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But with Thomas looking like his old self, the Penn State faithful figured that opponents would have to key on him, which would open up the passing lanes and enable the Lions to score more than the 12 points a game they averaged over the second half of last season. Nittany-ologists also took comfort in the Cycle Theory, noting that after Penn State's 1982 national championship, there followed two lean years, during which callow underclassmen gained strength and experience. The Lions went 11-1 in '85 and 12-0 in '86, when they again won the national title. Now that the '88 bunch had scraped bottom, Penn State would begin its inevitable ascent. The Lions were on schedule for a national title in the early '90s. Thomas's return could only accelerate the upswing.
With a decided disregard for the Cycle Theory, Virginia cornerback Kevin Cook intercepted Bill's second pass of the season. Eleven plays later, Cavalier quarterback Shawn Moore unhurriedly lofted a 24-yard rainbow toward wide-out Herman Moore (no relation), a high jumper who has cleared 7'2�". Herman outleaped defender Matt Baggett for a touchdown.
Nine minutes later, it was Moore-to-Moore in the back of the end zone for another score, and this time no one was within an area code of high-jumping Herman. "At times, it was as if we moved the ball at will," said Shawn Moore, who was seldom harried by Penn State's defensive line while he dissected the Lions' secondary.
On Penn State's third possession, Paterno sent out his second offensive unit. It was a hot—83� at game time—humid day, and the idea was to conserve the first unit's energy, even though the Lions were supposed to be in the best shape of their careers. "I personally wasn't tired," said Lions linebacker Brian Chizmar, who was also platooned. "But if Joe says we were tired, I guess we were tired." (Cavalier coach George Welsh didn't platoon his players, and as they mobbed one another after the win, none appeared to be suffering from exhaustion or dehydration.)
Paterno also platooned his quarterbacks, which prevented Bill and Sacca from establishing a rhythm. And Thomas, around whom the offense was presumably built, had only six carries in the first half, as Virginia took a 14-0 lead.
Early in the second half, Penn State fans were heartened by several Thomas highlight-film runs. But one Lions' drive stalled when Cavalier cornerback Tony Covington stripped wideout David Daniels of a sure first-down reception. Another sputtered when Bill overthrew wide receiver Terry Smith on the goal line. Thus, on its two deepest penetrations of the game, Penn State was held to two field goals by Ray Tarasi.
Even when the Lions spiced up their traditional power attack, they gained scant advantage. "Last year they marched up and down the field on us [in a 42-14 Penn State win] with screens and draws," said Virginia defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who played for Paterno in the late 1960s. This year the Cavaliers' defensive linemen and linebackers played softer, refusing to bite on the plays that hurt them a year ago. "They played us smart," Paterno said. No one returned the compliment.
With each loss, the murmurs around State College grow louder: The Lions are playing in a time warp; Paterno has failed to change with the times. That's certainly true. To succeed at Paterno's smashmouth style, hulking, overwhelming linemen are required. So, for Penn State, the most alarming aspect of Saturday's loss was that Virginia controlled the line of scrimmage. What happened to the superb linemen who once crowded the" Penn State campus? They've graduated to the NFL, and they haven't been replaced. Between 1979 and 1984, the Lions had 10 interior linemen selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft, including Keith Dorney, Bruce Clark, Mike Munchak, Sean Farrell and Leo Wisniewski. In the five drafts since, one Lion lineman has gone that high.
As Penn State regressed, its traditional competition closed the gap. Before the Lions start worrying about when the Cycle will deliver their next national title. they must reclaim supremacy in the East. A win over Rutgers on Oct. 7 would be an excellent start. In its last four games with Syracuse and West Virginia, Penn State is 1-3. Oh, yes, the Nittany Lions should also think about winning the state championship: They haven't beaten Pitt in two years.
"It wasn't that long ago that these schools just hoped to keep it respectable against us," laments Schonewolf. "Now they believe they can beat us. This [ Virginia] loss wasn't like the Rutgers loss last year, when we were all kind of dead on the sideline before the game. We were pumped up and ready to play."