The Miami Hurricanes may yet run into a clutch kicker this season. Until they do, they will have the inside track in the race for the national championship. For the third straight week Miami's winning streak, which now stands at 23, survived because of the vagaries of the human instep. On Sept. 26, Arizona's Steve McLaughlin barely missed a 51-yard field goal as time expired that would have given the Wildcats a 10-8 win over the Hurricanes, and a week later Florida State's Dan Mowrey missed a 39-yarder with eight seconds to go that would have tied the score at 19-19.
Last Saturday it was Craig Fayak of Penn State who had to endure a cross-examination from the press after Miami beat the Nittany Lions 17-14 in State College, Pa. Fayak, a junior who had converted five of seven field goal tries coming into the game, had his first attempt, a 48-yarder in the opening quarter, blocked. Shortly after pulling his second attempt, a 20-yard chip shot, wide left early in the second quarter, Fayak grabbed his lower back, apparently in pain. How bad was his back? "I'm not making excuses," he said after the game. "Right now we think it's just an inflammation of the nerves." One way or another then, nerves had something to do with Fayak's performance.
Go ahead and wrinkle your nose at the ugliness of the Hurricanes' last three wins. Against Penn State, Miami quarterback Gino Torretta completed only 11 of 31 passes (three were dropped), and over the Hurricanes' last two games he is 31 for 79. Miami coach Dennis Erickson could care less. Since the beginning of last season, he points out, "Gino is 17-0."
Sorry, Washington, Miami is the best team in the country. Miami's win over fifth-ranked Penn State, coming seven days after its victory over then No. 3 Florida State, leaves room for no other conclusion. Has any other team ever defeated tougher foes on successive Saturdays?
Stereotypes took a beating in State College. Lion coach Joe Paterno's altar boys were penalized nine times for 77 yards, while those Miami renegades were flagged only twice for 24. "Their linemen were the best holders I've ever played against," said Hurricane defensive end Kevin Patrick. "[Quarterback John] Sacca called me every dirty name there is. And people in the stands—I'm talking grandmothers—they could curse too. You know what it says on license plates here: 'YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND IN PENNSYLVANIA'? They need to change those plates."
You could hardly blame the Penn State faithful for acting surly. Three lousy points separated the Nittany Lions from the possibility of winning the national title for the first time since 1986. Incidentally, that last title was sealed with Penn State's 14-10 upset of Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Would that game inspire the current batch of Nittany Lions? "Actually," said guard John Gerak last Thursday, "I'm sick of hearing about it."
"It's been covered pretty thoroughly this week," said tackle Todd Rucci, somewhat more delicately.
It is not surprising that the current Penn State players feel less than nostalgic about the good old days at their school. Paterno regularly bends their ears with they-were-giants-in-those-days lectures. By now every Lion defensive player knows that defensive tackle Mike Reid, Penn State '70, who went on to star with the Cincinnati Bengals, "played at 250 pounds and was tougher than all of you," and that linebacker Shane Conlan, '87, who's with the Buffalo Bills, "would never miss a practice."
The players take their revenge in subtle ways. During calisthenics on hot August days, Gerak might quip, as Paterno walks by, "I guess Mike Reid would have loved this kind of weather, huh, coach?"
Does Paterno laugh? "Sometimes," said Gerak.
That's proof perhaps that Paterno, 65, is lightening up in his dotage. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in June 1990—the Lion football team will begin conference play next fall—athletic director Jim Tarman has noticed "a spring in his step." Paterno, who has said he will coach until he is 70, has a fresh grail to pursue: a victory in the Rose Bowl. And his program is once again on the ascent.
After going 5-6 in 1988—Penn State's first losing record in 50 years—the Nittany Lions dropped eight games over the next three seasons and finished the '91 season ranked No. 3. Key to the resurgence has been an influx of very fast players. Following the '88 debacle, Paterno signed O.J. McDuffie, a wideout and kick returner who caught a touchdown pass and gained 187 all-purpose yards against Miami. Richie Anderson, who rushed for 116 yards on Saturday, came aboard in '89. The '91 crop included four of the nation's top schoolboy running backs: Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter, J.T Morris and Stephen Pitts. Awash in sprinters, Penn State frequently lines up in a one-back, three-receiver formation that the Paterno of three years ago would have dismissed as a gimmick.
As some traditions, like the Lions' legacy as a major independent, go by the wayside, others are born. Sacca's older brother, Tony, was thrown into the fire against Temple in 1988. A true freshman at the time, Tony became the starting quarterback because Tom Bill and Lance Lonergan were out with injuries. In August, John Sacca, a redshirt sophomore, was named the starting quarterback after Kerry Collins, who had won the job in the spring, broke his right index finger in a picnic volleyball game.
Comparing the Saccas is a favorite parlor game in State College. Let us play. Whereas Tony was 6'5" and 225 pounds and had a rifle arm, his 6'2", 200-pound brother is less gifted physically. Paradoxically, not having Tony's physical tools has helped John, because he seems to have a better understanding of his limitations than did Tony, who tended to force throws. In leading the Lions to victories over Cincinnati, Temple, Eastern Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers this season, John threw 83 passes without an interception. Against Rutgers he completed 21 of 37 throws for 303 yards. Only two Penn State quarterbacks had ever passed for 300 or more yards, and Tony wasn't one of them. After the game an incredulous Tony, who's now with the Phoenix Cardinals, asked John, "How the hell did you get Paterno to let you throw 37 times?"
Penn State's exhibition season ended with the arrival of the Hurricanes, and so did Sacca's streak of passes without an interception. Late in the third quarter, with the Lions on their own 36-yard line. Hurricane linebacker Jessie Armstead blitzed. Because the play was a screen pass, Penn State tackle Greg Huntington planted a halfhearted chuck on the shoulder pad of the charging Armstead, who nearly climbed inside Sacca's face mask. "I almost sacked him," he said later.
In this case, almost was a blessing for Miami, because the Hurricane offense was utterly confounded by the Lion defense, mustering only 70 yards, six first downs and zero points in the second half. Sacca got the pass off, and defensive end Darren Krein seized the wounded duck and returned it for the decisive touchdown. Ninety-six thousand people have never been quieter. "Everyone was just sitting there looking at me," said Krein. "It was weird."
This would not be the last time the Miami defense would silence the crowd. On the next series, with Penn State facing third-and-two on the Miami 19, Sacca tried to force a throw to McDuffie. The pass fell incomplete after nearly being picked off by linebacker Rohan Marley. That set up Fayak's third field goal try of the day, from 36 yards. The kick was wide left, but Miami was offside, and the Lions got a first down and new life.
Two runs by Anderson, separated by an incomplete pass to McDuffie, left Penn State facing fourth-and-one on the five. Paterno's call: a toss sweep to the short side of the field. Anderson ran out of room in a hurry and turned inside just in time to give linebacker Micheal Barrow—arriving from the far side of the field—a full frontal view of his numbers. Barrow used them for a bull's-eye and stuffed Anderson for no gain. Miami's ball.
Why handicap your running back by asking him to turn the corner in tight confines? Paterno explained that he had wanted his backs to steer clear of Barrow. Oh. Sacca would lead the Nittany Lions to a touchdown on their next possession to cut Miami's lead to 17-14, but Penn State's failure to score on the previous series was crucial.
Barrow, Armstead and Darrin Smith, three linebackers who are as good as any trio ever fielded by Paterno at Linebacker U, sat in a triangle in the visitors' dressing room after the game. While Barrow recounted his heroics for one knot of reporters, Armstead recalled the pressure he had put on Sacca for another group of scribes. Smith, who had merely made six tackles and batted down four passes, drew a smaller crowd.
This threesome, who may be reunited in a future Pro Bowl, had anchored a defense that carried the offense through one of the toughest weeks in college football history. Indeed, Smith sounded more reasonable than cheeky when he said, "This season, we're Linebacker U."
Any arguments? Take them up with Barrow, Armstead and Smith. And good luck.