At the time, he was a relatively obscure sophomore who had put up big numbers for Brigham Young amid little national attention. But when Ty Detmer threw for 576 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in a wild 50-39 loss to Penn State at the 1989 Holiday Bowl, he gave notice of things to come.
"I wouldn't say I was surprised [by Detmer]. I think a better word would be shocked," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said yesterday, recalling Detmer's eye-opening performance.
The rest of the college football world has since learned what Paterno and Penn State found out about Detmer that night. A year later, Detmer won the Heisman Trophy and was bludgeoning the BYU and NCAA record books, erasing the names of former Cougars All-Americans Jim McMahon and Steve Young as well as those of Bernie Kosar and Andre Ware.
Now the senior quarterback will get a chance to do what he and the Cougars couldn't accomplish that night in San Diego -- beat the Nittany Lions. BYU, coming off season-opening losses to top-ranked Florida State and UCLA, plays No. 12 Penn State (2-1) Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.
"There's a few of us left who played in that game, and it's kind of a new chance for us," said Detmer, who recently broke his 45th NCAA record (11,606 yards passing in his career) and needs 66 yards to break former Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie's NCAA record for overall career yardage. "The UCLA game gave us some confidence, and it's another chance to get more confidence."
Since winning the Heisman in December, things have not gone particularly well for Detmer on the field. He was intercepted five times in BYU's last two games of the 1990 season, and separated both shoulders in a 65-14 Holiday Bowl mugging by Texas A&M. The Cougars have lost four straight overall. Detmer has been sacked eight times this season.
Off the field, Detmer has gone through an even more tumultuous, and sometimes tragic, 10-month period. He became a Morman in January and was married in July. His sister lost her baby in February. His grandfather died of cancer in March. His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in August, is undergoing chemotherapy and apparently is going to recover fully.
"I've had both the highs and the lows," Detmer said yesterday. "You can't get any higher than winning the Heisman or any lower than losing someone close to you. I think I've matured and it's given me a lot of mental strength. You learn how to handle different situations."
He has learned how unrelenting the spotlight can be. After being flown home to McAlister, Texas, with his bride for a Fourth of July celebration, Detmer received a call from the NCAA. Detmer might have broken a rule for accepting plane tickets for himself and his wife. The matter is under investigation.
One more thing: He has also discovered how quickly those who track the Heisman voting dismissed Detmer's chances of becoming the only repeat winner besides Archie Griffin (1974-75). Most of the preseason magazines focused on Houston quarterback David Klingler, with Detmer nearly an afterthought.
"That kind of stuff doesn't bother me," Detmer said before the season started. "I'm not in it for myself. If I was, I'd be playing tennis. This is a team game. This is a new season and a new team."
Said BYU coach LaVell Edwards: "I don't think there's any question that Ty Detmer has got to be a better quarterback for us this year. Whether or not his numbers reflect that, I don't know."
So far, Detmer has put up respectable, if not Heisman-like, numbers, considering the inexperience of his receivers and some of his offensive linemen. He was 19 of 32 for 229 yards in a 44-28 loss to Florida State in the Pigskin Classic in Anaheim, Calif., three weeks ago. He was 29 of 46 for 377 yards in a 27-23 defeat to UCLA at the Rose Bowl two weeks ago. He has four touchdown passes (an NCAA-record 90 overall) and three interceptions.
"He was sensational; the guy is like Houdini," UCLA coach Terry Donahue said after Detmer led a second-half comeback that ended when the Bruins erased a 23-20 BYU lead. "He's better than we thought he was."
The Nittany Lions will not be caught by surprise this time, considering what Detmer did to them two years ago. Even though Detmer doesn't have the same kind of personnel surrounding him this year, he still has the capability of putting points on the board -- fast.
"If you make one little mistake, he'll find it," Penn State cornerback Derek Bochna said yesterday. "I've been waiting for a opportunity like this, to play against a Heisman Trophy winner. It's going to be a challenge."
Asked if thinks Detmer has gotten better since the 1989 game, Paterno joked, "If Ty's improved, I'm not going to show up."
Even though they have seen him regularly over the past four years, Detmer still can stun his teammates on occasion. If it's not threading a pass through a seemingly microscopic opening, it's pulling his 6-foot, 185-pound body off the ground after a bone-jarring tackle by a blitzing linebacker.