Penn state football these days is a bit like Robert Conrad in that noxious battery commercial that appeared on TV a few years back. You remember it. Conrad glared at the camera, a battery perched on his shoulder: "I dare you to knock this off. C'mon, I dare you." The Nittany Lions have a similar attitude. We will run at you, they announce, and we will throw when you most expect it. Stop us if you can. C'mon, we dare you!
Since early last season, Penn State has spent a lot of time picking figurative batteries off the ground. The latest indignity suffered by the Lions, a 14-6 upset by Virginia at Beaver Stadium last Saturday, was their sixth defeat in their last seven games. Those numbers might compel Penn State coach Joe Paterno to face an uncomfortable conclusion: Either he's not attracting to State College the same caliber of talent he once did, or he's squandering that talent.
The loss to the Cavaliers was stunning for several reasons. Wondrous tailback Blair Thomas, whose absence from the Lions' lineup last season was the most frequently mentioned excuse for their 5-6 record—Penn State's first losing season in half a century—was back in uniform last Saturday. He rushed for a very respectable 86 yards against Virginia, but on only 13 carries. That was far too few for Thomas to make a significant contribution to the offense. Asked if he thought he had given Thomas too little work, Paterno pointed out that Thomas had also returned two punts. "He had plenty to do," said Paterno.
Others might disagree. As Bum Phillips liked to say during his days as coach of the Houston Oilers, when he would give the ball to Earl Campbell 30 times a game, "If you've got a big gun, shoot it."
Give Paterno credit, though. He accepted the blame for the Catastrophe of 1988. Speaking engagements and fundraisers had diverted his attention from coaching, he said. "I hadn't watched film with the staff the way I used to. My assistants didn't know exactly what I wanted, and I didn't know what they were doing all the time. I didn't have a good feel for the squad." This season, Paterno has flung himself into coaching with renewed fervor. He also said he had a feel for his '89 team.
And if that weren't enough to make Saturday's loss shocking, consider that it came against a Virginia club that, nine days earlier, had looked like an NAIA team in a 36-13 defeat by Notre Dame. "Surprising, shocking, embarrassing," said Penn State defensive tackle Rich Schonewolf after the Cavaliers had triumphed. "We've been talking for a long time about how we were going to turn it around. I guess that's all it was—talk."
Before the Virginia game there seemed to be reason for optimism. For one thing, quarterback Tom Bill, a good-natured, strong-armed junior with a penchant for big plays, was back in the lineup. Last year, Bill guided the Lions to a 2-0 record before dislocating his right kneecap and ending his season in a 21-16 loss-to Rutgers. Into the fray trotted freshman Tony Sacca, who earned praise for making the best of a bad situation. In a battle for the starting spot this season, Bill beat out Sacca.
But even if fourth-string quarterback Jay Paterno, the coach's son, had emerged from spring practice as the starter, Penn State might have made some preseason Top 20s. The reason: Thomas. Before blowing out his right knee in an informal practice in December 1987, Thomas had rushed for 1,414 yards, the third-best season total in the Nittany Lions' history. No wonder Paterno began moaning when the doctors started talking reconstructive surgery.
It was no one's fault. No one hit Thomas. "I just went to make a cut," he says, "and it sounded like someone cracking their knuckles." On Jan. 11, 1988, Thomas went under the knife and missed the entire '88 season. "Sitting out was tough, especially when we were struggling offensively," Thomas says. He hastily adds, "I'm not saying I could have changed the outcome."
He doesn't have to. Nittany Lions historians have already performed those calculations. Last week, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Steve Halvonik reckoned that with Thomas in the lineup, that 5-6 record would have been 7-4. What Halvonik didn't mention is that without a late blocked punt against Boston College and a valiant fourth-quarter defensive effort against Maryland, the Lions could have gone 3-7-1.