Penn State can't afford to take success for granted Georgia Tech first of many tough foes

August 27, 1991|By Don Markus

Success is relative in college football, especially at places like Penn State. Consider last season's 9-3 record for the Nittany Lions and their reaction to it.

Except for a nine-game winning streak that followed losses to Texas and Southern Cal and preceded a 24-17 loss to Florida State in the Blockbuster Bowl, Happy Valley wasn't a very happy place.

"When you set your goals to win a national championship, 9-3 seasons are not what you're looking for," senior linebacker and captain Mark D'Onofrio said last week. "I'm looking at 12-0 this year. That's my goal."

With a schedule that begins tomorrow night at Giants Stadium in the Kickoff Classic against last year's national co-champion, Georgia Tech, a perfect season might be difficult, if not impossible, for the Nittany Lions to achieve. But the eighth-ranked Yellow Jackets are not the only obstacle for No. 7 Penn State.

With road trips to USC (Sept. 14) and Miami (Oct. 12), with a Sept. 21 appearance at Beaver Stadium by Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer of Brigham Young, and with a Nov. 16 home date against Notre Dame looming in the distance, repeating last year's record might actually be an accomplishment.

"It could be the most difficult schedule we've played in years," said Joe Paterno, who has said that often in his 26 seasons as the Nittany Lions head coach.

Penn State might also have one of its more talented teams in recent memory. There are 13 returning starters, including senior quarterback Tony Sacca. There is, in Paterno's estimation, "the best group of receivers we've had in a long time." And there is Paterno, the game's winningest active coach.

But as stingy as Penn State's defense is expected to be -- led by D'Onofrio, tackle Lou Benfatti and cornerback Leonard Humphries -- the team's bid for a third national championship in the past decade could begin and end with Sacca.

"I've said all along, a lot will depend on Sacca," Paterno said last week.

There has never been much doubt about Sacca's ability to throw the ball. But until late-season victories last year over then top-ranked Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, there have been questions whether he could effectively run an offense, specifically Penn State's offense.

After starting as a freshman because of injuries to three other quarterbacks, Sacca has spent much of his career shuttling back and forth from Paterno's dog house. Part of the problem was not doing what the coach wanted. Part of it was never gaining the confidence of his teammates.

"I just think it's a question of growing up," said Paterno. "He's playing with a lot of confidence. It's a credit to him. He's handled it all very well, especially the criticism I've had of him."

After being told last spring that Sacca suggested the Nittany Lions throw the ball more, Paterno ripped into his quarterback. During a two-minute diatribe for which he later apologized, Paterno put the burden squarely on Sacca.

"I'd expect this to be a big year for Tony, but whether it is is basically up to Tony," Paterno said. "His feet are not good enough. He doesn't move well enough. He's not accurate enough on the short stuff. He's got to work on some things. He can't misread coverage and miss open people as much as he has in the past for him to be a high-efficiency passer."

Sacca later fired a verbal bullet at his coach. In a national preseason magazine, Sacca said: "I know I have the potential to win ballgames and be a good quarterback. Sometimes you don't get the opportunity up here. It's just the offense. You don't get the opportunity to prove you're a quality quarterback, and I think that's happened to a lot of quarterbacks in the past."

Paterno might have to relent a bit this season and let Sacca air it out, at least until the rebuilt offensive line jells and one of a handful of unproven tailbacks, including redshirt sophomore Richie Anderson of Sandy Spring, can emerge.

The situation at tailback was Paterno's biggest question going into preseason camp, and remains problematical. "We're still struggling there," said Paterno, who will likely start senior Gerry Collins at tailback, with senior Sam Gash at fullback.

Not that the Lions expect Paterno to suddenly become Bobby Bowden, or even Bobby Ross, when it comes to opening up his offense. "Joe will do what Joe wants to do," said D'Onofrio, who, like Sacca, has learned that the hard way. "Penn State has never been a passing team, and I don't think we'll be one this year."

But expect to see more of a balanced offense this season, particularly if Sacca starts well. And if not, things could again get testy between a quarterback and a coach who have spent as much time working on their relationship as they have preparing for Georgia Tech.

Sacca said last week: "I want to go out and win and he wants to go out and win. Everyone does, that's the bottom line. As long as we do that, everyone is happy."

Penn State facts and figures


Location: University Park, Pa.

Enrollment: 30,500

Coach: Joe Paterno, 26th season (229-60-3)

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