On a hot day in Pittsburgh last summer, Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill talked candidly about his football team, saying, "We're a year away from a national championship." On a cold day in Pittsburgh last week, it was proven that Sherrill knew what he was talking about.
In another stunning turn of events in this stunning college football season, undefeated and No. 1-ranked Pitt was crushed 48-14 Saturday by 11th-ranked Penn State. That it was only 48-14 was because of Nittany Lion Coach Joe Paterno's decision to leave the jugular intact once he had undeniable evidence that the Panthers were mortally wounded.
It was a suitable ending to a year in which almost everybody's preseason No. 1, Michigan, was whipped by Wisconsin—a team it hadn't lost to since 1962—in its opening game. That upset seemed to make everyone believe in fairy tales. In succession, Notre Dame, Southern California, Texas and Penn State itself rose to No. 1, and in succession, each was promptly thrashed. Alabama disgraced itself early with a loss to Georgia Tech, and thus the Crimson Tide never got to the top. And undefeated Clemson, a new boy among the biggies and thus still regarded with suspicion, didn't make it to No. 1—until now.
Pitt played a weak schedule—Florida State, which ended with a 6-5 record, was the only first-rate opponent among the Cincinnatis, Rutgerses and Armys. Still, the Panthers were winning so impressively that they seemed to be a year ahead of Sherrill's schedule. That was because his junior quarterback, Dan Marino, clearly had developed into one of the best in the land, as evidenced by his second-place ranking in the NCAA stats for passing efficiency, behind BYU senior Jim McMahon. More startling was that the Pitt defense, so tough last year but so inexperienced this, led the NCAA Division I in total defense going into Saturday's game, allowing only 203.9 yards a game. (Penn State would roll up 434.) The Panthers also led the nation in rushing defense with an average of 51.4 yards per game (the Nittany Lions would more than treble that with 187) and were fourth in scoring defense, allowing an average of only 9.2 points.
December 7, 1981
But Sherrill is nobody's fool, and while walking about on the splotchy wet Astroturf carpet of Pitt Stadium an hour before game time, with the collar of his yellow blazer turned up to fight off the cold and snow flurries, he said, "I tell you, we only have four players who could start on offense for Penn State. They have seven who could start for Pittsburgh."
One of the players Sherrill thought could start for Penn State was Marino. That figures; with his stats and his size—6'4", 215 pounds—he could start for almost anybody in the NFL. But on this gray afternoon, Marino was only the second-best signal caller on the field as the Nittany Lions' Todd Blackledge, the much-maligned Todd Blackledge, decisively outquarterbacked Marino, much to the amazement of the 60,260 fans on hand. He completed 12 of 23 passes for 262 yards, while Marino threw almost twice as many times for only five yards more; Blackledge had one interception, Marino four.
"I make big plays," says Blackledge, "and I make big mistakes." And therein lies his main flaw. By the fourth game of his freshman year, 1980, he was starting. That's good. But in that game, against Missouri, he threw three interceptions and had two fumbles. That's bad. He also ran 43 yards for the winning touchdown against the Tigers. That's good. With Penn State trailing Miami by three points this year, he threw an interception at the end of the game with the Nittany Lions needing a win to preserve their No. 1 rating. That's bad. But against Notre Dame two weeks ago, he led Penn State on a fourth-period, 82-yard drive for the decisive touchdown. That's good. On and on.
All of this was doubly distressing to Penn State fans because they had hoped so desperately to ride Blackledge's arm to that elusive first national championship, something not even back-to-back undefeated seasons (in 1968 and '69) had done, because the voters in the polls thought there were too many patsies on the Nittany Lions' schedule. Now, with Paterno serving as athletic director as well as head coach, Penn State has rectified that shortcoming and is pursuing the crown more ardently than ever. Indeed, when Paterno was recruiting Blackledge, the son of former Kent State Football Coach Ron Blackledge, he told him, "You're the kind of quarterback we need to win a national championship." That is heavy baggage for a young man.
In the first quarter of the bitter intrastate rivalry, Pitt seemed intent on adding to that burden. On the Panthers' first two possessions, Marino got two touchdowns, both on passes to Flanker Dwight Collins. "I wasn't that panicked," said Paterno, who had every right to be just that at the end of the first quarter with Pitt leading 14-0 and having gained 164 yards to Penn State's minus four. "But I did know that you can't run three plays, turn the ball over to them at midfield and expect to be in it very long." Still, the very scenario Paterno described seemed destined to be played out when, on the Panthers' third possession—after three more plays and a punt by Penn State—Marino marched his troops to the Nittany Lions' 31. But he then threw a looping pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Penn State's Roger Jackson.
At the time that seemed to provide nothing but a breather for the Nittany Lions. Later it was clear it had meant everything, because had Pitt established a 21-0 advantage that early, Penn State would not only have been mentally shattered but, almost surely, would also have been forced to play gambling football with all too predictable and dire results. As it was, Blackledge then moved his team on a tentative, penalty-aided drive—"I kept telling myself to keep my poise and keep calm," he said—that ended with a two-yard scoring plunge by Fullback Mike Meade.
Then came the most telling play of the afternoon. With 3:05 left in the half and Penn State still smarting from the embarrassment of its first-quarter ineptitude and facing a second and one on its own 39, Paterno sent Flanker Kenny Jackson (Roger's younger brother) in with the call for the bomb. "All it is is Kenny runs as fast as he can and I throw as far as I can," said Blackledge. A little pump fake cleared out the defensive clutter, and Jackson grabbed the ball and scooted to the Pitt 8. Then Blackledge ran a perfectly executed quarterback draw for the score, and it was 14-14 at halftime.
Shortly after play resumed Pitt fumbled and Blackledge threw a 42-yard pass to Kenny Jackson, who did a startling 320-degree spin at the 10 to elude Safety Tom Flynn and race in for a touchdown. Penn State, 21-14, Less than three minutes later Blackledge again hit Jackson, this time for 45 yards and another TD. Penn State, 28-14, and only six minutes gone in the second half. Asked later if he had ever been so wide-open for a reception as he was for the 45-yarder, Jackson said, "Sure, in practice." The nearest Pitt defensive back was a $3 cab ride away.
Now the toothpaste was fast going out of the tube and the young, flustered Panthers—who had previously trailed only one opponent, Syracuse, this season—couldn't stem the flow. Brian Franco added two Penn State field goals, of 39 and 38 yards. On one play Nittany Lion Curt Warner, who led all rushers with 104 yards, slashed to the two only to fumble. The ball rolled into the arms of Penn State Guard Sean Farrell in the end zone. "When I scored I didn't know what to do," Farrell said. "I hadn't planned on it." Neither had Pitt. Pitt also hadn't planned on the two fumble recoveries by Tackle Greg Gattuso. Or Mark Robinson's 91-yard TD romp with an interception, his second theft of the day.
Although the score kept mounting, Paterno wasn't pouring it on. Late in the fourth quarter, just before Robinson's TD, Penn State had driven to the Pitt 24, where it had a fourth and four. Instead of tacking on three insult points, Paterno showed his accustomed èlan and called for a straight handoff that went for no gain. "Come on," says Joe, with that humility that can drive opponents nuts, "you're never as bad as you look on your bad days—or as good as you look on your good ones. They were having a bad day, and we were having a good day. That's all."
Part of the reason Pitt looked so bad, of course, was Paterno's doing—an unorthodox defense that featured essentially six linebackers and only two down linemen. It was Penn State that appeared confused by the formation for much of the first half, but as the Nittany Lions grew more accustomed to it, Marino became more bewildered. Instead of the long patterns he had been connecting on, he started dumping off safety-valve passes.
For his part, Sherrill wasn't banging his head against convenient walls the morning after. "We had plenty of chances," he said. "Plenty. But you don't win with seven turnovers. That's when the locomotives start going the wrong way, and when that happens, you can sure get run over." Sherrill also confessed that when his team got behind 28-14. "I probably tried to have us score too quick. We still had 24 minutes. There was no rush, but I rushed."
Overall, the cause of the Panthers' downfall in Sherrill's view wasn't Penn State "but us. We killed ourselves." Penalties—a total of 13, costing Pitt 110 yards—were certainly one reason for the loss. So too were all the balls that Marino zinged home only to see them come bouncing off his receivers' hands or numbers. Timing was frequently off, but that was at least partly attributable to the fact that Collins hadn't played since injuring an ankle against Rutgers three weeks earlier. Also, Split End Julius Dawkins, who had caught 15 touchdown passes, suffered a hip pointer after being tackled hard late in the second quarter. And Sherrill admitted that when his young team found itself in a certified dogfight for the first time, it didn't quite know what to do. No wonder—the Panthers had outscored their 10 previous opponents 347-92. "But if you can't handle a defeat like this," said Sherrill, "then it's time to get out. I'm not getting out. I'm getting mad and ready to go at them again."
As is Blackledge, who later admitted that the criticism he had heard had gotten to him. Even his father says, "I like to see him play—sometimes. He does some good things and some bad things." But Blackledge had been only a secondary target of the crepehangers. Paterno has been taking increasing blame for the Penn State lack of offensive flair. "My brother knows he has to have a sophisticated passing game to beat these good teams," says George Paterno, himself a former college coach who now does color commentary for the Penn State television network. "And when he opened it up Saturday—when he was behind, remember—I think that marked a big change in his philosophy."
Saturday also marked a change in the bowl picture. Originally, it looked as if the Sugar Bowl matchup was certain to determine the national championship, with No. 1 Pitt playing third-ranked Georgia. But, much to the joy of Alabama fans, who were outraged at the Tide's not being selected as the SEC representative in New Orleans, that no longer is so likely. That fact dawned on Sugar Bowl President-elect Henry Bodenheimer, who was on hand in Pitt Stadium, in the second half, as with each Penn State TD Pitt fell lower in the rankings. Finally, somebody shouted over to Bodenheimer, "Cheer up, Henry, you could have invited Northwestern." Bodenheimer didn't visibly cheer up.