You want to see a team that's winning ugly, check out Penn State. The best thing that can be said about the Nittany Lion offense is that it's balanced. In a 16-12 victory over Boston College on Saturday, State gained 137 yards on the ground, 114 through the air. The defense is solid but lacks those man-eater types we have come to associate with ol' Linebacker U. What Penn State has are two excellent kickers—punter John Bruno and placekicker Massimo Manca.
"Penn State has won all year with the same philosophy," says BC coach Jack Bicknell. "They have a good defense and a great kicking game and an offense that doesn't turn the ball over." Has any unbeaten team in recent memory been so damned with faint praise?
So who can explain the 8-0 record and No. 2 ranking? "We're trying to shy away from talking about it," says defensive tackle Tim Johnson, "but maybe we're not sure ourselves."
This is a team that takes prisoners. Like Boston College, Syracuse fell by only four points. The Nittany Lions have beaten Maryland, Temple and Alabama by two points apiece and ripped those juggernauts from East Carolina and Rutgers by a touchdown each. Only against floundering West Virginia (27-0) did the Lions run away and hide. "We're not a real fancy football team," says coach Joe Paterno, "but we're a persistent football team."
Uh-huh. Sounds like the blind date with the proverbial good personality. And that's exactly what a bowl will get on New Year's Day, provided the Lions don't stumble in their final three games. There's no reason they should. Penn State finishes the regular season against Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Pitt. The memory of embarrassing year-ending losses to the Irish and the Panthers in '84 (the first time Penn State hadn't been to a bowl since 1970) has been the Lions' primary motivation this fall. As for Cincinnati, Lion quarterback John Shaffer wants to make a triumphant return to his hometown. It could be a runaway—take Penn State by at least a field goal.
No one is comparing this team to the Todd Blackledge-Curt Warner-Kenny Jackson 1982 national championship squad. "Nowhere near as much talent," says offensive guard Todd Moules, who was a backup defensive tackle on that team. Shaffer is no Blackledge, though he does have the same clean-cut image and penchant for the quote that smells like freshly baked apple pie. Here's Shaffer on Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust, under whom he played freshman and junior varsity ball at Moeller High: "He taught me a lot about the game of football, and a lot about the game of life." Nevertheless, Faust's recruiting pitch for the Irish ran second to Paterno's.
Shaffer, a junior, may turn out to be a pro prospect next year, but he's hardly turning heads this season. He has completed only 84 of 183 passes (45.9%) for 1,122 yards (about 140 per game) and thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (six). He has made some big plays, but missed on several others. A telling one occurred against BC in the third period, when he rolled right and saw freshman speedster Michael Timpson streaking alone behind the secondary. But Shaffer's hesitation in releasing the pass enabled safety Carl Pellegata to break it up. Actually, Paterno doesn't have Shaffer roll out much because he's not very mobile.
"But John's not a quarterback you can judge by stats," says Moules. "You've got to see him in the huddle, see in his eyes how much he wants to win." Moules must have something. Shaffer's record as a starting quarterback dating back to seventh grade is 51-0.
Facing a 12-3 deficit late in the third period against BC, Shaffer finally shook up the Lions' offense, which had been relentless only in its predictability. During the course of a 74-yard touchdown drive, he scrambled for 11 and nine yards, completed passes of five and eight yards to flanker Eric Hamilton and scored the TD himself on a one-yard sneak. Credit for the drive also belongs to Paterno, who on a fourth-and-one at his own 46 eschewed a punt and sent tailback D.J. Dozier on a weak-side sweep to the left. Dozier went 42 yards down to the Eagle 12. BC's defense was stacked in the middle, and Paterno will never be mistaken for Don Coryell, but he has always thought his offense should be able to get a yard. Even this offense.
The touchdown made the score 12-10, and early in the fourth quarter the Penn State defense put the Lions ahead to stay. On third-and-four from his own 26, BC quarterback Shawn Halloran looked for flanker Shawn Dombrowski over the middle, but Johnson, barreling in on what Penn State defenders call a "reckless rush," got a piece of the ball. It landed in the arms of Johnson's fellow tackle, Mike Russo, who lumbered 21 yards for his first touchdown ever. "It was like one of those dreams when your feet are stuck to the floor," said Russo. "But I made it."
Now trailing 16-12, the Eagles must have felt as if their feet were stuck to the floor, too. Every time they tried to get unpacked, a different Penn State defender smacked them down. First, end Bob White put a strong rush on Halloran, forcing him into a key intentional grounding call. On BC's next possession safety Ray Isom stretched his 5'9" frame to the limit to deflect a pass away from Kelvin Martin in the end zone. Finally, linebacker Rogers Alexander and hero back Michael Zordich high-lowed wide-out Darren Flutie at midfield to force a fumble, which linebacker Trey Bauer recovered with 2:46 remaining.
Another linebacker, Shane Conlan, made the big play in the early going with a hard tackle that forced BC fullback Ken Bell to fumble at the Lion one-yard line in the second quarter. "The idea on that play is to get your head on the ball," said Conlan. "Of course, I was lucky that he happened to fumble, but it wasn't luck that I planned the hit."
This is a team that always uses its head. And its heart. Penn State gets by on guile and guts. It does just enough. And in a year when no college football team is doing everything, just enough might be just enough.