STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For two weeks, it was a silver season in need of a celebration. There were losses to Texas and Southern California, and the first faint sounds of dissension echoed in the top-secret vault that the Penn State locker room has become.
But, yesterday afternoon, after a morning obscured by dirty gray clouds, there was sunshine in Happy Valley. Joe Paterno's 25th season of coaching finally received a coating of polish and a victory.
The Nittany Lions (1-2) beat Rutgers, 28-0, in front of 85,194 at Beaver Stadium. The triumph helped salvage Penn State's worst start since it opened the 1983 season with a three-game losing streak. Rutgers, which had defeated Kentucky and Colgate, suffered its first loss.
"It was an important win, I'll tell you that," Paterno said. "I really believe we were beaten by two good football teams, and I think we're a pretty good football team."
But it's difficult to draw any long-term conclusions from a one-sided game. In this case, Penn State out-gained Rutgers, 374 yards to 148.
"They're not 28 points better than us," Rutgers coach Doug Graber said, "but they were in this game."
Still, there were signs that Penn State was limbering up for a midseason Eastern tour, with games against Temple, Syracuse and Boston College. Besides, there was nothing really wrong with the Nittany Lions that couldn't be solved by a date with Rutgers.
"Losing two games hurt us," said Penn State tailback Leroy Thompson. "It was disappointing. But we had no time to hang our heads. We believe that we can beat any team on our schedule."
Belief turned to action.
Quarterback Tony Sacca took advantage of Rutgers' young, injury-riddled secondary by completing 11 of 23 passes for 193 yards. Thompson damaged a tendon in his right hand, but managed to bull across the goal line for all four touchdowns in the first half, gain 54 yards rushing and grab one pass for 37 yards.
"My hand feels terrible right now," Thompson said, pointing to the bandage that covered his right hand. "I got a face mask right on it."
But Thompson wasn't about to sit. His scores of 1, 6, 2 and 2 yards provided relief for an offense that had trouble producing much of anything in its opening losses. The first touchdown, a fourth-down, first-quarter dive, gave Penn State confidence and a cushion.
"Our plan was to come out and run the ball and pound it up the field," said Thompson, a senior from Knoxville, Tenn. "It felt really good just to pound it in there. There has been a lot of stuff said about our offense. I took that personally. We had to move the ball."
While Thompson was ramming the middle of the Rutgers defense, his tailback running mate, Gary Brown, was on the bench nursing a shoulder injury suffered after only one carry. Earlier in the week, Brown matter-of-factly stated a wish for more playing time, and was scolded by Paterno.
"We talked," Brown said. "Things were said he didn't mean. It was a frustration thing."
So much for dissension at Penn State.
The Penn State defense contained Rutgers quarterback Tom Tarver, who entered the game with the highest efficiency rating in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I-A and finished 14 of 26 for 107 yards.
"They were in my face all day," Tarver said. "It seemed like they knew exactly what we were going to do."
Rutgers mounted only one serious scoring threat, after Jay Bellamy's 27-yard interception return to the Penn State 2 in the third quarter. But the Nittany Lions' defense refused to bend, forcing Rutgers to turn the ball over on downs at the 5.
"We showed that we're maturing as a defense," said senior tackle Frank Giannetti. "We went out there with the idea that they wouldn't score. If we're going to come together as a big-league defense, we have to stop teams."
For one day, Penn State played big-league. And silver never looked so good.