Tony Sacca hasn't spent a lifetime at Penn State; it only seems that way. He has played one position for the Nittany Lions -- quarterback -- but many variations of the same role. From unsteady to unhappy to merely unsung, from phenom to failure to merely frustrated.
Now, three years after starting as a freshman because of injuries to others, and one year after being pulled out of three games, Sacca's level of consistency has finally matched the resiliency he has needed to endure an often difficult life in Happy Valley.
Even Joe Paterno, Sacca's coach and chief critic, seems pleased with the job his senior quarterback is doing.
"I think Tony is having an outstanding year," Paterno said earlier this week. "I don't think he's perfect. I'd like to see him take a few less sacks. But overall, I'm pleased with the way he's played."
Sacca might have to be perfect tomorrow, or close to it, for the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions (5-1) to have any chance at beating second-ranked and highly favored Miami (4-0) at the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes have won 40 straight games there.
Though his statistics have been impressive in victories the past two weeks over Big East doormats Boston College and Temple -- he threw for a career-high 292 yards against the Eagles, and completed 31 of 45 passes overall -- the offense has sputtered.
"A lot of it has been inconsistency," Sacca said, alluding to the uncharacteristically high number of fumbles and penalties by Penn State throughout the season. "It seems like every other play, one person breaks down. We have to start concentrating a lot more."
Sacca can certainly relate to what some of his less experienced teammates are going through; he was often guilty of similar transgressions in the past, and often at odds with Paterno as a result.
It began during Sacca's sophomore year when he privately questioned Paterno about why the Nittany Lions weren't throwing the ball more. It came to a head last spring, when Paterno openly criticized his quarterback before the team's annual Blue-White game.
In return, Sacca took some shots at Paterno. In a national preseason magazine, Sacca was quoted as saying, "I know I have the potential to win ballgames and be a good quarterback. Sometimes you don't get that opportunity up here. . . ."
Sacca has gotten the opportunity this season, though an injury to wide-out O.J. McDuffie has recently reverted the offense to those days of yawn. Sacca threw for a school-record five touchdowns against Georgia Tech, and is threatening several other single-season and career marks.
Though Sacca has thrown only three interceptions to go along with his 12 touchdown passes, Paterno
would still like it if his quarterback would throw the ball away when the pass-blocking breaks down. And Sacca would like a little more freedom to throw deep.
Whether he gets that opportunity against the Hurricanes seems doubtful, since they have limited opposing quarterbacks to 81.6 yards passing a game while making 14 sacks. "I can't say they have any weaknesses on defense," said Sacca, who has been sacked 21 times this season.
Until tomorrow, the biggest game Sacca has played in at Penn State was also one of his best. In a 24-21 road upset of the then top-ranked Irish late last season, Sacca finished 20 of 34 for 277 yards with three touchdowns. It was one of only seven games last season that Sacca played from start to finish.
But with quarterback Tom Bill no longer in the program, and with no one challenging him, Sacca has been relieved this year only briefly because of a dislocated finger on his throwing hand during the lone defeat at Southern Cal.
"It didn't bother me a whole lot last year," Sacca said of Paterno's often quick hook. "A couple of times he came in when I felt it wasn't necessary. But a couple of times it was necessary. It hurts the team if something should happen to me."
Those who have some familiarity with being a Penn State quarterback are impressed with what Sacca has done so far this season. Going into tomorrow's game, Sacca has completed 85 of 146 passes for 1,322 yards, good for ninth in the country in passing efficiency. In his career, Sacca has thrown 32 touchdown passes, for 4,703 yards.
"I think he's doing what he should be doing at this point in his career," said former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge, now an analyst for the Big East network.
"I think he's doing a good job of being a leader, of making some better decisions."
Year.. .. .. Passing.. .. .. Yards.. .. Pct... .. TD.. .. Int.. .. TD
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .(P).. .. .. .. .. (R)
1988.. .. .. 54-146.. .. .. .. 821.. .. . 37.. .. .. 4.. .. . 5.. .. 0
1989.. .. .. 56-137.. .. .. .. 694.. .. . 40.9.. .. . 6.. .. . 5.. .. 1
1990.. .. . 122-249.. .. .. . 1866.. .. . 48.9.. .. 10.. .. . 9.. .. 1
1991.. .. .. 85-146.. .. .. . 1322.. .. . 58.2.. .. 12.. .. . 3.. .. 0
Total.. .. 317-678.. .. .. . 4703.. .. ..46.8.. .. 32.. .. 22.. .. 2