Syracuse called the play on Monday, six days before the Orangemen were expected to continue an old habit, losing to Penn State. "No matter what," coach Dick MacPherson told Don McPherson, his senior quarterback, "on the first play throw the long ball." After 16 straight losses to the Nittany Lions, what did Syracuse have to lose?
The play that Mac ordered Mc to call was, in the Orange's terminology, a 38-409, a simple run-as-fast-as-you-can-fly pattern by freshman receiver Rob Moore. McPherson would give the Penn State defenders a peek at his forte, the option, by taking two steps to his right as if he was going to run, then drop back into the pocket and wing the ball to Moore. But there was a problem. As Syracuse went into the huddle for its first play from scrimmage after receiving the opening kickoff, Moore was standing on the sideline. In the noisy excitement of the Carrier Dome, before 50,000 fans unaccustomed to cheering for an undefeated team this far into the season, he had forgotten MacPherson's six-day-old strategy.
"Moore, get out there." yelled Ivan Fears, the receivers' coach.
Still, Moore wasn't certain. "Coach, are you sure he wants to call that play?"
October 26, 1987
Fears shoved Moore onto the field. Once there, Moore knew what to do. Flying out of the chute, he barreled past Brian Chizmar, Penn State's startled safety, who fell down, and past the back judge, who also fell down, gathered in McPherson's pass at the Nittany Lions' 35, and loped into the end zone. No Penn State defender was in the same Zip Code.
The play covered 80 yards in just 10 seconds, and it was as though, after a 16-year drought, the Orangemen had discovered a way to release the waters. Syracuse scored four more touchdowns and two field goals before the Lions put a point on the board, and went on to win 48-21. Against a porous Penn State defense, McPherson directed the option attack with aplomb, passed for three touchdowns and ran for two—which no doubt gave pause to pro football scouts who up until Saturday had thought him destined for NFL duty as a defensive back.
MacPherson and McPherson already knew there was magic in that opening play. Syracuse began its season against Maryland with the very same formation, a pro set with two flankers to the right. But instead of passing to a wide receiver against the Terps, McPherson had pitched back to halfback Robert Drummond, and he passed to Tommy Kane. That play picked up 55 yards, and Syracuse was on its way to a 25-11 victory and the 5-0 record it took in against Penn State, which is now 5-2.
"Even if a play like that doesn't work, it has an impact. It shows we're not backing off from anyone," says MacPherson. "We want the other team's defense to know it's going to see a lot of options."
By the middle of the third quarter the Orangemen led 41-0, which isn't bad for a team that had never before scored more than 28 points against the Nittany Lions. Penn State hadn't been beaten this badly by anyone since UCLA defeated them 49-11 in 1966. But then, this is not your typical hard-nosed Joe Paterno-style defense. Before being blasted by Syracuse, the Lions' largely inexperienced defenders had given up 94 points—even with a shutout of Cincinnati—and were being punished at the rate of 352 yards per game. Two of Paterno's veteran linebackers were sidelined with injuries. Pete Giftopoulos, the hero of last season's national championship-clinching Fiesta Bowl triumph, sat out against the Orange with a broken hand, and Trey Bauer, slowed by a pinched nerve in his neck for several weeks, didn't come in until the second quarter.
"Going into the game I was most concerned about the bomb," said Paterno, whose secondary is at least a step slower than he would like. "That's the best they have ever run the option against us. They refused to let us get at McPherson from the backside. He got around the corners, and we just didn't have the speed to stop him."
McPherson himself preferred to talk about his passing. "I had a lot to say to a lot of people out there today," he said. "I showed myself and everyone else that I could stay in the pocket and make things work. I showed that I could manipulate a defense."
George Young, the New York Giants' general manager, agreed with that assessment: "He was poised and collected, and he kept doing the right things. There was none of that running around and scrambling when things got out of hand. He threw it hard when it needed to be thrown hard, and he threw it soft when it needed to be soft."
McPherson's second touchdown pass, early in the second quarter, was fired into the teeth of a Penn State blitz. Settling under the center on third down at the Nittany Lions' 29-yard line, he read the eyes of the Penn State linebackers, considered his receiving options, then calmly lofted a pass to Kane who made a marvelous catch in the end zone. That made the score 20-0.
Any thought that the Lions were capable of playing catch-up was squashed on their next possession. Penn State, which had but one first down and 11 yards in total offense in the first quarter, now drove to the Syracuse 35, at which point quarterback Matt Knizner threw a pass intended for Michael Timpson in the end zone. As one official inexplicably lifted his arms to signal a touchdown, Syracuse cornerback Chris Ingram intercepted the ball.
For the Nittany Lions things then went from bad to ludicrous. With the Orangemen leading 34-0 in the third quarter, Penn State was caught by surprise as Syracuse fullback Daryl Johnston quick-kicked on third-and-eight. As the 68-yard punt was rolling to a stop at the Lion 20, Penn State safety Marques Henderson, who was positioned close to the football, launched a fierce but senseless block on halfback Robert Drummond. While doing so, he inadvertently kicked the ball. Drummond happily fell on it for a fumble recovery.
On the next play McPherson, trailed by Drummond, ran the option to the left. As Chizmar sped up from his safety position, McPherson faked a pitch. Taking the bait, Chizmar went for Drummond, and McPherson went for the end zone. That made it 41-0. Penn State was able to score in double figures only because MacPherson let a lot of his reserves see action.
The last time the Orangemen were 6-0 was in 1959, the year they went on to become national champions. No, no one at Syracuse is talking national title yet, but the win over the Lions did serve to alert the Carrier Dome faithful that the Orange may once again be more than a basketball power. "I'm just happy that people are now remembering that we play football," said Larry Kimball, the Syracuse sports information director.
They may soon have more to remember than that. With Pitt and Boston College the only threats left on the Orangemen's schedule, the school that produced illustrious running backs Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Jim Nance, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka and Joe Morris just might follow its running quarterback to a perfect season.