UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On a sunny afternoon when Penn State danced with disaster, the Nittany Lions needed a bright performance from quarterback Tony Sacca and several strokes of fortune to keep their national-championship hopes alive.
The best way to describe Penn State's harrowing 28-21 victory yesterday over Boston College (0-4) before 95,927 nervous fans at Beaver Stadium is this: The 10th-ranked Nittany Lions (4-1) merely survived.
It wasn't until a desperation pass by BC quarterback Glenn Foley from the 17-yard line floated harmlessly into the end zone ++ on the final play of the game that the Nittany Lions could exhale in relief.
And afterward, no one on the Penn State side was pleased with the win, because it was so shoddy. Least pleased of all was coach Joe Paterno, who has had it up to his thick glasses with his inconsistent team.
Paterno is fed up with all the mindless penalties his team is taking. And he is fed up with the trancelike state in which his team plays every other week.
"We're not a very smart team, there's no question about that," a clearly disturbed Paterno said. "I'm in no mood to pat anyone on the back. Boston College wanted that game more than we did, and we're just lucky they didn't get it. We better make up our minds that we're going to get better, or else."
The Nittany Lions were flagged for 10 penalties -- four personal fouls -- worth 95 yards. This has become a trend.
Their running game consisted of a 56-yard touchdown run by Shelly Hammonds, and nothing else. Penn State finished with 78 yards on the ground.
And when Penn State built a 28-7 lead early in the fourth quarter on Darren Perry's 45-yard interception return -- it was Perry's third pickoff of the game -- the Nittany Lions propped up their feet and dozed off.
"We have to develop a killer instinct," said Perry, who led a defense that intercepted Foley five times. "We had them on the ropes and didn't put them away."
Foley, a sophomore from Cherry Hill East High who had three miserable quarters, got off the canvas and tossed TD passes of 20 yards to tight end Mark Chmura and 46 yards to another tight end, Pete Mitchell. Suddenly, it was 28-21 with 5 minutes, 36 seconds remaining.
BC got the ball back with 2:54 remaining. Foley, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 277 yards and seemed unfazed by the interceptions, moved the Eagles to the Penn State 17 before his final pass sailed above receiver Ivan Boyd in the end zone.
"I knew the ball was uncatchable," said Perry, who was in front of Boyd. "It was do or die, either stop them or lose the game."
In the first half, Penn State's offense survived solely on the pinpoint throwing of Sacca, who ended the game with a career-high 292 yards, completing 16 of 22 passes without an interception, although he was sacked six times.
Midway through the second quarter, Sacca read a blitz and checked off with a sideline pass to Terry Smith, who raced into the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown.
Slumping Craig Fayak, who missed two field goals and is 4 for 10 this season, had his extra-point blocked. So it was 6-0.
BC pulled ahead, 7-6, before the half ended on a 1-yard dive by fullback Dwight Shirley.
The Eagles wasted a chance to fatten their lead early in the third quarter after Penn State tailback Richie Anderson lost a fumble on the Nittany Lions' 28-yard line. Moments later, Penn State linebacker Reggie Givens intercepted Foley and, on the next play, Sacca hit Troy Drayton for a 44-yard pickup to the BC 4. On third down, Sacca rolled left, eluded BC linebacker Jason Pohopek, reversed direction, and scored on a 5-yard run. Sacca then rolled right into the end zone for the two-point conversion and a 14-7 lead.
Hammonds, the third-string tailback who looks like Gayle Sayers against BC, made the score 21-7 on his 56-yard sideline run with 4:20 remaining in the third quarter. Last year in his only start, Hammonds rushed for 208 yards against the Eagles. Saturday, he had 90 yards on eight carries after Anderson and Gerry Collins, the two tailbacks ahead of him, went nowhere.
"I just tried to provide a spark," Hammonds said. "I think it was enough to help us win."
But after Perry's interception return for a touchdown, which gave Penn State that 28-7 bulge, the Nittany Lions let up, hardly playing like a nationally ranked team.
No doubt, an effort such as yesterday's won't get it done against teams such as Miami, Notre Dame and Pitt later this season.