Penn St. isn't fumbling for excuses

Phil Jackman

September 18, 1991|By Phil Jackman

The renowned football pioneer John W. Heisman once lectured a squad: "Men, better to have died as a small boy than to fumble the football."

Penn State coach Joe Paterno doesn't necessarily subscribe to the theory -- yet. But, as the lyricist once pointed out, it's a long, long time (from May) to December.

In its first two games, against Georgia Tech and Cincinnati, scores of 34-22 and 81-0 indicate everything must have gone right for Penn State. Then again, we all know how deceiving numbers can be.

"Sixteen fumbles in three games, including seven against Southern Cal," said Paterno, "maybe we're lucky to be 2-1."

Beaten 21-10 by USC in Los Angeles last weekend, Penn State is back under the arcs this week, hosting Brigham Young at Happy Valley Saturday (8 p.m., ABC-TV). The ball gets dropped on the ground any more and, according to Joe, "I lay the law down: If you fumble, you don't play."

BYU will arrive winless. Losses came against top-ranked Florida State (44-28) and sturdy UCLA (27-23), however, and the Cougars were off last week, preparing. "I hope it's not a shootout," said Paterno. "I don't know if we can score with them."

Two years ago, State lived up to the challenge put forth by high octane Brigham Young, squeezing out a 50-39 victory at the Holiday Bowl. "But I don't like the idea of having to score 50 points to win," said Paterno.

Of immediate concern is the fact that, as was the case two years ago, Ty Detmer, defending Heisman Trophy winner, is back at the BYU controls.

"Let's see," Paterno continued, "I think it was 6,000 yards Ty passed for against us that night in San Diego. Thing that makes him so good is he's a fine athlete. He understands completely what the team is doing with its passing game, has good instincts, a nice delivery and is mobile enough to avoid a lot of trouble back there."

The same could not be said for Lions quarterback Tony Sacca during long, arduous stretches against USC. "I think Tony held the ball a little too long," said Paterno.

"Going in, we hadn't been in a game where we had to face adversity. You sort of like it to happen early to see how you'll react to it," he continued. "Southern Cal just kept coming at us and we couldn't change the tide. Their constant blitzing didn't bother us that much, because we were expecting it and thought we could handle it.

"Actually, we weren't as bad as some people seem to think we were. We got 21 first downs, ran 81 plays and 400 yards of offense. But the fumbles and dumb penalties gave us lousy field position and it's tough to be consistent against a team pressuring that much.

"You can't go out and get a lot of first downs on a drive, not against a team that does things as well as Southern Cal does. They've got terrific athletes with a lot of speed and pressure defenses are going to make you look bad. You have to make some big plays. We didn't."

Big plays, that's BYU's calling card. And, said Paterno, Brigham Young "looks pretty much the same as it has the last few years. They're a typical BYU team; they're going to score a lot of points. You have to get a handle on the passing game, yes, but you can't just play pass all day. They can do other things."

Judging from some of the scores repeated here, one would suspect the Cougars play defense only because the rules of the JTC game dictate it. Paterno begs to differ: "They got off to a bad start against UCLA, but looking at the films you see that they dominated the second half of that game with their defense."

Touted highly, perhaps excessively, prior to last week's stumble, Paterno doesn't expect deep psychological scars to show up on his Lions, who dropped from No. 5 to No. 12 nationally with the loss. "I don't think anyone expected us to win all our games.

"At the same time, I know we're a good football team and, to get better, they're a lot of correctable things we've got to do before we're better. Stuff like eliminating dumb penalties and getting better execution."

And, oh yeah, not dropping Heisman's "prolate spheroid, that is, an elongated sphere" on the greensward.

Translation: Fummmble!

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