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.