Penn State throws off its shackles

Ken Rosenthal

August 29, 1991|By Ken Roenthal

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Those who expected the fall of Communism before the liberation of a Penn State quarterback were right. With a grudging bow to history, Joe Paterno finally removed the shackles from his passing game last night.

Joe Blah -- er, Joe Pa -- will deny it, but the Kickoff Classic amounted to glasnost in Happy Valley. Senior quarterback Tony Sacca set a school record by throwing five touchdown passes in the Nittany Lions' 34-22 victory over Georgia Tech.

Next thing you know, his arm will fall off. As it was, Sacca played with sore ribs, completing 13 of 24 passes for 206 yards without an interception. His stats would have been even better, but Paterno removed him early in the fourth quarter after Penn State went ahead 34-3.

Sacca, of course, is the radical who thinks it might be a good idea if Paterno installed a modern passing attack before the turn of the century. This makes him the college-football equivalent of Boris Yeltsin, standing on a tank, defying a legendary autocrat.

Paterno, as we all know, does not favor dissent, but he claims a certain affection for Sacca. In fact, he jokingly called Sacca "my buddy Tony" after No. 7 Penn State ended No. 8 Georgia Tech's 16-game unbeaten streak, which had been the longest in the nation.

But, Paterno being Paterno, he can't understand the fuss. He told reporters, "Sometimes you get the wrong impression of what we do." Then he noted that his team threw 25 or more passes in eight games last season, as if Penn State was the second coming of BYU.

No one was fooled -- not even Paterno. Someone asked if Sacca was pleased with the number of passes he threw last night. Informed that the total was 24, Paterno cracked, "He's not happy. He'd only be happy if he transferred to Houston."

Sacca won't remind anyone of David Klingler, but he outplayed Tech's alleged Heisman candidate, Shawn Jones (15-for-31, 155 yards). Jones lost three fumbles and threw an interception. Former Tech basketball star Kenny Anderson commits fewer turnovers on a good night. He also delivers more assists.

So much for the Yellow Jackets proving last season was not a fluke. True, they finished 11-0-1 and earned UPI's top ranking. Still, their critics no doubt will point to this game as evidence that Tech is not yet a legitimate power, conveniently ignoring the rise of the ACC.

The fact is, this is a very good Penn State team -- "the best I've seen," said Tech coach Bobby Ross, whose four losses to Paterno at Maryland were by 13 points. The Lions are far more athletic than usual, and Ross called their renowned linebackers "as good as I've seen in college football in a long, long while."

Tech committed five turnovers to Penn State's one and drew 10 penalties for 87 yards, but Jones was under so much pressure, he was barely able to run the offense. Sacca, on the other hand, benefited from good protection, and good fortune as well.

"I can't take credit for the five touchdowns," said Sacca, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound native of Delran, N.J. "One was practically a handoff. Another one a guy caught on his head. And Terry [Smith] was so open [on the Lions' second touchdown] I could have kicked it to him."

That's the kind of talk Paterno loves, but the coach couldn't deny Sacca did a "fine job," despite getting sacked (sacca-d?) five times. Smith was indeed open after turning cornerback Willie Clay in the end zone, but Sacca got him the ball, lofting it neatly to the corner for an 8-yard score.

"He's been given a bad rap for whatever reason," Ross said. "When I looked at him on film, I thought he was a heckuva quarterback. He's big, he's got a strong arm, he makes good decisions."

Sacca's arm isn't a slingshot, but he has quick feet and decent instincts. On Penn State's first touchdown, he fought off a blitz for an easy 4-yard toss to Smith. In the second half he threw touchdown passes of 5, 39 and 52 yards within 3:50. Those last two scoring drives consisted of one play.

Tech rallied behind backup quarterback Jeff Howard, but by then both teams were playing their reserves. Penn State fullback Sam Gash rushed for 80 yards when it mattered. Tailback Richie Anderson accounted for 141 yards total offense. The wideouts, Smith and O.J. McDuffie, each caught two touchdowns.

It was a splendid opening performance, especially compared to the antics offered by Tech. Besides the six fumbles, Ross actually inserted All-America safety Ken Swilling for two offensive plays on his team's first journey into Penn State territory, midway through the second quarter.

Swilling turned around too late to catch a third-and-one pass, then lined up at tailback and lost a yard on fourth down. Such shenanigans would not have been necessary if two legitimate running backs had not been kicked off the team for trying to sell other students stolen textbooks and supplies.

Penn State players are never caught doing such nasty things, zTC but who can predict the evil their newfound liberty will unleash? First, the Berlin Wall, then Red Square, now Happy Valley. Tony Sacca for Heisman. Let freedom ring.

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