Well, nice try, Penn State. You hoped to stop Tony Dorsett and you thought you could beat Pittsburgh, and even though you didn't come close to accomplishing one or the other, don't feel too badly. No one else this season has stopped Dorsett or his teammates either.
Last Friday night, as Pitt embarrassed Penn State 24-7, Dorsett concluded his regular-season college career in high gear. By running for 224 yards he wound up with 11 NCAA records, tied three others, set 28 school records and became the first collegian ever to gain more than 6,000 yards. Before the cheering in Three Rivers Stadium stopped, he made it to 6,082, thus bettering Archie Griffin's 1972-75 output by 905 yards. Said Dorsett, "I'm happy."
As a result of all this record-smashing (included were most career points, 356, breaking by two Glenn Davis' 1943-46 achievement) Pitt remained undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Although there still lurks in many suspicious minds the feeling that the Panthers' relatively undemanding schedule is a poor gauge of greatness, even the skeptics were forced to give Pitt its due.
There was speculation before the game that Dorsett might not do it against Penn State and that Pitt could be taken. The Panthers had split over whether to go to the Orange or Sugar Bowl (Sugar won). Then a furor erupted over whether Coach Johnny Majors would be leaving to take the head job at Tennessee, his alma mater, where the Majors name is revered. Finally, Pitt hadn't beaten Penn State since 1965.
Obviously, the key to the game was Dorsett. "If he gets 200 yards, we lose," said Gregg Ducatte, a Penn State defensive coach. "If he only gets 100, we win." Not everyone viewed it that way. Paterno kept saying, "We're not playing Dorsett, we're playing Pitt," but coaches will say those things. Publicly, Head Coach Joe Paterno praised Pitt so profusely he sounded like the Panther publicist. Privately, he was not so laudatory. Said Joe, pushing aside his jottings on something called the blast 45 defense, "They're not a super team in my mind, but if they are, all these X's and O's aren't going to matter."
Amid the hoopla, Penn Staters tended to forget that their team hadn't been all that super itself. After losing an early-season game to Ohio State, which it could have won, State was beaten by Iowa and Kentucky for three in a row. Paterno had to really go to work to put the pieces back together and scrape out of a mess a few weeks later against Temple in order to end up with a Gator Bowl invitation to play Notre Dame.
Paterno said he had no intention of designing a "stop Tony Dorsett" defense, working furiously in the meantime on a defense to stop some Pittsburgh running back wearing jersey No. 33. "He can score seven touchdowns and gain 500 yards," Paterno announced, "and I'll still be pleased—if we score one more point. Dorsett is not going to affect us psychologically."
So, while refusing to admit it was focusing outright on Dorsett, Penn State worked against what it euphemistically called Pitt's running game. Periodically the players would observe and presumably memorize scenes from that hit film Dorsett in Action and to get the word from Joe: "We want to frustrate them till they get desperate."
The defensive plan was to keep Dorsett running laterally as long as possible and then, the moment he turned upfield, to zing him. More important, the coaches urged that the defense work as a unit and not allow any cracks through which Dorsett could step with haste because of his acceleration. State also wanted to prevent Dorsett from getting to the wide field, to get proper angles on him and, when tackling, to "stick your head through his numbers."
Furthermore, State added a few defensive wrinkles (the team had a total of 16 alignments), but the main concern was whether the linebackers could handle the action. Two of them (Ron Hostetler and Steve Wanamaker) were hurt and definitely out, and three others (Rick Donaldson, Bruce Clark and Matt Millen) were freshmen. As it turned out, Millen and Clark largely decorated the sidelines while two older players were summoned to the brawl—Joe Diange, who had spent much of the year at defensive end, and Tom DePaso, who had previously lost his starting linebacker job. The steadying force was senior Kurt Allerman.