Posted: Wednesday December 29, 1999 01:16 AM
SAN ANTONIO (Ticker) -- Thoroughly embarrassed in its last three regular-season games, the defensive unit of Penn State had more than enough motivation to look like it was supposed to all season.
Sparked by linebacker LaVar Arrington, the 17th-ranked Nittany Lions turned in their most dominant defensive performance of the season and coasted to a 24-0 victory over No. 13 Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl.
Heralded as one of the top defensive teams coming into the season, Penn State never lived up to its billing and surrendered 90 points in losing its last three regular-season contests, squashing any hopes of a national championship.
But after more than a month off, the Nittany Lions had more than enough motivation on defense as defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who is retiring, was coaching his final game after 32 seasons at the school. He has been the defensive coordinator for the last 23 seasons.
Penn State (10-3) recorded its first shutout in a bowl game since a 7-0 blanking of Alabama in the 1959 Liberty Bowl.
Named the Butkus Award winner as the nation's best linebacker and also the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the top defensive player in the country, Arrington, a junior, had one of his best games of the season in what may have been in his final game.
Arrington applied heavy pressure on quarterback Randy McCown all night, hitting him on three plays that led to an interception each time. He finished with 14 tackles and one sack.
"It seemed like a Hollywood script," Arrington said. "We didn't get a shutout all year long. We got close a few times but we never got it. Then to finally get one and send Jerry out on that note, is great."
Senior safety Derek Fox had two of those interceptions, including returning one 34 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter that gave the Nittany Lions all the points they needed. Penn State had four interceptions and forced five turnovers overall.
It also was an historic night for Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who coached in his 30th bowl game, breaking the record previously held by legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant. Paterno is 20-9-1 in bowl games and the Nittany Lions improved to 23-11-2 all-time in the postseason.
Paterno also avoided his first four-game losing streak in his 34-year career.
With the defense doing their part, the Nittany Lions did not miss senior quarterback Kevin Thompson, who did not play due to a shoulder injury suffered in practice earlier this week.
Rashard Casey, who normally shares the quarterbacking duties with Thompson, tossed a touchdown pass in the first half and also scored on a four-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
McCown tied an Alamo Bowl record with four interceptions for Texas A&M (8-4), which continued to struggle in bowl games. The Aggies lost for the fifth time in their last six postseason appearances and fell to 12-13 overall in bowls.
Penn State made its defensive presence felt from the start. On the Aggies' first offensive possession, Arrington hit McCown and the ball was intercepted by junior cornerback David Macklin at the Texas A&M 40.
Travis Forney kicked a 39-yard field goal that would have given the Nittany Lions the lead. But Chris Taylor was called for running into the kicker, and the Nittany Lions took the points off the board and wound up with a first down at the 15.
Penn State could not move the ball and had to settle for a 30-yard attempt by Forney, who missed wide right this time.
McCown was once again harrassed into a mistake on the Aggies' next possession. Under heavy pressure on 3rd-and-20 from the 10, McCown threw his second interception and Fox picked it off at the 34. He raced untouched to the end zone, giving Penn State a 7-0 lead with 6:31 left in the first quarter.
McCown completed 13-of-22 passes for just 105 yards. His four interceptions tied the Alamo Bowl record set by Michael Bishop of Kansas State against Purdue last season.
Following the touchdown by Fox, the Aggies had one of their most effective drives, going 66 yards in 17 plays in just under nine minutes. But senior kicker Shane Lechler missed a 44-yard field goal.
Casey is known for his scrambling ability and made that pay off when the Nittany Lions got the ball back. He ran for 17 yards on 3rd-and-12 to get the ball into Aggies territory and on the next play connected with Eddie Drummond on a 48-yard scoring strike, making it 14-0 with 8:54 to play before halftime.
Casey, a junior who will be the first-string quarterback next season, got ready for that role by completing 8-of-16 passes for 146 yards with an interception. He also ran for 27 yards on seven attempts.
"I just went out and played the best I could at the time," Casey said. "I could've done some things better but overall I'm pleased with my performance. I was really excited but not really nervous because I played enough this year to be up to speed with the game."
Penn State's defense has been known to wear down in the second half this season and appeared to be doing so again on A&M's initial drive of the third quarter.
Led by the running of Ja'Mar Toombs and D'Andre Hardeman, the Aggies drove the ball inside the Penn State 15. But Arrington once again came up big on 3rd-and-7 play when he hit McCown's arm. Freshman linebacker Ron Graham benefited this time, picking it off at the 8.
That was the last real scoring threat for the Aggies, who managed just 248 total yards to 378 for Penn State.
"It was tough to stay positive after the way we started," McCown said. "We wanted to come out fast, but we made too many mistakes. We thought we would be OK in the second half, but turnovers killed us again. You can't turn the ball over as many times as we did and expect to win."
Texas A&M was blanked in a bowl for the first time since suffering a 20-0 loss to Southern California in the 1975 Liberty Bowl.
Toombs carried 19 times for 70 yards and Hardeman had 41 yards on 10 attempts.
"I thought the key to the game was the turnovers," Toombs said.
"At the beginning of the second half, we drove down field and needed it to punch it in, but we turned it over instead. That really took some wind out of our sails."
Arrington capped his brilliant night late in the third quarter, harassing McCown into his final interception. Fox picked off the ball at the Penn State 34. Casey capped the ensuing drive with a four-yard TD run just four seconds into the final period for a 21-0 cushion.
"I got a hand on every interception tonight," Arrington said.
"Everytime I got a chance, I would punch his arm when he would throw the football."
Bethal Johnson fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Shawn Mayer recovered on the 23. The Nittany Lions could not get into the end zone and had to settle for Forney's 39-yard field goal that provided the final margin.
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