Turned out he had a point. "Ki-Jana was the best running back in college football in the last 20 years," said Paterno, which was hyperbolic but underscored the difficulty Paterno has had in replacing him. Collins was sacked five times last year; on Saturday, Richardson was sacked three times by a Red Raider defense that blitzed on virtually every down. Richardson, who was making his first start in three years, had to shake off a major case of nerves. "He was a little tight in the first quarter," said Nittany Lion senior guard Marco Rivera. "Make that the first half."
Moreover, Penn State's preseason had been disastrous. The Nittany Lions lost 6'7", 320-pound sophomore defensive tackle Floyd Wedderburn to a knee injury, and senior defensive tackle Eric Clair was suspended for two games as punishment for a summer DUI arrest. In addition, running back Stephen Pitts, who would have spelled Mike Archie, Carter's replacement, was sidelined indefinitely with a stress fracture of his right foot. To make matters worse, the third-string tailback, sophomore Ambrose Fletcher, was suspended from games while awaiting a Sept. 18 trial on charges of larceny by extortion and possession of a weapon in a vehicle near his hometown of New London, Conn.
Saturday's escape was facilitated in large part by senior wideout Bobby Engram, whose connection to 1994 is deeper than most of his teammates'. Engram roomed with Carter last year and dined on weekends with the Carter clan. He decided at the last moment to eschew the NFL draft, where he would have been a certain first-round pick, to return to Penn State for his senior year. "Absolutely, to win a national championship, the one we should have won last year," says Engram. He is Penn State's offensive leader, and his two fumbles in the first half led to two Texas Tech touchdowns and a 20-7 Red Raider lead at halftime.
In the second half Engram caught seven passes for 106 yards—"He literally wanted to get us back in the game by himself, and he darn near did," Paterno said after the Lions escaped with the win—and positioned Penn State for its third score, early in the fourth quarter, with a remarkable one-foot tap-down sideline catch at the Texas Tech three. After the Red Raiders' Tony Rogers kicked a 42-yard field goal to put Tech up 23-21 with 6:39 left, Engram caught three passes from Richardson, who completed his last 10 throws, to help set up Brett Conway's game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining. The impression left by these heroics was of a good team getting better as the game progressed. "I wanted to touch the ball and make big plays," Engram said. "Champions find a way to win, right? That's what we did."
Nebraska lost four members of the brilliant offensive line that led the way to the national title. The Cornhuskers plugged those spots—and how: In its season opener Nebraska ripped Oklahoma State for 671 yards and then blasted for another 666 against Michigan State.
Quarterback Tommie Frazier, who might have won the Heisman Trophy last year had he not missed eight games because of blood clots in his right leg, has returned a step sharper. When he suffered a deep thigh bruise in the second quarter of the win over Michigan State, Brook Berringer took over, as he did last year when Frazier was injured, and the Cornhusker machine kept humming. There is clearly tension between Frazier and Berringer, but its effect on the Nebraska operation is negligible.
Much the same can be said for the other controversies that have dogged the Cornhuskers throughout the early season. Even before Phillips was charged with misdemeanor assault and thrown off the team by coach Tom Osborne on Sunday, the NCAA was investigating the details of an auto lease arranged for him by Tina McElhannon, the owner of a West Covina, Calif., group home where Phillips lived in high school. The suspicion is that an agent may have helped finance the deal.
Last week Osborne also banned school newspaper reporters from practice for two days after the paper ran negative cartoons of Phillips and junior wingback Riley Washington. Washington is practicing but not playing while awaiting trial on a charge of attempted second-degree murder resulting from an Aug. 2 shooting in Lincoln.
What is impressive is that the Cornhuskers can lose Frazier and roll. They have lost Phillips and probably will roll. And after the arrests last weekend—Benning vehemently denied the allegations and Osborne kept him on the team—the Huskers will be beset by questions about the integrity of their program, and still they're likely to roll.
It was before Michigan State was crushed that Spartan coach Nick Saban called Nebraska "a program that's hitting on every cylinder." After the loss a chalkboard in the Michigan State locker room still bore the wishful pregame prediction: SEE THE BALL. M.S.U. 22, NEBRASKA 21.