TEMPE, ARIZ * — TEMPE, Ariz. -- If there's a lesson to be learned from yesterday's Fiesta Bowl, it's this: When you get Penn State reeling, you do your best to take the Nittany Lions completely out. Otherwise, the charter flight home is a long one.
Tenth-ranked Tennessee learned that painful lesson. After limiting sixth-ranked Penn State to 59 yards in total offense in the first half, the Volunteers could only watch in shock as the Nittany Lions scored four touchdowns in four minutes in the second half on their way to a 42-17 victory before 71,133 at Sun Devil Stadium.
Defense sparked Penn State (11-2), which ran its Fiesta Bowl record to 5-0. In each of those games, Penn State has -- at least statistically -- been outplayed on offense (Tennessee had a 441-226 yard edgein total offense). But probably none of those previous Fiesta Bowl wins -- including the 14-10 victory over Miami in 1987 for the national championship -- was as stunning.
"It happened so fast," said Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly. "Things turned around in just a matter of minutes."
How fast? Behind 17-7 in the third quarter with an offense that had gone three plays and out on its first three second-half possessions, Penn State got a spark when wide receiver O.J. McDuffie returned a punt 39 yards to the Tennessee 35 -- the Nittany Lions' first trip across midfield since the first quarter.
On the next two plays quarterback Tony Sacca proceeded to run his incomplete string to eight in a row, but on third-and-10 found McDuffie over the middle on a 28-yard pass to the 7-yard line. Three plays later on third-and-goal from the 3, Sacca found wide receiver Chip LaBarca all alone in the middle of the end zone, and Penn State was down just 17-14 with 2 minutes, 56 seconds left in the third quarter.
"After the punt return we felt we were back in it," McDuffie said. "We knew we were still in the game, and we knew we had comeback potential."
But there's no way he could have imagined what happened next. Two plays after the touchdown, Kelly fumbled after being sacked by Tyoka Jackson. On the next play, Sacca hit Kyle Brady on a 13-yard scoring pass for a 21-17 Penn State lead.
Two plays later, Kelly was intercepted by Reggie Givens. Six plays after that, Sandy Spring's Richie Anderson was scoring from 1 yard out, and Penn State led by 28-17 with 14:11 left in the game.
And it just got worse. Kelly was intercepted on the next play by Givens, who returned it 23 yards for his first career touchdown, and McDuffie scored on a 37-yard pass from Sacca on the next drive for a 42-17 lead that left Tennessee woozy -- and defeated.
"That [turnaround] was amazing from many standpoints," said Tennessee coach Johnny Majors. "They just did a terrific job forcing turnovers, and that completely turned the entire ballgame around. They earned the win, and we didn't."
It's not that Tennessee didn't have the opportunities, which is why Majors and his team will spend much of the off-season thinking back to missed first-half chances. By halftime the Volunteers had sacked Sacca four times, and had a huge advantage in total yards (324-59) and first downs (16-5) against a Nittany Lions team that spent the half running scared. But Tennessee probably was the most frustrated, taking just a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
"We moved the ball so well, but we just couldn't score any points," Kelly said. "To end the half up by just three, that was real disappointing."
Penn State actually led first after Tennessee return man Dale Carter fumbled the opening kickoff after losing it in the sun. Geff Kerwin recovered for the Nittany Lions on the 10-yard line, and three plays later Sacca hit fullback Sam Gash on an 11-yard scoring pass for a 7-0 Penn State lead.
Despite the statistical dominance, Tennessee's only first-half 11 touchdown came after its third drive when a 1-yard run by freshman tailback James Stewart (12 carries, 74 yards in the first half) tied the game with 8:48 left in the first quarter.
Stewart's running and the passing of Kelly set up the Volunteers' second score, a 24-yard field goal by John Becksvoort that made it 10-7 with 1:42 left in the quarter.
But the missed opportunities began to pile up. Becksvoort was wide right on a 37-yard field-goal attempt on his team's next possession and two series later the Volunteers were stopped on a fourth-and-two play on the Penn State 17 -- just two plays after Kelly overthrew a wide-open Carl Pickens.
"When you have an opponent down and you don't put them away, you usually pay for it," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "We were able to stay in it because of our punting game. I told our kids at halftime we can go out and feel sorry for ourselves, or we can go out and play good football. We weren't down much, so it wasn't a bad situation."
And Penn State won. Give the wacky stat of the day award to Sacca, who was sacked four times and completed just 11 of 28 passes for 150 yards, yet threw for four touchdowns.