One end zone was painted in the electric yellow and green of Oregon, the other in Penn State's deep blue. A giant rose straddled the 50-yard line on the floor of the Rose Bowl, opening its red petals to the clear Southern California sky. More than 102,000 spectators sat in the stadium, making noises that fans make, waving pom-poms that fans wave. All of this would seem to suggest that the Nittany Lions played the Ducks on Monday afternoon in the 81st Rose Bowl game, which resulted in Penn State's 12th victory of a splendid, perfect season. In truth, the Lions spent the day as they had spent the previous two months: chasing demons. Chasing voters they would never see, a team they would never play and a current of public sentiment that they were powerless to change.
The Penn State players' faith that college football's national championship selection process would somehow prove just in the end was crushed in the Orange Bowl on Sunday night as the Nittany Lions sat helplessly in their rooms at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Los Angeles, watching Nebraska beat Miami to leave Penn State locked in at No. 2.
This is the way it had been since Halloween weekend, when the Lions trashed Ohio State" 63-14 but dropped out of the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll that Penn State had claimed two weeks earlier with a victory over Michigan. Into the No. 1 spot went previously No. 3 Nebraska, a 24-7 winner over No. 2 Colorado that same weekend. On the Monday after that Ohio State game, linebacker Willie Smith walked through the Lion locker room, railing at the madness. "We dropped," Smith shouted. "Sixty-three to 14, and we dropped. What do they want us to do to these teams?"
Penn State stayed No. 1 in the USA Today/CNN poll, but that lasted only a week. On Nov. 5 in Bloomington, Ind., Penn State led 35-14 with 1:49 to play. Indiana subsequently scored twice against Penn State reserves, including a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. The final score was 35-29, and two days later the Lions fell to No. 2 in the coaches' poll, damned to chase Nebraska into January. "That was ridiculous," Lion coach Joe Paterno said before the Rose Bowl. "That game was never in doubt. Never. We had a bunch of kids in at the end that hadn't even practiced."
Having failed to gain a direct route to the title, Penn State tried retreating into that most reliable of cocoons: Focus on the game. Play Oregon. Forget about Nebraska. But at times the temptation to slap at the Cornhuskers proved irresistible. Last Friday two of the Lions' five All-Americas, wideout Bobby En-gram and tailback Ki-Jana Carter, loitered on the lawn outside their hotel. "They punished us for the Indiana game," Engram said of the pollsters. "Nebraska barely beat Iowa State [28-12]. Iowa State!"
Said Carter, "Nebraska had trouble with Oklahoma [13-3]. I watched Oklahoma last night [in a 31-6 Copper Bowl loss to Brigham Young]. Man, Oklahoma sucks."
Even Paterno himself, who promised to avoid mudslinging and politicking, felt compelled to speak up. "I like to watch college football games," he said. "I watched Boston College beat Kansas State, I watched BYU beat Oklahoma...two teams [that Nebraska beat] that were supposedly tougher than anybody we played."
So on Monday afternoon, another perfect day for the esteemed but usually irrelevant Rose Bowl, Penn State beat Oregon 38-20. The Nittany Lions, perhaps deflated by Nebraska's victory and surely surprised by the Ducks' tenacity, were something less than spectacular. Still, nothing happened to diminish Penn State's claim to the title. "The least they could do is split it two ways," said Carter. "Nebraska is a great team. I know everybody feels sorry for Tom Osborne, but I've never won a national championship either."
What pained the Nittany Lions most about falling short was that they felt imbued with destiny. Penn State's fourth-year class included Carter (who is likely to forgo his final year of eligibility), Engram (who is thinking about doing the same), Smith, tailback Mike Archie and offensive linemen Marco Rivera, Jeff Hartings, Keith Conlin and Andre Johnson—all of whom came to Penn State with high expectations. "When we were freshmen, we got together and said the one thing we want to do is go undefeated and win a national championship," said Archie. The plan was reiterated last January, in a players-only team meeting several days after the Lions' 31-13 upset of Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Quarterback Kerry Collins began the meeting by saying, "We're so close to something special...."
That something special almost happened. So if an imperfect system won't call Penn State the champion, Paterno will do it himself. "If somebody else doesn't want to say we're national champions, we'll say it," he said. "I might put a sign up in the stadium—NATIONAL CHAMPIONS 1982-86-94. It's my word against somebody else's."