MIAMI -- Penn State showed yesterday why all the talk of a national championship going into the season was not some ludicrous fantasy. But at the end of a long, steamy afternoon inside the Orange Bowl, Miami showed the Nittany Lions something else.
The second-ranked Hurricanes needed three long, second-half touchdowns, as well as a favorable ruling by the officials after an interception with 64 seconds left, to hold off ninth-ranked Penn State, 26-20, before a slightly relieved crowd of 75,723.
The victory, secured when Darryl Williams picked off a desperation pass by Nittany Lions quarterback Tony Sacca near the goal line, was the 41st straight at home for Miami (5-0). The defeat likely knocked Penn State (5-2) out of contention for a national title.
"It's not going to hurt us, but the national championship would be an absolute miracle," said Sacca, who survived eight sacks to have one of the best games of his career.
After an 80-yard touchdown pass from Miami quarterback Gino Torretta to Horace Copeland and a 91-yard punt return by Kevin Williams put the Hurricanes ahead 20-6, Sacca led Penn State back. A 72-yard scoring drive ended when he found Terry Smith for a 2-yard score with 24 seconds left in the third quarter.
After Miami came right back to score on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Torretta to Lamar Thomas early in the fourth quarter, Penn State converted two third-down plays and Sacca kept the drive going with a 2-yard sneak on fourth-and-one from the Hurricanes' 24. Three plays later, Sacca hit Smith again on a 9-yard touchdown pass and, with a little over five minutes left, the Nittany Lions were within six.
"We helped put them back in the game by killing ourselves with penalties," said Miami defensive end Rusty Medearis, alluding to 39 yards worth of yellow flags on Penn State's 78-yard drive, and 11 penalties for 124 yards overall. "We knew we had to stop them."
Penn State had two more chances. The first one ended when Sacca slipped as he dropped back to pass on third-and-seven from the Miami 35 with 4:45 remaining. After stopping the Hurricanes on downs, the Nittany Lions got the ball back with 2:36 to go.
Starting from his team's 26 following an interference call against Miami on the punt return, Sacca hit O.J. McDuffie with a pair of 15-yard passes to the Hurricanes' 44. Gerry Collins was stuffed at the line of scrimmage for no gain, and Sacca was hurried into two incompletions.
It came down to fourth-and-10 from the 44.
"That play was for the national championship," said Medearis, who had sacked Sacca twice and helped on another. "That's what we kept telling each other in the huddle. If we get beat, that would have been it. We're playing for a national championship. A lot of teams can't say that."
Penn State, meanwhile, was trying to climb back into the picture. A 21-10 loss to Southern Cal last month in Los Angeles had turned the Nittany Lions' dream into more of a pipedream. A victory yesterday was the only way for Penn State to start dreaming again.
But as things turned out, the 91- degree heat and the defensive pressure by the Hurricanes had taken their toll on Sacca. He had completed 24 of his first 37 passes for 263 yards, some of them with Miami players draped all over him. He had made big plays and, except for overthrowing Richie Anderson in the end zone back in the third quarter, he had played wonderfully.
"I thought the poor kid was so tired," said Paterno, who shockingly admitted that he thought about taking Sacca out late the game because of fatigue.
Said Sacca, "At the end, I was so damn tired, I really couldn't see anything upfield. The play we called was a pass, so I figured I'd throw the ball."
As the play developed, Sacca rolled to his right. He had 20 yards of open field in front of him and the Nittany Lions had one timeout left. Too tired to run, Sacca heaved the ball downfield. Backup wide receiver Troy Drayton was held up by Miami cornerback Paul White around the 3-yard line, and the ball floated into Darryl Williams' belly.
Williams caught the ball at the 1, and the momentum carried him back in the end zone. Then things got strange. He started out, got to the 1, then went back in the end zone. He ran a few yards laterally and stepped out of the side of the end zone. The Hurricanes were given the ball at their own 1.
"The ruling was momentum," said referee John Nealon. "The defender caught the ball on the 1-yard line and his momentum carried him in the end zone. When you catch a ball in the field of play and momentum carries you in the end zone, the ball is spotted where the catch occurred."
Even Paterno seemed unaware of the possibility that Williams ran back a second time into the end zone, which would have meant a safety and Miami free-kicking from its own 20 to Penn State. And he didn't seem particularly perturbed about his team's defeat.
Though the Nittany Lions gave up several big plays, and hurt themselves when a second-quarter touchdown was called back because of an offensive lineman downfield, Penn State had managed to gain back the respect it had lost with sloppy victories over Boston College and Temple.
5) "It was a good effort," said Paterno.