming up with the plays that held off Maryland and set up two of Bahr's three field goals. Earlier Paterno had said he was looking for just that kind of performance. "The only thing that's keeping this defense from being as good as the one we had in 1969," he said, "is its failure to make the big plays."
Against Maryland, the defenders were quick to produce. Figuring that the Terrapins might be unsettled in the early moments, Paterno told Buttle and his other captains to kick off if they won the opening toss. They did, and within minutes the Lions got these results:
On the third play from scrimmage Rosecrans forced a fumble, setting up Bahr's first field goal, a 37-yarder.
Shortly after that, Allerman recovered a fumbled handoff and Bahr hit another from 44 yards out.
To the record Maryland crowd of 58,973 these errors were all too familiar, since they break out like a rash every time the Terrapins play an important non-conference game. But more would follow. In the second quarter a clipping penalty wiped out a 55-yard Maryland punt return for a touchdown and another fumble stopped a scoring bid at the Lion 35. In the third period Rosecrans tipped a pass that Buttle intercepted at the nine and, finally, in the fourth, a measly 22-yard Maryland punt set up Bahr's winning 40-yard field goal.
Since Jerry Claiborne's arrival at Maryland in 1972, the Terrapins have gotten fat on Atlantic Coast Conference competition and independents like Villanova and Syracuse while floundering against the quality teams. Even before Saturday's game, Maryland had lost three times to Penn State and all six meetings with Southeastern Conference clubs, two of those in bowl appearances. This consistent failure has brought criticism from the Washington press, caused self-doubt among the players and obscured the otherwise impressive accomplishments of Claiborne's brief tenure.
Sitting outside the practice field the day before the game, Claiborne talked about the "stigma" his team bears. "Mistakes have killed us," he said, "but I'm not like my wife. She says so many bad things have happened that maybe we're not supposed to win these games."
Still, Maryland very nearly managed a victory against Penn State despite the errors. Entering the game in the second quarter after a six-week injury layoff, Quarterback Mark Manges had the Terrapins ahead 13-12 six minutes into the second half. Clapping, slapping and jumping up and down, he was determined to satisfy the one ambition he had in choosing Maryland instead of Penn State when he was a high school senior: he wanted to play for a team that beat the Lions, not because of any animosity but because "they have so much class." Manges' fury had Paterno worried on the sidelines. "I thought they were going to run us out for a while," he said later.
After Penn State recovered and went ahead on Bahr's third field goal with 7:36 remaining, Manges rallied his team again with two passes that gave Mike Sochko a field-goal opportunity at the 32 with 15 seconds left. It was a straight-ahead chance at the closed end of the Byrd Stadium horseshoe. Make it and Maryland wins. Miss it and, as Claiborne would predict later, "The papers will say 'Maryland Blows Another Big One.' "
The kick swerved off to the right.
"I thought it would be like practice," Manges said. "I just knew it was going to go through so I was getting ready for an outburst."
Instead, the victory, and the outburst, were Penn State's. As even the narrow early-season loss to Ohio State proved, the Lions always do well in big games. It comes with tradition and experience and marvelous linebackers like Fritz, Hero, Backer and Mike.