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On a hot day in Pittsburgh last summer, Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill talked candidly about his football team, saying, "We're a year away from a national championship." On a cold day in Pittsburgh last week, it was proven that Sherrill knew what he was talking about.
In another stunning turn of events in this stunning college football season, undefeated and No. 1-ranked Pitt was crushed 48-14 Saturday by 11th-ranked Penn State. That it was only 48-14 was because of Nittany Lion Coach Joe Paterno's decision to leave the jugular intact once he had undeniable evidence that the Panthers were mortally wounded.
It was a suitable ending to a year in which almost everybody's preseason No. 1, Michigan, was whipped by Wisconsin—a team it hadn't lost to since 1962—in its opening game. That upset seemed to make everyone believe in fairy tales. In succession, Notre Dame, Southern California, Texas and Penn State itself rose to No. 1, and in succession, each was promptly thrashed. Alabama disgraced itself early with a loss to Georgia Tech, and thus the Crimson Tide never got to the top. And undefeated Clemson, a new boy among the biggies and thus still regarded with suspicion, didn't make it to No. 1—until now.
Pitt played a weak schedule—Florida State, which ended with a 6-5 record, was the only first-rate opponent among the Cincinnatis, Rutgerses and Armys. Still, the Panthers were winning so impressively that they seemed to be a year ahead of Sherrill's schedule. That was because his junior quarterback, Dan Marino, clearly had developed into one of the best in the land, as evidenced by his second-place ranking in the NCAA stats for passing efficiency, behind BYU senior Jim McMahon. More startling was that the Pitt defense, so tough last year but so inexperienced this, led the NCAA Division I in total defense going into Saturday's game, allowing only 203.9 yards a game. (Penn State would roll up 434.) The Panthers also led the nation in rushing defense with an average of 51.4 yards per game (the Nittany Lions would more than treble that with 187) and were fourth in scoring defense, allowing an average of only 9.2 points.
But Sherrill is nobody's fool, and while walking about on the splotchy wet Astroturf carpet of Pitt Stadium an hour before game time, with the collar of his yellow blazer turned up to fight off the cold and snow flurries, he said, "I tell you, we only have four players who could start on offense for Penn State. They have seven who could start for Pittsburgh."
One of the players Sherrill thought could start for Penn State was Marino. That figures; with his stats and his size—6'4", 215 pounds—he could start for almost anybody in the NFL. But on this gray afternoon, Marino was only the second-best signal caller on the field as the Nittany Lions' Todd Blackledge, the much-maligned Todd Blackledge, decisively outquarterbacked Marino, much to the amazement of the 60,260 fans on hand. He completed 12 of 23 passes for 262 yards, while Marino threw almost twice as many times for only five yards more; Blackledge had one interception, Marino four.
"I make big plays," says Blackledge, "and I make big mistakes." And therein lies his main flaw. By the fourth game of his freshman year, 1980, he was starting. That's good. But in that game, against Missouri, he threw three interceptions and had two fumbles. That's bad. He also ran 43 yards for the winning touchdown against the Tigers. That's good. With Penn State trailing Miami by three points this year, he threw an interception at the end of the game with the Nittany Lions needing a win to preserve their No. 1 rating. That's bad. But against Notre Dame two weeks ago, he led Penn State on a fourth-period, 82-yard drive for the decisive touchdown. That's good. On and on.
All of this was doubly distressing to Penn State fans because they had hoped so desperately to ride Blackledge's arm to that elusive first national championship, something not even back-to-back undefeated seasons (in 1968 and '69) had done, because the voters in the polls thought there were too many patsies on the Nittany Lions' schedule. Now, with Paterno serving as athletic director as well as head coach, Penn State has rectified that shortcoming and is pursuing the crown more ardently than ever. Indeed, when Paterno was recruiting Blackledge, the son of former Kent State Football Coach Ron Blackledge, he told him, "You're the kind of quarterback we need to win a national championship." That is heavy baggage for a young man.
In the first quarter of the bitter intrastate rivalry, Pitt seemed intent on adding to that burden. On the Panthers' first two possessions, Marino got two touchdowns, both on passes to Flanker Dwight Collins. "I wasn't that panicked," said Paterno, who had every right to be just that at the end of the first quarter with Pitt leading 14-0 and having gained 164 yards to Penn State's minus four. "But I did know that you can't run three plays, turn the ball over to them at midfield and expect to be in it very long." Still, the very scenario Paterno described seemed destined to be played out when, on the Panthers' third possession—after three more plays and a punt by Penn State—Marino marched his troops to the Nittany Lions' 31. But he then threw a looping pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Penn State's Roger Jackson.
At the time that seemed to provide nothing but a breather for the Nittany Lions. Later it was clear it had meant everything, because had Pitt established a 21-0 advantage that early, Penn State would not only have been mentally shattered but, almost surely, would also have been forced to play gambling football with all too predictable and dire results. As it was, Blackledge then moved his team on a tentative, penalty-aided drive—"I kept telling myself to keep my poise and keep calm," he said—that ended with a two-yard scoring plunge by Fullback Mike Meade.