The sports columnist of the Penn State Daily Collegian, forgive him his youth, took Penn State's classy fans to task last week. Penn State's classy fans sometimes cheer as if they were at the opera, and are known to garnish their pregame tailgate parties with platters of prosciutto, thinly sliced and rolled, and imported champagne. But the Collegian's editorialist didn't give the fans credit for that. He said they were "humdrum" and "mellow" (maybe it's the champagne) and so "passive" that they complain when somebody stands up for the kickoff.
He asked, "When was the last time you saw anything resembling a standing ovation when the defense came off the field? It's only No. 1 [in the country] against the rush, that's all."
He said it was time they woke up.
He said it was time "for this place to start to rock."
November 13, 1978
Well, the Penn State fans stood up for the defense last week. They stood up 78,019 strong, those among that record number not pulling for Maryland, and rocked Beaver Stadium as the defense stuffed the Maryland offense like a sausage. And they stood up for the offense, too, as it riddled the Maryland defense, rated fourth best in the country, for 444 yards, or about twice its usual yield.
And they stood up waving signs that said SOONERS OR LATER, WE'RE GONNA GET YOU and threw oranges (for playing Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, get it?) onto the field whenever the offense riddled or the defense stuffed. If a body didn't have The Daily Collegian to tell him how blasè they are, one would have to say it looked suspiciously like the Penn State fans had been saving themselves.
For now it is November, and the promise that budded in early fall is coming close to fruition. Because, for sure, the wide-awake Penn State football team is casting a lengthening shadow as it arrives on the threshold of what could be its first national championship, whether Joe Paterno admits it or not.
(You remember Joe, of course, Penn State's brilliant but low-pitched coach who wouldn't say "national championship" even if it were the password out of a Siberian labor camp. Joe will now admit, however, that this is the best Penn State team he ever had and it is "in a good position for all the marbles." Marbles are what you have lost if you don't think Joe would like that. Just for fun.)
On a day so perfect for football—crisp blue skies, clattering russet leaves among the smorgasbords in the parking lots—that it cleared your sinuses just walking into it, the No. 2 Lions walloped No. 5 Maryland, 27-3. Thus they got their 17th straight win but, more important, Penn State slammed the ball into No. 1 Oklahoma's court.
Oklahoma, the only other undefeated major college team, plays No. 4 Nebraska this week in Lincoln. If Oklahoma wins, it virtually clinches the Big Eight championship and an Orange Bowl trip as the host team. That would result in a showdown with Penn State, providing the Lions do not clutch against North Carolina State this Saturday, or Pittsburgh on Nov. 25. An Oklahoma loss would only multiply Penn State's bowl possibilities, assuming the Lions then move up to No. 1 (and why not?). This prospect brought scouts from five bowls to State College, Pa., mingling like angleworms in a jar and eyeing each other warily.
One of them was the onetime Oklahoma halfback and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels, scouting for the Orange Bowl. Vessels (impartially, of course) said an Oklahoma-Penn State game would be a lulu because Billy Sims, the eight-yards-a-carry Sooner halfback, "runs at tackles." Penn State's tackles are Matt Millen and Bruce Clark, the most fearsome twosome in college football. Furthermore, said Vessels, he didn't think Oklahoma "protected all that well" against the pass, and Penn State has Chuck Fusina, the quarterback everybody east of Stanford's Steve Dils says is the best passer in the nation. Fusina himself is a hot Heisman candidate.
Here's how to judge Fusina: he passed for 234 yards against the Terrapins, completing 15 of 29, one a 63-yard touchdown strike—and he had an off day.
Since a pivotal early victory over Ohio State, Fusina has had available more and more pass routes in the Penn State flight plan. Against Maryland, he was able to use a full complement, getting completions to his tight end, split end, two flankers and three running backs.
To beat him, Maryland needed a" fierce pass rush, as does anyone hoping to hamper a good passer. Ordinarily, the Terps get the rush, because they are tenacious and tough enough to manhandle opposing lines. But Paterno said beforehand he didn't believe Maryland could beat his offensive line. And if it couldn't, Fusina would have a big day.
Maryland couldn't. Fusina could have knitted a sweater while he waited for his receivers to get open. Curiously, all that time occasionally seemed to hurt more than help because the longer he waited for the best angles the more he seemed to overshoot receivers. And Fusina's frequent play changes at the line of scrimmage often went unheard in the din and caused a spate of Penn State penalties. Still, Fusina managed to check off successfully often enough that he was able to get more production out of his runners than Paterno had hoped.
The first Lion offensive play of the game was a screen to Fullback Matt Su-hey off a double fake and it got Penn State started on a drive that led to Matt Bahr's 16th field goal of the year, a 33-yarder. Late in the first quarter a 34-yard run off a trap play by Tailback Mike Guman was called at the line to set up a one-yard Fusina dive for a touchdown that made it 10-0. And in the second quarter a sensational leaping, left-handed catch by Flanker Bob Bassett, also on a check-off, set up Bahr's 44-yard field goal for a 13-3 halftime score.
But the clincher was an apt demonstration of why Paterno calls Fusina the best long passer he has had. Midway through the third quarter, Fusina hit Flanker Tom Donovan deep up the middle on a pattern in which Donovan was actually acting as a decoy. Donovan's job was to clear the middle deep, for the primary receivers. But in so doing, he got a step on the defensive end dropping back to cover, and when the Maryland cornerback didn't support, Fusina saw it and rifled the ball 30 yards upfield. The 63-yard touchdown play and Bahr's conversion made the score 20-3, and Maryland was doomed; it could have played a week without making up such a deficit against the Penn State defense.
How good is Penn State? Well, how good does it have to be? It is possible that the Nittany Lions have reached that sublime state in a superior team's life when its ability to deliver is consistent with its needs.
"There comes a time," says Paterno, "when a team realizes how good it is, not only knowing it can win but doing the things it takes when it has to." He says he felt this happening in the first quarter against Ohio State, at least defensively. Fusina believes the offense caught up to the defense in the first half against Kentucky, when the Lions were methodically devastating en route to a 30-0 victory. He says that since then they had treaded water, winning over lesser foes, but that the beat was still there. Two or three of the younger players, disturbed by wins that were merely wins, not blowouts, came to Paterno before the Maryland game, wanting to have a team meeting. "I told them, 'What for? We'll be all right. We're going good. You have that kind of meeting when you're not going good.' "
Of course, Penn State could still lose one or both of those last two games. Stranger things have happened. Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne noted two days before the game that the Lions had a recent history of falling on their ranked noses after beating his Terps, which they have now done 12 straight times under Paterno. After the last three Maryland games, Penn State lost the next week.
"What I'd like to do," said Claiborne, "is play them a week after we play them."
When you begin to answer how good Penn State is, you cannot but begin with the defense because it is a bona fide monolith. If there is a better one in the country, says Claiborne, he doesn't want to see it. Neither does Steve Atkins, his star (119 yards a game) running back, or Tim O'Hare, his Cinderella quarterback.
Atkins, like all Maryland players under Claiborne, has been introduced to psycho-cybernetics, the mind-conditioning exercises in which you picture what you are supposed to do over and over until it translates into physical action. If Atkins pictured this, he is a world-class masochist: tackles Clark and Millen and Middle Guard Greg Jones penetrating and closing his lanes, or holding their ground so that a backwash could not be created to allow him room to free-lance; linebackers Paul Suhey and Lance Mehl filling so quickly, and ends Larry Kubin and Joe Lally pressuring so totally that the store went broke before the front door could be opened.
Atkins was held to 38 yards in 18 carries. He never made a run longer than six yards. Psycho-cybernetics or not, he never even looked like he would make a run longer than six yards. Counting Penn State quarterback sacks—there were 10, and another dozen were barely averted—the Maryland rushing game totaled a grand minus of 32 yards.
The sacks were mainly O'Hare's cross to bear. O'Hare is a fifth-year student who had never won a letter and got the job this year on sheer persistence and quick, scrambling feet. He said before the game he was looking forward to a comparison "with a Heisman Trophy candidate." He knew he wasn't one himself, but that he "loved to pass" and thought a duel with Fusina would be fun. He never knew what hit him. Kubin alone had three sacks, and the pressure was so great O'Hare seldom had the time to enjoy the view downfield. On those rare occasions in which he, or his 6'7" sophomore replacement, Mike Tice, did manage to launch a ball, a second-story man cum safety named Pete Harris would materialize in front of the Maryland receivers and pick it off. Franco's younger brother intercepted three times to give him nine for the year.
O'Hare simply never had a chance. The first time he scrambled, an opening was quickly filled by 260 pounds of Clark. The first two times he passed, he had 256 pounds of Millen suffocating his living space. It was not nice work, and you wouldn't want it if you could get it.
Closeted with his team after the game, Paterno stood on a bench and waved for attention, and then conceded, "That wasn't bad."
Greeted with hoots at this, he held up his hands and grinned again and said, "All right. O.K. You did just fine. But you've got to remember, there's still some things we have to do. Don't get cocky. We're not there yet. But if you play this way the next two games, everything will take care of itself."
As is his custom, Paterno walked home from the stadium. He was amazed, he said, that there were still people in the parking lots, munching and sipping and throwing oranges. They stopped him for autographs and clapped him on the back, and when he got home his 12-year-old son David, who had watched the game on television because of a cold, matter-of-factly reported that ABC had shown a replay of the previous night's pep rally at which Paterno made a rousing speech.
"Yeah, well, how'd I do?" Paterno asked.
"To tell you the truth. Dad, you looked bombed."
The Daily Collegian ought to get on David's case.