It would take more than Vols to dull luster of Penn State-Notre Dame game

Phil Jackman B

November 14, 1991|By Phil Jackman

Joe Paterno had to chuckle at the suggestion. His Penn State team is playing Notre Dame before 96,500 tailgaters and half the nation's TV football fans Saturday and someone wanted to know if the fact the Irish got upset last week by Tennessee took some of the luster off the game.

"Notre Dame could come here with three wins and it would still be a big game," assured the coach. "Regardless of what follows [tiresome bowl talk], this is competition between two of the best and that's all the fans and the people involved can ask for. I know we're satisfied with the opportunity to prove how good we are."

Both teams enter with 8-2 records, assured of lucrative bowl berths. Being home, the Nittany Lions have been tabbed a three-point favorite.

Such speculation has a way of leaving coaches uninterested, they say. But listen to Paterno extol the virtues of the Irish for a while and, if he was an oddsmaker, the line would be far different.

Getting the jump on Irish coach Lou Holtz, who weekly has a knack for classifying the opposition right up there with Michigan's point-a-minute juggernaut of long ago, Paterno allowed, "I think we're a fine football team and I think we're peaking. But, offensively, I think Notre Dame is as good as they come. It can do anything it wants when it has the ball."

So what happened against Tennessee, ironically, Penn State's expected foe in the Fiesta Bowl come New Year's Day?

"You get in a game like that, it looks like it's wrapped up and, to me, it looked as if Notre Dame let up a bit. They played a little differently than they did when they were ahead," answered the coach.

"The thing is Tennessee was good enough to get back into it when Notre Dame went into a lull. Actually, it didn't look as if Tennessee did anything to stop Notre Dame, it just seemed to stop itself."

The Irish were rolling, 31-7, just before halftime and were lined up for a makeable field goal. The Vols blocked the kick and returned it for a touchdown. Tennessee went ahead, 35-34, with a couple of minutes to go when N.D. took off from its own end.

"Notice," Paterno continued, "when it had to, Notre Dame went right down the field and had a field goal from the 10-yard line at the end for the win." The kick was blocked.

"I know if we get in a 35-point game with Notre Dame, our chances of winning aren't too good. And, if you fumble the ball, get intercepted or make too many little mistakes, they can get 45 points on you. It will be a terrific challenge for our defense to keep us in there.

"But just as important is what we do when we get the ball. You just can't ask your defense to hang in there all day with their offense. You have to keep the ball for a while when you get it and do some scoring."

The coach added, "We should be at our best Saturday, better than at any time this year, and I only hope I know what I'm talking about because we're going to have to be to win."

Given his druthers, Paterno would just as soon have seen Notre Dame win last week: "They can't be anything but better after losing like that. They had some easy games before that, against Navy and Air Force, and things didn't quite work out when they got in a tough one. They'll be tremendously improved coming off that game because Notre Dame has quality people and I don't have to tell you about the pride at that place. I hated to see them lose to Tennessee."

Trailing the Irish in South Bend last year 21-7, Tony Sacca brought Penn State back, passing for 277 yards and three scores in a 24-21 victory. The teams have played every year since 1980, the Lions winning seven of 10.

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