Rare big game in Happy Valley ends with a sad result for the Nittany Lions

JOHN EISENBERG

October 11, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

University Park,Pa -- They call this place Happy Valley,so we know that the person who came up with the name never spent the winter here.We also know that the people who run Penn State's Athletic department want to make sure it stays happy.

A local Associated Press reporter named Kelly Kissel did some digging last week and came up with the fairly astonishing news that,since Joe Paterno became head in 1965, Penn State has played only 11 home games against teams that finished the season in the top 10.

That works out roughly to one every two-and-a-half years, and while the schedules are made well in advance and Paterno can't control the rises and falls of his opponents, the intent of such scheduling is unmistakable. As the old saying goes, "If you can't beat 'em, don't play 'em."

Of course, it does pretty much guarantee those high rankings and bowl appearances that are the markings of Penn State football, and although it's a little cowardly and the poor fans get fed a steady diet of Temple and Rutgers, ask yourself what you would do differently if you were selling 96,000 tickets a game.

Besides, that's just the way college football is played these days. All of the top teams make so much money from bowls and television that they can't afford to risk a fall in the polls. The result is they don't play any more tough games than is absolutely necessary. The only give-back is that they have to relent and, reluctantly, play each other every once in a while.

Penn State brought the famous and fabulous Miami Hurricanes in here yesterday, and Paterno probably was trying to remember if he was out sick on the day they agreed to it. ("I'm playing who?") Scheduling a tough game is one thing, but scheduling Miami is lunacy if you have any designs on a national title. The Hurricanes were working on an 81-7 streak before yesterday.

It turned out the game was tough and close and made you wish Paterno played more biggies here. The autumn leaves were turning, the sun was out and the enormous crowd shook the stadium all afternoon. But when it was over, the crowd was quiet and Miami's streak was at 82-7 after a 17-14 win, and it was fair to ask if the difference was something you couldn't measure by numbers.

See, Kelly Kissell not only dug up the news that Penn State keeps 'em laughing at home, but also that the Nittany Lions have a terrible record against top teams. According to Kissell's research, the Lions are 10-31 under Paterno against teams that finished in the top 10.

That's a .244 average, which can get you a million-dollar salary in the major leagues, but doesn't amount to a pile of cleats in college football. Sure, it's misleading considering that Paterno has won two national titles and 14 of 21 bowl games. He obviously can win big games. But that .244 figure implies something.

Meanwhile, across the field yesterday were the Hurricanes, who possess a truly singular ability to win big games. "They just find a way, like all the great teams," said Penn State offensive lineman John Gerak.

The Nittany Lions gained 370 yards to Miami's 218. The Hurricanes had but 80 yards passing, 220 below average. Their longest play was 16 yards. But then, Penn State also outplayed Miami last year in Miami -- and lost by six. Florida State has outplayed Miami the last two years, but Miami has won with fourth-quarter rallies.

"People are tired of seeing us win, tired of seeing us No. 1," said Miami defensive end Darren Krein, "but that's OK. We're going to keep winning, and keep on being the No. 1 team."

You do that today by winning your few big games, and here's a telling stat: This was the fourth time in a decade that the Hurricanes had played back-to-back games against top-10 teams, and they have swept all four doubleheaders. Is that beautiful? Feel free to root against them for their showboating and arrogance, but we're talking about true excellence.

For years, they could pull it off because they had more talent. They had Michael Irvin and Jerome Brown and Alonzo Highsmith. The team is still loaded, but it's different now. Florida State and Penn State are talent equals. Yet the Hurricanes still win these games. They just hang around and hang around, and in the end, rely on an unexplainable -- and peerless -- big-play capacity.

Yesterday, Penn State missed a 20-yard field goal, committed nine penalties to Miami's two and got stuffed on a goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions easily could have won had quarterback John Sacca not thrown a silly pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. But Miami always makes that one play. As Roseanne Roseannadanna said, "It's always something."

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