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If you're Penn State Quarterback Todd Blackledge, you're a man of faith. Not that you have much choice when there are seven seconds left on the Beaver Stadium clock, the home team is trailing Nebraska 24-21, and as you scan the end zone for a receiver the only available target is a second-string tight end who was an offensive guard three weeks ago and whose nickname is Stonehands.
So, you confidently throw the football through the tangle of onrushing Husker defenders, and Stonehands, otherwise known as Kirk Bowman, a junior who came into the game with zero receptions in his college career, reaches down to make the catch just inches above the ground. Touchdown. Final score: Penn State 27, Nebraska 24. The Miracle of Mount Nittany.
If football fans were guaranteed college games like this all the time, the NFL strikers could stay out forever and nobody would mind. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said it best: "There was enough glory out there for both teams."
And, he might have added, enough glory for himself and Nebraska's Tom Osborne, too. Both had made their reputations with crunching defenses, augmented by equally crunching rushing attacks. Now, they have shown the good sense to showcase the considerable passing talents of their respective junior quarterbacks—Blackledge for Paterno and Turner Gill for Osborne. In the past, would we ever have seen 977 yards of total offense (472 for the Huskers, 505 for the Nittany Lions) in a game between these two teams? Would we have seen 73 passes attempted and 39 completions (23 by Blackledge for 295 yards and three TDs, 16 by Gill for 239 yards and two TDs)? More to the point, would the Paterno of old have banked on a last-minute pass to a guy named Stonehands when he had Curt Warner and Jon Williams, running backs who averaged 6.1 and 4.7 yards a carry last season, in uniform? No way. No sin.
This much is certain: Penn State, No. 4 in the SI poll this week, beat Nebraska, No. 8, only because it had the ball for most of that final minute. Proof: Consider Gill's performance on the 13-play, 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that gave Nebraska a 24-21 lead. He completed passes to four different receivers, two of them must-haves on third down. He handled the option like the Oklahoma quarterback he almost became when he pitched out to I-Back Mike Rozier for a 12-yard gain and a first down at the Penn State three. And two plays later Gill himself went over the top from the one for the touchdown that gave Nebraska the lead for the first time and an apparent victory.
Gill's only mistake was doing all this with too much dispatch, leaving Blackledge with 1:18 on his hands. Nebraska then made the grievous error of committing a personal foul on Kevin Seibel's kickoff deep into the Penn State end zone; the officials ruled that Dave Ridder had thrown a Penn State player to the ground after the play ended, and the 15-yard penalty gave the Nittany Lions possession at the 35-yard-line instead of the 20. "We practice the two-minute drill every day," Blackledge said after the game. "The main thing was just freezing out the crowd and the noise. Everything was clear in my mind. There was more than a minute left, we had 65 yards to go. All I kept thinking about was Philippians 4:13: 'I can do all things through the Lord.' It helped clear my mind and take the pressure off."
One person Blackledge probably couldn't freeze out in the record crowd of 85,304 was the offensive line coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Blackledge; without an NFL game to prepare for, Ron took a busman's holiday and got an in-person look at his son the quarterback in action.
Blackledge launched his two-minute drill by calling two plays in the huddle. The first produced a 16-yard gain on a screen pass to Skeeter Nichols, playing tailback for the cramped-up Warner; the second was an incomplete pass. Then Blackledge threw to Flanker Kenny Jackson, who made a leaping catch at the sideline for 16 yards and a first down at the Nebraska 33.
Until now, all the plays on this last-gasp drive had come to Blackledge from the bench. The next call was the only one the quarterback made himself on the 10-play drive—a draw to Williams that lost a yard. "The fans were probably grumbling at the coaches, but it was my decision," said Blackledge.
Two incompletions followed, and it was fourth and 11 at the Nebraska 34. Only :28 showed on the board. A field-goal try was out; freshman Massimo Manca had already missed from 50, 47 and 33 yards, and the 51-yard kick he now would face seemed too much to expect. So Paterno made another withdrawal from his miracle bank. Blackledge found Jackson on an inside curl just beyond the marker, and Penn State had a first down at the 23. It was Jackson's fifth catch of the day, which tied him with Split End Gregg Garrity, who also had five receptions, and it was nothing more than your average do-or-die play. The Nittany Lion offensive line, which had not really been tested in the romps over Temple, Maryland and Rutgers, but had provided Blackledge with protection and time all day, did it again on the next play. But no one was open, and Blackledge had to tuck the ball in and turn upheld himself. He made six yards but used up 15 seconds doing it. The Lions were 17 yards from victory, but there were only 13 ticks left on the clock.