In recent weeks, Penn State football fans had split into dozens of well-defined factions, ranging from the Joe-Should-Be-Wearing-More-Blue-and-White traditionalists to the We're-Lion-Low cynics. The Nittany Lions' horrendous 0-3 start—the worst in 44 years by a defending national champion and the poorest in 19 years by Penn State—had been so puzzling to them that they were blaming everything from Coach Joe Paterno's failure to dress in school colors to the hiring of a new radio play-by-play man. Some fans even subscribed to the Logo Theory, which attributed State's troubles to a stylish new lion's-head emblem that has been sweeping the campus. "Whatever's been wrong, it's been embarrassing," said Defensive Tackle Greg Gattuso early last week. "You feel like walking around in a disguise."
On Saturday afternoon, though, all that had changed. The Lions had won two straight games, and the largest home crowd in Penn State history—85,614 fans, most of them wearing 'TERNO THE TIDE buttons—had jammed into Beaver Stadium to watch them play unbeaten and fourth-ranked Alabama. Penn State responded with its best performance of the season as Lion freshman sensation D.J. Dozier rushed for 163 yards and rookie Quarterback Doug Strang, a junior, threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns. All told, the two teams combined for nearly 1,100 yards in offense, the Nittany Lions rolling up a 34-7 third-quarter lead before the Tide responded with a furious rally. Now, one play remained. With 0:01 to go, Alabama still trailed 34-28 but had the ball on Penn State's two-yard line. The crowd was on its feet, delirious. Here, as it turned out, 'Bama needed the disguise.
All afternoon in such short-yardage situations, the Tide had run a play called Toss 28—a pitchout to the tailback moving right—and had never gained fewer than seven yards with it. Gattuso remembered that. So did Lion Defensive End Steve Sefter and Cornerback Mark Fruehan. As Alabama's offense lined up, Gattuso shifted one step to his left. Toss 28, all three thought, clear as day. Said Fruehan later, "I could sense it coming."
And it came. Alabama Quarterback Walter Lewis pitched the ball to Tailback Kerry Goode, who swept to his right—and saw Sefter facing him on the outside, Gattuso on the inside and Fruehan in the middle. Fruehan met Goode head on at the line of scrimmage, and Gattuso smothered him from behind. No gain. In an instant the crowd was swarming across the field. "We are...Penn State! We are...Penn State!" the fans roared. Lion players, in the flush of a three-game victory streak, were soon speaking of bowl bids and of perhaps becoming the first team in history to start 0-3 and finish 9-3. Their season, it was agreed, had been turned around.
But had it? Alabama had piled up 598 yards and on another day might have blown Penn State clear out of Happy Valley. The Tide had been sloppy and star-crossed, losing three fumbles, three interceptions and—on a questionable out-of-bounds call on a pass from Lewis to Tight End Preston Gothard in the Penn State end zone with eight seconds left—the apparent winning touchdown. A clipping penalty had negated another 'Bama TD. Though Penn State's play had been more spirited than in previous games and its offense more potent, the Lions had still nearly blown a 27-point lead in only 15 minutes.
Penn State's problems began last winter, in the joyous aftermath of its 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia. Although that win wrapped up both an 11-1 season—the only loss had been to Alabama—and the national title for the Lions, it also ended the college careers of 12 senior starters, among them two-time All-America Tailback Curt Warner and superb Defensive End Walker Lee Ashley. It also helped convince star Quarterback Todd Blackledge that Penn State had enough talent to continue winning without him; in February he decided to pass up his final year of eligibility and turn pro.
So good were the 13 departees that eight of them now play in the NFL and three are in the USFL. Replacing them, obviously, was a major chore. It didn't help any that Warner's scheduled successor, senior Jon Williams, hurt his right knee in a February skiing accident and his left knee in the third game. Or that, with only three untested quarterbacks available to succeed Blackledge, the team elected to play powerful Nebraska in an Aug. 29 season opener. "Hey, I didn't vote to play 'em," says Paterno. "I was dead set against it, but it was what the kids wanted."
The kids weren't so thrilled when Nebraska crushed them 44-6. "We were pretty much demoralized," says Gattuso. Morale sagged further when the Lions were shocked 14-3 by unheralded Cincinnati and then lost 42-34 to Iowa. Not since 1939, when TCU dropped its first four games en route to a 3-7 record, had a defending national champion opened so poorly. "We weren't Penn State; we were just another team going through the motions," says All-America Defensive Back Mark Robinson, who was knocked out for the season against 'Bama, with a broken right fibula. "It was hard to stomach." Even when the Lions won their next two games, 23-18 over Temple and 36-25 over Rutgers, they showed the same weaknesses: a feeble pass rush, a vulnerable secondary, excessive turnovers and inexperienced quarterbacking. In both victories they barely held off late-game comebacks.
All of which led to a little friction. "It was almost a situation where we were asking, 'Are [the coaches] for us or against us,' " says Robinson. After the Cincinnati defeat, the players held a long gripe session among themselves, airing a wide range of concerns. "When you lose a couple of games, you start to feel a little animosity on the squad," says Robinson. "The seniors start to say, 'Oh, the coaches are giving up on us too early. They're looking toward the future and sacrificing this season, and all that.' Everybody had to get things off his chest."
The team captains passed on the complaints to Paterno, who, characteristically, listened. His greatest frustration, he says, has been that "the guys are too tense. I just can't get them to relax and enjoy playing football. You start losing, you get tense, you're afraid to make mistakes, you lose some more. Nobody believes me, but I don't care if I lose every game. Heck, I'm not going to get fired. I'll be happy as long as we're improving every week and the guys are having fun. Geez, you only play football because you enjoy it."
Paterno finally settled on Strang as his quarterback and made wholesale changes to shore up the secondary, but still the Lions struggled. A few fans began to boo. Reporters began to ask tougher questions. Suddenly a couple of writers were taking potshots at Paterno, claiming that he wasn't a classy loser. "I don't read newspapers [during the fall]," he says, "and my secretary handles all my hate mail, which I'll answer after the season."
Paterno has been testy with the media at times this fall. When one reporter asked him to compare Dozier with Warner, he snapped, "Aw, just let the kid play, O.K.?" Then, three days before the Alabama game, amid the 1,000th round of questioning about Penn State's 1983 difficulties, Paterno let loose something of a diatribe. "I think some of my players are shooting their mouths off too much," he said. "That's been part of the problem with this team from the beginning. We had some people who made some statements before we ever played a game, about how good we were going to be here, how good we were going to be there and what have you. You don't win any games by talking about it. We'd be better off if we'd kept our mouths shut."
Nevertheless, whether this year or next, both Paterno and his Lions are headed for happier days. Besides the rapidly improving Strang, who going into this season hadn't started a game since high school, Penn State is loaded with good freshmen and sophomores, six of whom already play regularly. Most notable among them is the 6'1", 196-pound Dozier, who took over the starting tailback position from Williams in mid-September and since then has had four consecutive 100-yard games. Dozier has already broken the Nittany Lions' freshman rushing record, with 619 yards on 92 carries, and has unleashed spectacular slashing runs of 64, 57 and 50 yards. "I think before the year is over everybody in Pennsylvania is going to forget Curt Warner," said Alabama Coach Ray Perkins on Saturday. "From where I was standing it looked as if [Dozier] had gained 300 yards."
Dozier, a quiet 18-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., grew up idolizing O.J. Simpson, though those who saw him play in high school likened him to Kelvin Bryant. At Penn State, on the other hand, his teammates say the similarities between Dozier and Warner, both in running style and personality, are eerie. "You could tell back in camp that D.J. was something special, that he had something only God gives you," says Kenny Jackson, the Lions' All-America flanker. "He's going to leave his mark here."
None of the Lions wants to leave his mark as being part of Penn State's first sub-.500 team since 1938; the school takes pride in having the longest streak of non-losing seasons in NCAA history. But the 1983 defeats may pay off in the long run. "I'm excited for these guys next year," says Gattuso. "They're going to have a great team. For one thing, they'll have picked up a valuable lesson from us." He paused and then grinned weakly. "Just too bad we had to learn it."