Blame me, said Paterno. "I'm the guy that gets credit when we win. When we lose, I ought to get the criticism."
A few people took him at his word. A letter to the State College newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, proposed that someone kidnap Paterno on game day. A caller on a radio phone-in show brayed an obscenity about Paterno. "Nobody's out demanding his resignation or anything," said Nittany Lions sports information director Budd Thalman last week, but the sniping was a reminder that every Eden has its serpents.
The mood was considerably more upbeat in Morgantown. West Virginia has never gone unbeaten and untied in its 95 seasons of playing football, and the ease with which the Mountaineers rolled over their first seven opponents had fans giddy from Wheeling to White Sulphur Springs. Of course, West Virginia's schedule had been less than rigorous, but the Mountaineers were winning big not only over the likes of Bowling Green (62-14) and Cal State-Fullerton (45-10) but also against tougher Pitt, which became just another victim—31-10—of a juggernaut that went into the game against Penn State with an average of 485.7 total yards a game, fifth best in the country, and a young star, Harris, who can both pass (18.6 yards a completion) and run (5.2 yards a carry).
West Virginia viewed the game as a chance to certify itself as the power in the East and a contender for the national title. And signs all over Morgantown proclaimed: HONK IF YOU HATE PENN STATE.
Unfortunately, things got out of hand at the game. With less than a minute and a half left and Penn State driving, some West Virginia fans began dropping to the field from an eight-foot wall to the right of the north goalpost. A yellow smoke bomb interrupted play. A couple of fans stopped the game twice more by racing across the field. And after Lions relief quarterback Lance Lonergan was sacked on fourth down with 49 seconds left, the mob surged forward, toppled the goalpost and seized the field.
In 1984 Paterno had pulled his team off the field in West Virginia with 35 seconds left, and he did it again this time, fending off a state cop with an elbow and running a gantlet of name-calling youths on his way to the locker room. "I just thought it was a stupid end to a football game," he said.
The victors agreed. "I'm really down on the fans for that," said Mountaineer center Kevin Koken. "It was terrible."
But if the fans' rowdiness, which was witnessed by a national television audience and scouts from eight bowl committees, embarrassed many West Virginians, no blame could be hung on their football team, which has proved that it's anything but an embarrassment to the home folks.
"I think we proved something by beating Penn State on national TV," shouted Harris in the noisy locker room. The 6'1", 215-pound Harris, for one, proved that while to this point the Heisman race has been run on the shores of the Pacific, voters would be well-advised to consider him, though he is a mere sophomore. He can throw short, long and longer, and at times he runs like the only other Heisman candidate from east of L.A., tailback Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State.
Against a Nittany Lion defense that the week before had held Alabama to eight points and 309 yards, Harris guided the Mountaineers to 421 yards of total offense in the first half. One of his two touchdown passes, a 49-yard fly pattern connection to split end Calvin Phillips, traveled at least 55 yards in the air. "Sometimes it seems he's throwing the ball from here to Pittsburgh," said Nehlen afterward.