In recent weeks, Penn State football fans had split into dozens of well-defined factions, ranging from the Joe-Should-Be-Wearing-More-Blue-and-White traditionalists to the We're-Lion-Low cynics. The Nittany Lions' horrendous 0-3 start—the worst in 44 years by a defending national champion and the poorest in 19 years by Penn State—had been so puzzling to them that they were blaming everything from Coach Joe Paterno's failure to dress in school colors to the hiring of a new radio play-by-play man. Some fans even subscribed to the Logo Theory, which attributed State's troubles to a stylish new lion's-head emblem that has been sweeping the campus. "Whatever's been wrong, it's been embarrassing," said Defensive Tackle Greg Gattuso early last week. "You feel like walking around in a disguise."
On Saturday afternoon, though, all that had changed. The Lions had won two straight games, and the largest home crowd in Penn State history—85,614 fans, most of them wearing 'TERNO THE TIDE buttons—had jammed into Beaver Stadium to watch them play unbeaten and fourth-ranked Alabama. Penn State responded with its best performance of the season as Lion freshman sensation D.J. Dozier rushed for 163 yards and rookie Quarterback Doug Strang, a junior, threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns. All told, the two teams combined for nearly 1,100 yards in offense, the Nittany Lions rolling up a 34-7 third-quarter lead before the Tide responded with a furious rally. Now, one play remained. With 0:01 to go, Alabama still trailed 34-28 but had the ball on Penn State's two-yard line. The crowd was on its feet, delirious. Here, as it turned out, 'Bama needed the disguise.
All afternoon in such short-yardage situations, the Tide had run a play called Toss 28—a pitchout to the tailback moving right—and had never gained fewer than seven yards with it. Gattuso remembered that. So did Lion Defensive End Steve Sefter and Cornerback Mark Fruehan. As Alabama's offense lined up, Gattuso shifted one step to his left. Toss 28, all three thought, clear as day. Said Fruehan later, "I could sense it coming."
And it came. Alabama Quarterback Walter Lewis pitched the ball to Tailback Kerry Goode, who swept to his right—and saw Sefter facing him on the outside, Gattuso on the inside and Fruehan in the middle. Fruehan met Goode head on at the line of scrimmage, and Gattuso smothered him from behind. No gain. In an instant the crowd was swarming across the field. "We are... Penn State! We are... Penn State!" the fans roared. Lion players, in the flush of a three-game victory streak, were soon speaking of bowl bids and of perhaps becoming the first team in history to start 0-3 and finish 9-3. Their season, it was agreed, had been turned around.
But had it? Alabama had piled up 598 yards and on another day might have blown Penn State clear out of Happy Valley. The Tide had been sloppy and star-crossed, losing three fumbles, three interceptions and—on a questionable out-of-bounds call on a pass from Lewis to Tight End Preston Gothard in the Penn State end zone with eight seconds left—the apparent winning touchdown. A clipping penalty had negated another 'Bama TD. Though Penn State's play had been more spirited than in previous games and its offense more potent, the Lions had still nearly blown a 27-point lead in only 15 minutes.
Penn State's problems began last winter, in the joyous aftermath of its 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia. Although that win wrapped up both an 11-1 season—the only loss had been to Alabama—and the national title for the Lions, it also ended the college careers of 12 senior starters, among them two-time All-America Tailback Curt Warner and superb Defensive End Walker Lee Ashley. It also helped convince star Quarterback Todd Blackledge that Penn State had enough talent to continue winning without him; in February he decided to pass up his final year of eligibility and turn pro.
So good were the 13 departees that eight of them now play in the NFL and three are in the USFL. Replacing them, obviously, was a major chore. It didn't help any that Warner's scheduled successor, senior Jon Williams, hurt his right knee in a February skiing accident and his left knee in the third game. Or that, with only three untested quarterbacks available to succeed Blackledge, the team elected to play powerful Nebraska in an Aug. 29 season opener. "Hey, I didn't vote to play 'em," says Paterno. "I was dead set against it, but it was what the kids wanted."
The kids weren't so thrilled when Nebraska crushed them 44-6. "We were pretty much demoralized," says Gattuso. Morale sagged further when the Lions were shocked 14-3 by unheralded Cincinnati and then lost 42-34 to Iowa. Not since 1939, when TCU dropped its first four games en route to a 3-7 record, had a defending national champion opened so poorly. "We weren't Penn State; we were just another team going through the motions," says All-America Defensive Back Mark Robinson, who was knocked out for the season against 'Bama, with a broken right fibula. "It was hard to stomach." Even when the Lions won their next two games, 23-18 over Temple and 36-25 over Rutgers, they showed the same weaknesses: a feeble pass rush, a vulnerable secondary, excessive turnovers and inexperienced quarterbacking. In both victories they barely held off late-game comebacks.
All of which led to a little friction. "It was almost a situation where we were asking, 'Are [the coaches] for us or against us,' " says Robinson. After the Cincinnati defeat, the players held a long gripe session among themselves, airing a wide range of concerns. "When you lose a couple of games, you start to feel a little animosity on the squad," says Robinson. "The seniors start to say, 'Oh, the coaches are giving up on us too early. They're looking toward the future and sacrificing this season, and all that.' Everybody had to get things off his chest."
The team captains passed on the complaints to Paterno, who, characteristically, listened. His greatest frustration, he says, has been that "the guys are too tense. I just can't get them to relax and enjoy playing football. You start losing, you get tense, you're afraid to make mistakes, you lose some more. Nobody believes me, but I don't care if I lose every game. Heck, I'm not going to get fired. I'll be happy as long as we're improving every week and the guys are having fun. Geez, you only play football because you enjoy it."