Well, nice try, Penn State. You hoped to stop Tony Dorsett and you thought you could beat Pittsburgh, and even though you didn't come close to accomplishing one or the other, don't feel too badly. No one else this season has stopped Dorsett or his teammates either.
Last Friday night, as Pitt embarrassed Penn State 24-7, Dorsett concluded his regular-season college career in high gear. By running for 224 yards he wound up with 11 NCAA records, tied three others, set 28 school records and became the first collegian ever to gain more than 6,000 yards. Before the cheering in Three Rivers Stadium stopped, he made it to 6,082, thus bettering Archie Griffin's 1972-75 output by 905 yards. Said Dorsett, "I'm happy."
As a result of all this record-smashing (included were most career points, 356, breaking by two Glenn Davis' 1943-46 achievement) Pitt remained undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Although there still lurks in many suspicious minds the feeling that the Panthers' relatively undemanding schedule is a poor gauge of greatness, even the skeptics were forced to give Pitt its due.
There was speculation before the game that Dorsett might not do it against Penn State and that Pitt could be taken. The Panthers had split over whether to go to the Orange or Sugar Bowl (Sugar won). Then a furor erupted over whether Coach Johnny Majors would be leaving to take the head job at Tennessee, his alma mater, where the Majors name is revered. Finally, Pitt hadn't beaten Penn State since 1965.
December 6, 1976
Obviously, the key to the game was Dorsett. "If he gets 200 yards, we lose," said Gregg Ducatte, a Penn State defensive coach. "If he only gets 100, we win." Not everyone viewed it that way. Paterno kept saying, "We're not playing Dorsett, we're playing Pitt," but coaches will say those things. Publicly, Head Coach Joe Paterno praised Pitt so profusely he sounded like the Panther publicist. Privately, he was not so laudatory. Said Joe, pushing aside his jottings on something called the blast 45 defense, "They're not a super team in my mind, but if they are, all these X's and O's aren't going to matter."
Amid the hoopla, Penn Staters tended to forget that their team hadn't been all that super itself. After losing an early-season game to Ohio State, which it could have won, State was beaten by Iowa and Kentucky for three in a row. Paterno had to really go to work to put the pieces back together and scrape out of a mess a few weeks later against Temple in order to end up with a Gator Bowl invitation to play Notre Dame.
Paterno said he had no intention of designing a "stop Tony Dorsett" defense, working furiously in the meantime on a defense to stop some Pittsburgh running back wearing jersey No. 33. "He can score seven touchdowns and gain 500 yards," Paterno announced, "and I'll still be pleased—if we score one more point. Dorsett is not going to affect us psychologically."
So, while refusing to admit it was focusing outright on Dorsett, Penn State worked against what it euphemistically called Pitt's running game. Periodically the players would observe and presumably memorize scenes from that hit film Dorsett in Action and to get the word from Joe: "We want to frustrate them till they get desperate."
The defensive plan was to keep Dorsett running laterally as long as possible and then, the moment he turned upfield, to zing him. More important, the coaches urged that the defense work as a unit and not allow any cracks through which Dorsett could step with haste because of his acceleration. State also wanted to prevent Dorsett from getting to the wide field, to get proper angles on him and, when tackling, to "stick your head through his numbers."
Furthermore, State added a few defensive wrinkles (the team had a total of 16 alignments), but the main concern was whether the linebackers could handle the action. Two of them (Ron Hostetler and Steve Wanamaker) were hurt and definitely out, and three others (Rick Donaldson, Bruce Clark and Matt Millen) were freshmen. As it turned out, Millen and Clark largely decorated the sidelines while two older players were summoned to the brawl—Joe Diange, who had spent much of the year at defensive end, and Tom DePaso, who had previously lost his starting linebacker job. The steadying force was senior Kurt Allerman.
Defensive Tackle Tony Petruccio said the coaches had told the players not to think about Dorsett. But do you? "Sure." While the intent was to try to consider him just another back ("Play the man," advised Ducatte, "not the image. If you see a Heisman Trophy running at you, you're in trouble"), it was ironic that three subs who wore practice jerseys bearing No. 33 suffered a week of particularly hard licks.
Ron Crosby, a defensive end, said his hope was to get Dorsett before Tony got momentum. Said Crosby, "You can't make mental mistakes. If you do, all you'll do in a game is maybe get a chance to wave at him. But we know Dorsett will break one for 30 yards. So what?" The prevailing Penn State theory was: we don't have to play a perfect game to win; we know we can win and they only think they can.
The first three times Pitt got the ball, Dorsett was like a man in a rush-hour subway. In five carries he netted six yards. Penn State went ahead 7-0 when Quarterback Chuck Fusina, who grew up in a house on Hillcrest Avenue that overlooks Three Rivers Stadium, completed a 21-yard swing pass to Bob Torrey for the touchdown. State's ensuing kickoff bounced crazily on the damp Tartan Turf, Bob Hutton of Pitt finally falling on the ball back on the two-yard line. Two runs, one by Dorsett, gained only five, and it began to look as if Penn State might take over in Pitt territory, score again and—well, who knows what. But on third down Pitt Quarterback Matt Cavanaugh threw a long pass to the flashy Gordon Jones, who carried into State territory. The Panthers were off the hook.
Pitt failed to score on this penetration, but midway through the second quarter the Panthers moved to the State 13, thanks largely to another Cavanaugh-to-Jones pass. Burned by the pass, the Nittany Lions had to lay off Dorsett a bit. Trouble. He swept left end for two, right end for five and took a pitchout around left end for the touchdown.
The score was still 7-7 at halftime and Dorsett had only 51 yards, but there was an uneasy quiet in the Penn State dressing room. Said Ducatte, "There can be a we've-got-'em kind of quiet or a we-don't-have-'em kind of quiet. There's a fine line between them."
While Penn State was worrying, Pitt spent its intermission figuring out that in the first half Penn State had baffled the Panther attack by lining up head-on against Pitt's linemen and protecting the weak side with an extra linebacker—things never seen in a Nittany Lion game film. So the Panthers made their halftime adjustments, and they came out of the dressing room breathing fire—and in an unbalanced line that thoroughly confused the Penn State defenders. Twenty-five minutes' practice against this formation had not been enough. "From then on we were one step behind," said Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. "Frankly, we didn't think they'd go unbalanced."
Not only did they go unbalanced, they added another wrinkle. Pitt put the split end and flanker on the tight-end side of the line, in effect giving Dorsett an extra blocker on strong-side sweeps. Penn State had to alter its defense, and just when it seemed that the Nittany Lions had figured it out, bingo!—Dorsett unveiled a new play, a counter to the weak side.
There was more. Noticing that holes were opening up briefly for his fullbacks, Pitt Offensive Line Coach Joe Avezzano convinced Majors to try Dorsett at fullback, for the first time, up close to those short-lived openings. The results were glowing. Dorsett for seven up the middle, Dorsett for three around end, Dorsett, at fullback, for—whoops!—40 up the middle and his second touchdown.
Dorsett, Dorsett, Dorsett. Penn State now had lost its poise and, early in the fourth quarter, the game. Elliott Walker, Tony's little-known backfield buddy, got loose over center on another quick opener for 12 yards and a touchdown early in the fourth quarter (21-7 now) as State's defensive line was being mauled. Moments later, Fusina, who had a jittery night, was intercepted for the third time. Carson Long, who missed three chances to win last year's game with field goals, kicked a 47-yarder that was true.
In the gloom of the dressing room, Paterno insisted, "Dorsett didn't beat us. The whole team did." Pause. "Ah, heck, I don't know what happened." What happened was Tony Dorsett.