Penn state football these days is a bit like Robert Conrad in that noxious battery commercial that appeared on TV a few years back. You remember it. Conrad glared at the camera, a battery perched on his shoulder: "I dare you to knock this off. C'mon, I dare you." The Nittany Lions have a similar attitude. We will run at you, they announce, and we will throw when you most expect it. Stop us if you can. C'mon, we dare you!
Since early last season, Penn State has spent a lot of time picking figurative batteries off the ground. The latest indignity suffered by the Lions, a 14-6 upset by Virginia at Beaver Stadium last Saturday, was their sixth defeat in their last seven games. Those numbers might compel Penn State coach Joe Paterno to face an uncomfortable conclusion: Either he's not attracting to State College the same caliber of talent he once did, or he's squandering that talent.
The loss to the Cavaliers was stunning for several reasons. Wondrous tailback Blair Thomas, whose absence from the Lions' lineup last season was the most frequently mentioned excuse for their 5-6 record—Penn State's first losing season in half a century—was back in uniform last Saturday. He rushed for a very respectable 86 yards against Virginia, but on only 13 carries. That was far too few for Thomas to make a significant contribution to the offense. Asked if he thought he had given Thomas too little work, Paterno pointed out that Thomas had also returned two punts. "He had plenty to do," said Paterno.
Others might disagree. As Bum Phillips liked to say during his days as coach of the Houston Oilers, when he would give the ball to Earl Campbell 30 times a game, "If you've got a big gun, shoot it."
September 17, 1989
Give Paterno credit, though. He accepted the blame for the Catastrophe of 1988. Speaking engagements and fundraisers had diverted his attention from coaching, he said. "I hadn't watched film with the staff the way I used to. My assistants didn't know exactly what I wanted, and I didn't know what they were doing all the time. I didn't have a good feel for the squad." This season, Paterno has flung himself into coaching with renewed fervor. He also said he had a feel for his '89 team.
And if that weren't enough to make Saturday's loss shocking, consider that it came against a Virginia club that, nine days earlier, had looked like an NAIA team in a 36-13 defeat by Notre Dame. "Surprising, shocking, embarrassing," said Penn State defensive tackle Rich Schonewolf after the Cavaliers had triumphed. "We've been talking for a long time about how we were going to turn it around. I guess that's all it was—talk."
Before the Virginia game there seemed to be reason for optimism. For one thing, quarterback Tom Bill, a good-natured, strong-armed junior with a penchant for big plays, was back in the lineup. Last year, Bill guided the Lions to a 2-0 record before dislocating his right kneecap and ending his season in a 21-16 loss-to Rutgers. Into the fray trotted freshman Tony Sacca, who earned praise for making the best of a bad situation. In a battle for the starting spot this season, Bill beat out Sacca.
But even if fourth-string quarterback Jay Paterno, the coach's son, had emerged from spring practice as the starter, Penn State might have made some preseason Top 20s. The reason: Thomas. Before blowing out his right knee in an informal practice in December 1987, Thomas had rushed for 1,414 yards, the third-best season total in the Nittany Lions' history. No wonder Paterno began moaning when the doctors started talking reconstructive surgery.
It was no one's fault. No one hit Thomas. "I just went to make a cut," he says, "and it sounded like someone cracking their knuckles." On Jan. 11, 1988, Thomas went under the knife and missed the entire '88 season. "Sitting out was tough, especially when we were struggling offensively," Thomas says. He hastily adds, "I'm not saying I could have changed the outcome."
He doesn't have to. Nittany Lions historians have already performed those calculations. Last week, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Steve Halvonik reckoned that with Thomas in the lineup, that 5-6 record would have been 7-4. What Halvonik didn't mention is that without a late blocked punt against Boston College and a valiant fourth-quarter defensive effort against Maryland, the Lions could have gone 3-7-1.
But with Thomas looking like his old self, the Penn State faithful figured that opponents would have to key on him, which would open up the passing lanes and enable the Lions to score more than the 12 points a game they averaged over the second half of last season. Nittany-ologists also took comfort in the Cycle Theory, noting that after Penn State's 1982 national championship, there followed two lean years, during which callow underclassmen gained strength and experience. The Lions went 11-1 in '85 and 12-0 in '86, when they again won the national title. Now that the '88 bunch had scraped bottom, Penn State would begin its inevitable ascent. The Lions were on schedule for a national title in the early '90s. Thomas's return could only accelerate the upswing.
With a decided disregard for the Cycle Theory, Virginia cornerback Kevin Cook intercepted Bill's second pass of the season. Eleven plays later, Cavalier quarterback Shawn Moore unhurriedly lofted a 24-yard rainbow toward wide-out Herman Moore (no relation), a high jumper who has cleared 7'2½". Herman outleaped defender Matt Baggett for a touchdown.
Nine minutes later, it was Moore-to-Moore in the back of the end zone for another score, and this time no one was within an area code of high-jumping Herman. "At times, it was as if we moved the ball at will," said Shawn Moore, who was seldom harried by Penn State's defensive line while he dissected the Lions' secondary.
On Penn State's third possession, Paterno sent out his second offensive unit. It was a hot—83° at game time—humid day, and the idea was to conserve the first unit's energy, even though the Lions were supposed to be in the best shape of their careers. "I personally wasn't tired," said Lions linebacker Brian Chizmar, who was also platooned. "But if Joe says we were tired, I guess we were tired." (Cavalier coach George Welsh didn't platoon his players, and as they mobbed one another after the win, none appeared to be suffering from exhaustion or dehydration.)
Paterno also platooned his quarterbacks, which prevented Bill and Sacca from establishing a rhythm. And Thomas, around whom the offense was presumably built, had only six carries in the first half, as Virginia took a 14-0 lead.
Early in the second half, Penn State fans were heartened by several Thomas highlight-film runs. But one Lions' drive stalled when Cavalier cornerback Tony Covington stripped wideout David Daniels of a sure first-down reception. Another sputtered when Bill overthrew wide receiver Terry Smith on the goal line. Thus, on its two deepest penetrations of the game, Penn State was held to two field goals by Ray Tarasi.
Even when the Lions spiced up their traditional power attack, they gained scant advantage. "Last year they marched up and down the field on us [in a 42-14 Penn State win] with screens and draws," said Virginia defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who played for Paterno in the late 1960s. This year the Cavaliers' defensive linemen and linebackers played softer, refusing to bite on the plays that hurt them a year ago. "They played us smart," Paterno said. No one returned the compliment.
With each loss, the murmurs around State College grow louder: The Lions are playing in a time warp; Paterno has failed to change with the times. That's certainly true. To succeed at Paterno's smashmouth style, hulking, overwhelming linemen are required. So, for Penn State, the most alarming aspect of Saturday's loss was that Virginia controlled the line of scrimmage. What happened to the superb linemen who once crowded the" Penn State campus? They've graduated to the NFL, and they haven't been replaced. Between 1979 and 1984, the Lions had 10 interior linemen selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft, including Keith Dorney, Bruce Clark, Mike Munchak, Sean Farrell and Leo Wisniewski. In the five drafts since, one Lion lineman has gone that high.
As Penn State regressed, its traditional competition closed the gap. Before the Lions start worrying about when the Cycle will deliver their next national title. they must reclaim supremacy in the East. A win over Rutgers on Oct. 7 would be an excellent start. In its last four games with Syracuse and West Virginia, Penn State is 1-3. Oh, yes, the Nittany Lions should also think about winning the state championship: They haven't beaten Pitt in two years.
"It wasn't that long ago that these schools just hoped to keep it respectable against us," laments Schonewolf. "Now they believe they can beat us. This [Virginia] loss wasn't like the Rutgers loss last year, when we were all kind of dead on the sideline before the game. We were pumped up and ready to play."
Paterno had seen to it. Fall camp had been more rigorous than any in recent memory. The 62-year-old Paterno was everywhere—demonstrating proper technique, riding the seven-man blocking sled, chewing players out as he had not done in years. Paterno admits he considered retiring after last season, but decided he could not walk away on such a sour note. On the eve of the opener, he said, "It's the best decision I ever made. I feel great. I can't wait to watch these kids play. I've never looked forward to an opener more."
Less than 24 hours later he was groping to explain the crushing loss. "I'm disappointed but not discouraged," he said. "There were some things we did pretty well." He did not elaborate.
Said Schonewolf, "I know the talent is here. It's just a matter of getting the most out of it. I'm getting tired of hearing how good we could be."
In thought and word, as they made their glum passage out of Beaver Stadium, thousands of Penn State fans seconded the motion.