Drenched to his eyeballs by last Saturday's daylong tropical
rain and facing desperate circumstances, Penn State coach Joe
Paterno wasted neither time nor syllables in selecting a
quarterback to save his team's season. He turned to his left,
where senior Kevin Thompson and junior Rashard Casey stood side
by side in the mist. "I'm going to go with Thompson," Paterno
said, and with those six words, Casey stepped back and Thompson
stepped forward. Paterno put a hand on Thompson's shoulder and
sent him into the game.
Seventy-nine yards of scarred Orange Bowl turf separated the
Nittany Lions from the field goal that would tie Miami or the
touchdown that would beat the Hurricanes, who had taken a 23-20
lead with 7:42 to go. Now only 1:52 remained. A loss would
severely wound either team's national championship hopes.
Thompson took his place at the point of Penn State's huddle, his
back to the closed end of the stadium, where a solid wall of
Miami fans was already in full-on celebration of the Hurricanes'
imminent return to glory. Thompson broke Penn State's huddle and
walked to the line of scrimmage. Briefly he looked right, then
left, before smacking his hands against center Francis Spano's
butt, demanding the ball.
Two-quarterback systems have cropped up all across college
football through the early weeks of this season (box, page 51).
At least 15 teams have failed to settle on a full-time
signal-caller, violating one of the game's credos. They've ended
up this way because neither quarterback is good enough to start
(as at Syracuse) or because both are (Arizona). They're
prolonging a preseason competition that was never resolved (Ohio
State) or keeping a future starter happy (Michigan). Yet no team
has done it more controversially, more confoundingly or with
more at stake than Penn State.
The quarterback issue has simmered in Happy Valley since
one-year starter Mike McQueary's eligibility ended after the
1997 season. Thompson and Casey shared the position early last
year, but from midseason on the job belonged to Thompson, who
struggled as a first-time starter on a team that finished 9-3
and scored a total of 12 points in Big Ten losses to Ohio State,
Michigan and Wisconsin. He was booed at home. He was booed after
being introduced at a Penn State basketball game. He was booed
during the spring game in April. "He's been given some pretty
rough treatment, especially considering he's just a college
athlete," says his father, Vince. Four days before the game
against Miami, Kevin sat in a quiet corner of the Penn State
locker room and assessed his reputation: "People hate me."
September 26, 1999
Nittany Lions fans, meanwhile, grew hungry for more of Casey. He
completed only 18 passes a year ago, yet he was what every
skilled backup quarterback represents: greener grass. He had to
be better than Thompson, the Penn State faithful reasoned.
The glaring differences between Thompson and Casey--athletic and
otherwise--only made the controversy richer. Thompson is a 6'5",
230-pound quarterback straight from central casting, raised in
the Washington, D.C., suburbs by a cop (Vince, retired from the
Montgomery County, Md., force) and a police secretary (Alana).
The 6'1", 197-pound Casey was raised by a single mother
(Barbara) in the projects of Hoboken, N.J., and now is raising a
2 1/2-year-old son, Rashard Jr., with the child's mother,
Melodie Alvarado, who is Casey's longtime girlfriend and also a
student at Penn State. Little Rashard wears a miniature number
12 Nittany Lions' jersey to home games. "The two guys, Kevin and
Rashard, are like night and day," says Penn State senior
fullback Aaron Harris.
Thompson kicks it with offensive linemen and works the locker
room, dispensing props and digs in equal quantity (though to the
public he's polite to the point of stiffness). Casey hangs with
the so-called Virginia Boys--safety James Boyd, wideout Bruce
Branch and linebacker Eric Sturdifen, all citizens of the
Commonwealth--and floats among his other teammates like a ghost.
Early in Casey's career the Penn State coaches had to tell him
to slow down his speech in the huddle, because his rapid-fire
Jersey banter was incomprehensible to some of the Lions. To
complete the picture, Thompson is white, Casey is black. Both
are popular, yet, says junior linebacker LaVar Arrington, "Half
the guys in the locker room would like to see Kevin play all the
time and half would like to see Rashard play all the time. We'll
play hard for either one of them, and the important thing is to
win, but guys have their favorite."
The quarterback issue appeared to have died in April when
Thompson won the starting job during spring practice and was
voted offensive captain. Yet Paterno gave Casey quality snaps in
season-opening wins over Arizona and Akron, and it was Casey who
directed a slick first-quarter drive that jump-started Penn
State's offense in a 20-17 win over Pitt on Sept. 11 (before
Thompson guided the Lions to the game-winning field goal). Their
skills are as divergent as their personalities. Thompson is
slower afoot but reliable. Casey is elusive but unpredictable.
"Casey is the one who scares us to death," said Miami coach
Butch Davis before the Hurricanes played Penn State. "He might
throw a couple of passes to us, but he might make some real big
plays, too. I'd just as soon not see him play at all."
Both have been asked to run an offense that was too simple to be
effective a year ago--when Paterno relied on his defense to win
games--and is now fairly sophisticated. Further complicating
matters, Paterno will often usurp play-calling from offensive
coordinator Fran Ganter in the middle of the game. It's a
delicate situation. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden kept his
hand in the play-calling mix in a similar way until 1996, when
coordinator Mark Richt told Bowden that he was messing up his
sequences. "That's what Fran tells me," Paterno says. "He
doesn't like it. But I don't want to reach the point where I
can't be involved." Ganter says, "We're all aiming for the same
thing. Besides, it's Joe's football team."
After Paterno played Casey for just 17 snaps (to Thompson's 58)
in the ugly victory over Pittsburgh, some outsiders inferred
that he was phasing out Casey. After all, in his 33 previous
years of coaching the Nittany Lions he'd never used two
quarterbacks. "We had Todd Blackledge and Jeff Hostetler here at
the same time [in 1980]," says Ganter. "They were clones, and
they were both good, but Joe picked one guy then." Yet Paterno
was angry at himself for limiting Casey's work against Pitt. "I
should have played him more," he said two days before the Miami
game. "These two kids are very equal in ability. Thompson has
more experience, but I've got to find more time for Casey. I'll
play him more against Miami."
He made good on the promise. Thompson directed the first two
series, during which Penn State took a 3-0 lead. Casey took over
the next two, losing a fumble on one and throwing a 49-yard
touchdown pass to senior wideout Chafie Fields on the next,
stretching the Nittany Lions' lead to 10-0. Thompson played the
entire second quarter, but Casey was back in midway through the
third. With the game tied at 17, Casey went 72 yards on a
spectacular scramble that was wiped out by a clipping penalty.
One series later he directed a nine-play, 66-yard drive that
ended with Travis Forney's 26-yard field goal, putting Penn
State ahead 20-17 with 10:40 to play. "My best game since high
school," said Casey after having been on the field for 30 plays,
to Thompson's 36. In short the two quarterbacks were equally
responsible for keeping the Lions in the game, and for giving
Thompson his one last shot.
For the first play of the deciding series, Penn State called 190
X-out. On the right side split end Eddie Drummond would run a
slant, while slot receiver Eric McCoo would find an open spot in
the flat. On the left side of the field Fields was to run a short
out. It was the first step in what Paterno hoped would be a
methodical drive that might culminate in a tying field goal as
time ran out, forcing overtime.
Thompson, however, saw something when he reached the line of
scrimmage. "I looked at Eddie, and the corner was backing up,"
Thompson recalled after the game. "Then I looked at Chafie and
saw that the corner was rolled up on him." Thompson and Fields
made eye contact, and instantly knew what adjustment to make.
Fields would ditch the original route and instead run a go
pattern, trying to beat sophomore cornerback Mike Rumph deep. On
the Miami sideline flamboyant former Hurricanes wideout Lamar
Thomas chewed nervously on a T-shirt emblazoned with THE SWAGGER
IS BACK, aware of the risk Miami was taking in playing
bump-and-run with the game on the line.
Fields, a fifth-year senior who came to the line with 62 career
catches, saw Rumph in his face and thought, Touchdown. On the
Penn State sideline senior safety Derek Fox, who has covered
Fields in countless practices, thought, "No way this guy jams
Chafie." On the snap Thompson took a five-step drop, turned his
body to the left and threw a rainbow into the night. Linebacker
Dan Morgan, free on a blitz, planted him on his back. Only the
muffled roar from one small corner of the stadium told Thompson
that Fields had caught his throw and raced along the Penn State
sideline for a touchdown.
Moments after the 27-23 victory, Penn State players streamed into
their cramped dressing room under the west end zone. They
screamed, "We Are! Penn State!" until their throats burned, and
then many of them wept. "There was more emotion than I've ever
seen in our locker room," said Fox. Fields was given a game ball.
Thompson came away with more valuable gifts: the respect of his
teammates and, lord knows, the Nittany Lion Nation, for summoning
the cojones to make the biggest throw of his life in a most
In a hallway outside the locker room, Kevin spotted his father.
They walked toward each other and then embraced. Vince pushed
his son back to arm's length and said, "Great, great game."
Kevin nodded, lips pursed, eyes blinking. Not 10 feet away,
Casey slipped past. "It was killing me not to go in on that last
series," he said, "but I was pulling for Kevin."
Casey hopped gingerly over a puddle and walked down a long tunnel
toward the team bus. He was alone, because there can be only one
hero quarterback. At a time.
No other team is splitting its quarterback duties as
successfully as second-ranked Penn State. In fact, after
rotating a pair of signal-callers, Nebraska and UCLA have
already settled on one. But a number of schools are still
shuttling passers, and here's how 10 of those teams were faring
heading into Saturday's action.
TEAM RECORD QUARTERBACKS IS IT WORKING?
Michigan 3-0 Tom Brady (Sr.), Drew Henson (So.) Yes
Brady saved win over Notre Dame; Yankees farmhand Henson threw
for 151 yards while playing last three quarters against Syracuse
Ohio State 2-1 Steve Bellisari (So.), Austin Moherman (So.) Yes
Bellisari has started last two games and seems to be edging
ahead, but coach John Cooper won't name a single starter
Missouri 2-0 Jim Dougherty (So.), Kirk Farmer (Fr.) Jury's Out
Near identical stats after defeats of UAB and Western Michigan:
Dougherty, 15 of 26 for 142 yards; Farmer, 15 of 27 for 177
Oklahoma 2-1 B.J. Tiger (So.), Ben Bowling (Fr.) Jury's
Coach Bob Simmons didn't want it this way, but starter Tony
Lindsay was hurt in the opener and may miss another four games
Syracuse 2-1 Madei Williams (So.), Troy Nunes (Fr.) Jury's Out
Both got a shot early in the two opening games; Williams was
more effective in the loss to Michigan last Saturday
Alabama 2-1 Andrew Zow (So.), Tyler Watts (Fr.) End in Sight
Coach Mike DuBose says Zow is the Man--he took most of the snaps
in upset loss to Louisiana Tech--but Watts will still play
Kansas 1-2 Zac Wegner (Sr.), Dylen Smith (Jr.) End in Sight
Given last week's 51-17 loss to Colorado, the Jayhawks might soon
settle on Smith, the better passer, as the starter
Pittsburgh 2-1 John Turman (Jr.), David Priestley (So.) End in
Priestley started Game 1 but played one series in last week's
win over Kent; coach Walt Harris wants one starter and that's
likely to be Turman
Arizona 2-2 Keith Smith (Sr.), Ortege Jenkins (Jr.) No
Smith and Jenkins rotated last year; despite the Wildcats' slow
start and loss at Stanford last Saturday, change isn't imminent
California 1-1 Samuel Clemons (So.), Kyle Boller (Fr.) No
Clemons and Boller have combined for just 208 yards passing on
18 completions in two games, with two interceptions and one
Four days before the game, Thompson sat in a quiet corner of the
Penn State locker room and assessed his reputation: "People hate
"Casey might throw a couple of passes to us, but he might make
some real big plays, too," Davis said. "I'd just as soon not see
him play at all."