The Long, Long View
The folks who run the Texas State Fairgrounds didn't roll out any red carpets for Prairie View last Saturday afternoon. Unable to enter the Cotton Bowl, which is located on the fairgrounds, until the premises were vacated by Texas and SMU, who had played earlier in the day, the Panthers had to dock their team bus beneath an animal exhibit. There the Prairie View training staff spent the next 70 minutes taping up players as pigs, cows, ostriches and a small gathering of human stragglers looked on. "The first thing you learn at Prairie View is to persevere," said Panther trainer John Mayes with a sigh. "Someday, though, the sun's going to come out again."
Perhaps. But for now, losing hangs over Prairie View like a storm cloud. On Saturday the Panthers dropped their NCAA-record-breaking 51st straight game, to Grambling 64-0. The loss was less noteworthy for the lopsided score—the average margin of defeat during the streak, after all, is 37 points—than for the cruel manner in which it was punctuated. After the Tigers, who won their 399th game under coach Eddie Robinson, tacked on one final, meaningless touchdown as time expired, Grambling's holder for PATs, Chiron Apple-white, took it upon himself to run the ball in for a two-point conversion. "I'm not happy about it," said Prairie View interim coach Hensley Sapenter afterward, "but we have bigger problems."
Indeed, Sapenter, who is also the Panthers' athletic director, faces a far more pressing question: How much longer can this once proud program, a member of Division I-AA, survive without any athletic scholarships to offer? Sapenter hopes to raise more than $30,000 in the next year so that he can offer 30-40 grants-in-aid for the fall of 1996. That's an ambitious goal at a school that, because of budgetary restraints, has not had scholarships since '89. Sapenter, though, has made some strides: In the two months since he took over as coach, he has raised $30,000. Furthermore, his status as a Prairie View graduate has gone a long way toward placating frustrated alumni, who have felt increasingly isolated from the school in recent years.
Curiously, many Panther players remain unbowed by Prairie View's travails. "We're so close to winning, it's scary," said senior offensive lineman Maurice McGowan as the Panthers cleared out of the locker room on Saturday. "With a break here or there, I can see us winning five of our last six games."
A week before, they had looked like just another Top 10 bully running up the score in a 59-34 drubbing of overmatched Rutgers. But after their stunning 17-9 loss at home to Wisconsin last Saturday, this much became clear about Penn State's Nittany Lions: They're not the Florida State Seminoles or the Nebraska Cornhuskers, offensive juggernauts that seemingly can summon touchdowns on demand.
Despite their gaudy 12-0 finish, last season's Nittany Lions could best be described as a good team made great by three exceptional players: tailback Ki-Jana Carter, quarterback Kerry Collins and tight end Kyle Brady. But with the loss of those three, who were taken first, fifth and ninth, respectively, in the NFL draft, Penn State is now merely a good team with a reduced capacity for big plays. On Saturday the Lions, whose winning streak was snapped at 20, didn't score a first-half point and were held to under 100 yards on the ground for the first time in 46 games.
Taking his cue from Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, who regularly blitzed and stacked his defensive front with eight men in his Red Raiders' season-opening near-upset of Penn State, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez shrewdly stuck with an almost identical scheme. That rattled Collins's replacement, Wally Richardson, who was sacked four times, once more than Collins was all last season. And normally reliable receivers Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott dropped several balls, thus failing to take advantage of a mismatch against a young Badger secondary that until Saturday had been pocked with more holes than a wheel of Wisconsin Swiss cheese.
The loss most likely rubs the Nittany Lions out of the national-title picture. Not that coach Joe Paterno was totally unprepared for that eventuality. "Streaks don't go on forever," he said after the defeat. "Some fans might think they do, but they don't." But some of Paterno's players were less philosophical about the streak's end. Said senior guard Jeff Hartings, "I've had the number 29 embedded in my head for two years now. That's how many games in a row we would have won by the time I left here."