PHILADELPHIA — -- PHILADELPHIA -- It's a good thing Penn State opted for the Big Ten before the new Big East football league was formed last year. Consider what has happened to the Nittany Lions the past two weeks, and what might happen to them Saturday in Miami.
Last night's 24-7 victory over Temple at Veterans Stadium was just as unimpressive for 12th-ranked Penn State as its previous win over Boston College. Now, after struggling against the least of the Big East, the Nittany Lions will go down to the Orange Bowl for a game that will either make or break their season.
The Nittany Lions needed a couple of crucial fumbles by Temple quarterback Trent Thompson to offset three of their own, as well as a missed 35-yard field goal by Owls kicker Mike Knuth, to keep them in the lead. But what they needed most was the final 121 seconds to salvage a little self-respect.
A 22-yard touchdown pass from Tony Sacca to Terry Smith with 2 minutes, 1 second remaining helped put Penn State (5-1) ahead, 17-7, and Darren Perry's interception, followed by his 41-yard return for a touchdown, helped end a night of dreaming for Temple (1-4).
"We're winning ugly, but we're winning," said Sacca. "A win is a win, ugly or not."
The touchdown pass, Sacca's second of the game, came shortly after the Penn State quarterback was nearly intercepted at the ++ goal line. Despite the two touchdown passes, giving him 12 for the season, it was a difficult night for Sacca. It was also Perry's second interception return for a touchdown in the past two weeks.
Despite the victory -- one in which the Nittany Lions were outplayed from the middle of the first quarter until the end of the fourth -- Penn State has to feel both fortunate and shaky. Fortunate, since it was able to overcome another poor performance. Shaky, since the Nittany Lions must now face the second-ranked Hurricanes.
As for the Owls, who have faced an almost impossible early-season schedule, it was an ego-boosting defeat. Temple came away knowing it had given Penn State a huge scare, and nearly an improbable defeat.
"Clemson is the best we've faced," said Temple coach Jerry Berndt. "But that's like comparing apples and oranges. It's the sixth-best team against the 12th-best team. I just wanted us to play hard and aggressive. I didn't even say I wanted to win. My team hurts right now. Playing them close is no longer good enough."
Trailing by 10-7 early in the second half, Temple had clearly taken the momentum away from Penn State, stopping the Nittany Lions on their first two possessions and marching from its own 12 to the Penn State 19.
But after making several big plays -- a 9-yard run after avoiding a sack and then jumping over a prone teammate, a 21-yard scramble and then a 4-yard run on fourth-and-one while recovering his own fumble in midair -- Thompson's luck ran out.
On second-and-eight at the Penn State 19, the Temple quarterback fumbled again. This time, the ball was recovered by D'Onofrio. But the defense continued to pressure on Sacca, and the Owls continued to get their chances.
Temple's next opportunity came on its next possession. On third-and-10 from the Penn State 47, Owls receiver Leslie Shepherd of Forestville was held by cornerback Leonard Humphries at the Penn State 32. But after getting down to the 12, the drive stalled. On third-and-16 from the 18, Thompson's pass went over Shepherd's head in the end zone.