FORT LAUDERDALE,FLA. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When Penn State University lost its first two games of the season to Texas and the University of Southern California, Nittany Lions senior inside linebacker Keith Goganious saw a team that was on the brink of collapse.
But he still found reason to smile.
"Well, it's like death and taxes," said Goganious. "You know every four or five years Penn State is going to be ranked nationally in the top five or challenge for the national title. This is our fourth season since the school won the national championship in the 1985-86 season. I knew we were due."
In truth, it would take divine intervention for No. 7 Penn State (9-2) to end up No. 1. First, the Nittany Lions would have to upset No. 6 Florida State (9-2) in tonight's Blockbuster Bowl (8 o'clock) at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium.
Then Penn State would have to rely on fifth-ranked Notre Dame (9-2) to upset No. 1 Colorado (10-1-1) in the Federal Express Orange Bowl, No. 19 Nebraska (9-2) to beat No 2. Georgia Tech (10-0-1) in the Florida Citrus Bowl and No. 4 Miami (9-2) to defeat No. 3 Texas (10-1) in the Mobil Cotton Bowl, all on New Year's Day.
"If Georgia Tech and Texas lose, and if we beat Florida State, I'll probably sound like Sam Jankovich [Miami's athletic director] and say we deserve to be No. 1," said Paterno, in his 25th year as Penn State's head coach. "I can't believe there's a better football team in the country than Florida State."
Goganious said: "We're a little ticked that we beat Notre Dame and they are still ahead of us in the rankings. If we don't get a national championship this year, we're going to get even better next year. Penn State has arrived."
True, but slowly. Since that 12-0 national championship campaign in the 1986 season, the Nittany Lions went 8-4, 5-6 and 8-3-1.
"Happy Valley wasn't so happy when we went 5-6," said Penn State senior safety Willie Thomas. "What's the old saying? You're only as good as your last game. In our case, we were only as good as our last national championship. Overall, Penn State fans understand the system."
"When Coach Paterno recruits, he tells every player that they will get at least one shot at the national title," said Goganious. "And it always happens."
Penn State opened its season with a 17-13 loss to Texas, followed by a 19-14 setback to Southern Cal. Losing to two nationally ranked teams by nine total points may be good for some teams, but not for Penn State.
Paterno took some of the blame for the slow start, saying he wanted to get in a game before going to Southern Cal. He had moved the Texas game from Sept. 29 to Sept. 8.
"I thought we could handle Texas," said Paterno.
But the players -- 36 of the 44 players on the two-deep roster are underclassmen -- offered no alibis. They held a meeting the day after the Texas game.
"We all had to get focused," said defensive tackle Frank Giannetti. "Guys were down and we didn't know what to do. We decided to work harder than we ever did. We decided to do all the little things that added up to big things. We all said we were going to go out and win nine games in a row."
And so they did, including a 24-21 shocker of then-No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Nov. 17. Penn State now has the longest Division I-A winning streak in the country, and tons of confidence.
"We are the hottest team in America," said Goganious.
The statement has merit. Paterno still turns the cuff up on his pants up, and his team still wears those drab blue and white uniforms with no-frills black cleats. This team, like his best ones, has great defense, a solid kicking game and a conservative offense.
If those teams were of national championship caliber, they had a quarterback who could do a little more than just take a snap and hand off to a tailback.
Enter junior quarterback Tony Sacca, who after a midseason slump this year, has been superb down the stretch. Sacca completed 122 of 249 passes for 1,866 yards during the regular season, including a career high of 277 yards against Notre Dame and 113 yards rushing against Pittsburgh in the Nittany Lions' last two games.
"It's a typical Penn State linebacking group in the sense that they are fundamentally sound and they come to maul you," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, a close friend of Paterno's.
Tonight's coaching matchup pits Paterno, one college's best defensive coaches, against one of the nation's best innovators, Bowden.
Head coach: Joe Paterno
No. Player P Ht. Wt. Year
1 Tisen Thomas CB 5-8 158 So
2 Henry Adkins K 5-9 156 Sr
3 Chip LaBarca WR 5-9 177 So
4 Doug Helkowski P 6-0 204 Jr
4 Ben Nichols P 5-9 171 So
5 Bobby Samuels TB 5-11 190 Jr
6 Leonard Humphries DB 5-9 170 Jr
7 Rich Rosa WR 6-1 188 Jr
8 Terry Smith WR 5-8 155 Sr
9 Darren Perry SS 5-10 186 Sr
9 Bill Spoor WR 6-1 191 Jr
10 Corey Jett QB 5-11 195 Sr
11 Sam Gash FB 6-0 225 Sr
12 Tom Bill QB 6-2 210 Sr
13 Jason Gigliotti QB 6-0 190 So
13 Matt Baggett LB 6-1 210 Sr
14 Jamie Dreese P 5-10 189 So