The Fiesta Bowl may have been a holiday gift that Penn State wanted like another stomach upset, because a No. 8-ranked team with a 10-1 record usually winds up its season in Miami or Dallas or New Orleans. But once the Nittany Lions got into the spirit of things in Tempe, Ariz. on Christmas Day, they were not going to let Arizona State spoil the festivities. The trouble was that every time Penn State seemed to have the game wrapped up, the string would come loose and out would pop Arizona State Quarterback Dennis Sproul to pass the Sun Devils back into contention.
So it came down to the kind of play that usually takes place on a Hollywood back lot, with Penn State Flanker Jimmy Cefalo making like Kris Kristofferson. Here we are, cameras rolling, Penn State ahead by six points with a little more than five minutes remaining, and Arizona State has already scored twice in the final quarter. The Lions with the ball on their own 30. Third and five. On the sidelines, Coach Joe Paterno's eyes are pressing against his bulletproof glasses. Most of the 57,727 fans in Fiesta Bowl Stadium sense that if Penn State has to punt, the Sun Devils will drive for the go-ahead touchdown. Quarterback Chuck Fusina kneels in the huddle, looks at Cefalo and mutters, "It's coming to you, Jimmy." Cefalo nods and trots out to his position. Back fades Fusina, a heartbeat ahead of an Arizona State blitz. He flicks the ball over the middle as Cefalo hooks into the area. Completion. First down. Cut. Print it. That's it for today, fellows.
Of course there were a few more scenes. On the next play, Fullback Bob Torrey made the Sun Devils' defensive line look as if it were a breakaway billboard when he ran up the middle 55 yards to the two-yard line, setting up a touchdown. And, with 14 seconds remaining, Paterno ordered the Lions to take a safety, a little gesture for the tacticians. But it was Cefalo's play that had the cheerleaders checking their makeup for the celebration of the eventual 42-30 victory. Cefalo is noted for making as well as writing headlines; the senior is an aspiring author who has contributed three articles to The New York Times. All day Penn State was a jackrabbit Arizona State never could catch, and Cefalo's 67-yard punt return in the second quarter set up a field goal that helped it establish a 17-7 lead, which gushed to 31-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Cefalo was part of an outstanding effort by the Penn State kick teams that looked as if they were on loan from the Washington Redskins. The Easterners won even though Arizona State had more first downs (29-18) and more total yards (426-351). The Sun Devils' trouble was that they rarely got the ball in a position where more good things could happen than bad. Seven of their 15 possessions came inside their own 20-yard line, where their vaunted aerial offense was just a butterfly without wings. And the Penn State special teams scored one touchdown when Defensive End Bill Banks blocked Arizona State's first punt and teammate Joe Lally caught it and ran 21 yards into the end zone for the first score in the game.
Christmas in the desert is a trick play from the start. Last week downtown Phoenix was festooned with decorations that had Santa Claus wearing a sombrero, standing next to a cactus and shouting olè. ASU Coach Frank Kush figured he needed some legerdemain against Penn State, a nine-point favorite. So he benched Mike Harris, his leading ground-gainer, in favor of freshman Newton Williams, who had carried the ball only four times all year; installed a new formation that eliminated the tight end; started banged-up Sproul, who had practiced only a week because of injuries; and was evasive about who would play halfback.
Arizona State came into the game with, some suspected, tinsel credentials, because its 9-2 record included a spongecake schedule. Nevertheless, its flashy offense was averaging more than 400 yards a game, and its defense was nicknamed "the Crunch Bunch." But while football's glamour is in the backfield, the game usually is decided in the boiler room, the front lines. When it mattered, the Crunch Bunch was a Cookie Monster that crumbled and the ASU offense could not move on the ground simply because its backs could not carry the ball and Penn State's Matt Millen at the same time. Millen, a defensive tackle, was named the game's outstanding defensive player for helping out on or making 18 tackles. Newton Williams, meanwhile, played like a freshman, fumbling to set up the second Penn State touchdown. "That's hindsense," said Kush, after losing the Fiesta Bowl for the first time following four wins.
In order to stay close, the Sun Devils had to pass, and Sproul connected on 23 of a Fiesta Bowl-record 47 attempts, many of them with defenders wrapped around his legs and with the added handicap of a sprinkling of ASU fans yelling, "Get him!" Sproul is not a local favorite; when he momentarily left the game because of an injury in the first quarter, his replacement was cheered as if he were Kriss Kringle in shoulder pads. Still, the senior, who was named the game's outstanding offensive player, threw three touchdown passes and connected all day on a slant pattern over the middle to keep the game exciting whenever it threatened to become dull.
But then, of course, every time it threatened to become exciting, someone like Jimmy Cefalo threatened to make it dull.