The Lions dined and the crowd roared

Phil Jackman

September 23, 1991|By Phil Jackman

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It is 3 o'clock in the morning and cars, vans, RVs and buses, everything but Conestoga wagons, are crawling bumper to bumper along fog-shrouded Route 322 when the thought occurs how wrong Karl Marx really was. Recall, he's the guy who said religion is the opium of the people.

Obviously, Karl never spent any time in Central Pennsylvania in the fall taking in a Penn State football game.

The masses were lined up at noon waiting for the gates of the parking lots surrounding the Beaver Stadium monolith to open. Kickoff against Brigham Young was slated for 8 p.m. There isn't a town of any substantial size within time zones of Happy Valley but, come the appointed hour, 96,304 people were in their seats staring fixedly at the field.

The Nittany Lions, 102 strong, trooped on and were accorded a greeting reserved for victorious four-star generals returning from war. As one, the eyes shifted to the enemy and, specifically, No. 14, Ty Detmer, Mr. Heisman Trophy.

Seemingly unaware of their intent at the outset, whether they were commissioned to praise Caesar or bury him, the home team's defense decided to do both . . . in reverse order.

It would take the better part of a day to review Detmer's accomplishments flinging the football for the Cougars: 45 NCAA records held outright, four more shared. Any number of times over the last four seasons the Texan has completed eight passes in a drive as Brigham Young swept from one end of the field to the other.

But there would be no false gods before the assembled worshipers on this occasion. Poor Ty and his mostly inexperienced mates were thrust to the Lions in most unceremonious fashion.

Detmer made connection on just eight of 26 attempts with an interception and two fumbles also marring his performance. "Their defensive pressure makes it tough on a quarterback," the senior said of his tormentors. "No one wants to scramble [ie: run for one's life]."

Still, after the 33-7 hammering of the visitors from Utah, it was as if the marksman had duplicated his feat of two years ago when he passed for, in coach Joe Paterno's words, 6,000 yards against Penn State in the Holiday Bowl.

"He's great," said State's quarterback Tony Sacca, "same as last year. They're nowhere near the team they were in 1989. They're young and make a lot of mistakes."

"He certainly doesn't have the help he had two years ago," emphasized Paterno. "But I'll tell you one thing, it's impossible for a quarterback to make a better play than the pass he threw for a touchdown. More than that, though, here's a kid getting the devil knocked out of him and he doesn't say a word; just keeps playing. It's a pleasure to play against a kid like that . . . even if you lose."

Actually, the thought (losing) never occurred to the initial sellout crowd in enlarged Beaver Stadium -- only 94,000 showed up for the 81-0 rout of Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago. They have come to expect total commitment from their mostly home-grown heroes and Sacca and defensive leader Mark D'Onofrio emphasized this.

The quarterback didn't take a center snap all week to protect a dislocated finger on his throwing hand and was doubtful right up until game time. He proved effective enough in the air to assure the Lions could rush for 292 yards and maintain control of the ball for 70 percent of the game (42 minutes).

D'Onofrio's play under the circumstances was even more impressive. He had his arm in a sling up until a few hours before kickoff. "I separated my shoulder late Thursday in practice and the trainer told me it depends on how long it's been out and how quickly they get in back in," said the player as if explaining a broken shoelace. "I felt I could suck it up for a couple of hours and Coach knew how badly I wanted to play."

"Among all the guys on the defense," said Paterno, "I thought Mark was the most impressive." Besides the deep defenders covering Detmer's receivers at arm's length, the guys up front held the Cougars to zero yards rushing in 20 attempts. They sacked Detmer a half-dozen times.

BYU coach Lavell Edwards sensed the possibility of a long evening for his 0-3 team "when we got great field position right at the start and didn't capitalize." He became convinced when, for long periods of time, he noticed Detmer standing at his side as Penn State went on one of its typical transcontinental drives covering 18 plays, 75 yards and upward of nine minutes on the clock.

Brigham Young made a time of it, the squad hustling down to Gettysburg to check out the Civil War site last Friday. No doubt Detmer has a bit of a feel for what misfortune met Robert E. Lee on another Pennsylvania battlefield.

The conclusion to an almost perfectly awful weekend for the travelers transpired when BYU jumped aboard three buses just after midnight and headed for the airport in Harrisburg for the return to Salt Lake City. Cars, vans, RVs, buses, everything but Conestoga wagons, were crawling bumper to bumper along fog-shrouded Route 322 as the faithful dispersed from services.

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