The first thought that went through the mind of Penn State's Michael Zordich when he got the defensive formation from the bench late last Saturday afternoon in Iowa City was "We could be in trouble." Zordich, who's the hero back, the Nittany Lions' version of the rover, was familiar with the feeling. Last season someone on Penn State's defense always seemed to be in trouble. Zordich had played three positions in 1983—outside linebacker, cornerback and safety—all of them aggressively, none with distinction. "I don't think he really felt comfortable the whole season," says defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Nor did he feel comfortable Saturday after fourth-ranked Iowa, trailing 20-17, had driven 61 yards to the State 29-yard line with 1:57 left in the game. It was fourth-and-one, and surely speedy tailback Ronnie Harmon could get a yard, or quarterback Chuck Long, a strong 204-pounder, could pick it up on a sneak.
Sandusky signaled for 97-pressure, a basic short-yardage defense that calls for Zordich to show early from Iowa's left side. "It was the same defense we used on their touchdown at the end of the half," said Zordich, referring to Harmon's 15-yard scoring run. Several Lion defenders, Zordich included, had overrun the play. "I'm supposed to come up quickly," he said after the game. "The power was to the other side, and I thought they were going to run away from me, but when they sent the wingback in motion, I knew they were coming."
Harmon took a pitch from Long and started to his left, toward the Hawkeye bench and coach Hayden Fry, who'd called the play. It was to be a power sweep, but cornerback Chris Sydnor came up fast and attacked the lead blocker, whipping his legs. That forced Harmon to turn upheld—smack into the arms of Zordich. No first down. Penn State ball. Penn State upset.
"We wanted to give it to our best runner," said Fry. "All the films indicated they shoot the inside gap, so it would've been impossible to go inside."
Said Zordich, "I got under a blocker and ran right into Harmon. As soon as I hit him, I knew he didn't have the yard."
The previous week, in a 15-12 season-opening defeat of Rutgers, Penn State had looked far from formidable. Consequently, the 14th-ranked Lions were underdogs against Iowa, which had begun the year with a 59-21 rout of Iowa State. However, it seems that no matter how many obituaries are written for Joe Paterno and his Lions, they often come out on top when it's least expected.
Take last season, when, says Zordich, "everyone laughed at our defense." Penn State started '83 with three defeats, the most embarrassing a 14-3 loss to Cincinnati—and not the Bengals. The top offenses fattened their averages against the Lions. Nebraska piled up 500 yards in Game 1, a 44-6 debacle; Long passed for 345 yards in a 42-34 Hawkeye victory; and Doug Flutie threw for 380 in a 27-17 Boston College win. Yet Paterno still salvaged a 7-4-1 regular season and a bid to the Aloha Bowl, where the Lions beat Washington 13-6. Now, with a weekend off against William and Mary, the Nittany Lions will be 3-0 and full of confidence when they meet Texas on Sept. 29 at the Meadowlands.
Besides Zordich, outside linebacker Shane Conlan could well create problems for the Longhorns. As a freshman last fall he was one of the Nittany Lions' few stalwarts on defense, having gained a big-play reputation when he forced two fumbles and got a sack in a 24-24 tie with Pitt. Against Iowa he contributed several more big plays.
Penn State was trailing 3-0 early in the second quarter when a blitzing Conlan jarred the ball loose from Long and recovered it at the Iowa four. That led to a 21-yard Nick Gancitano field goal that tied the game. A few minutes later the 217-pound Conlan ran into 226-pound running back Owen Gill just after Gill had caught a swing pass from Long. Result: a fumble that popped into the arms of linebacker Bob Ontko at the Penn State 32. (The officials ruled the turnover an interception, though it was more likely a fumble.) Though Penn State had to settle for a 35-yard Gancitano field goal and a 6-3 lead, the Lions' drive brought quarterback Doug Strang out of hibernation. He had missed on his first eight passes before finally connecting on a 17-yarder to Eric Hamilton that helped set up the field goal. Overjoyed, Strang turned to center Nick Haden and screamed, "I'm back! I'm back!" Haden was unimpressed. "Where were you?" he said.
In the shadow of Todd Blackledge, now a rookie starter for the Kansas City Chiefs, for one place. Strang wound up 11-of-27 for 157 yards against Iowa and was at his best during a 13-play, 82-yard second-quarter drive. The final play was a 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Herb Bellamy that put Penn State up 13-3. Harmon returned the ensuing kick-off 50 yards to the Nittany Lions' 44. Six plays later, with just four seconds left in the half, he scored on a run that closed the gap to 13-10.
In the second half, Penn State's offense stopped Strangling itself. Early in the fourth quarter, Strang went over on a one-yard sneak after marching the Lions 61 yards in 11 plays. Long countered with a TD sneak of his own after leading the Hawkeyes on an even more impressive 80-yard drive to make the score 20-17 with 10:01 to go.
But when Iowa got the ball back, Zordich came up with the big hit that made a hero out of the hero.