Lions are a happy family again After last year's valley, Penn State is headed up

September 29, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

The 1992 college football season lives in infamy in Happy Valley. That was when Penn State, dressed up with national championship aspirations, fell flat on its mountain ego. That was when the Nittany Lions started 5-0, lost an October showdown to Miami, and staggered home as 7-5 pretenders.

That hurt.

Eric Ravotti, a scout-team linebacker at the time, remembers how the once-promising season unraveled after the Lions outplayed the Hurricanes, but lost, 17-14, at home.

"We had no incentive, nothing to play for anymore," Ravotti said yesterday, lumping himself among the underachievers. "There was an emotional letdown. We didn't get up for any games after that, didn't play to the level we used to play when we were enthusiastic and caring.

"It was something that happened. It's in the past."

Penn State remembers Miami the way Texas remembers the Alamo. A year later, though, are they a year smarter? Ravotti, the starting weakside linebacker now, thinks so. Joe Paterno thinks so. The whole team thinks so.

The ninth-ranked Lions may get the chance to prove it. They come to Byrd Stadium Saturday night to play winless Maryland. A victory would send Penn State to 5-0 and a Big Ten showdown with Michigan on Oct. 16. Talk about deja vu.

"Last year we were in the same spot," offensive guard Mike Malinoski said. "We learned a lot from that. We're more mature now."

Every reference to the 1992 season comes cloaked in negatives for Penn State these days. In its aftermath, a high-ranking university official even told Paterno his football program was "faltering."

Yesterday, on his weekly teleconference, the venerable 66-year-old coach disagreed with that assessment and played down a reference to a Penn State dynasty.

"We're not faltering," Paterno said, "and we're not a dynasty. We work hard, we try to be precise when we play. Obviously, we've had some success. I don't think we've been in that class the last couple of years, but we're working our way back to that."

Prodded as much by Penn State's entry into the Big Ten as last season's failures, Paterno did some fine-tuning in the off-season. He instituted a weekly breakfast that allowed players to air their grievances. He went to six coaching clinics to bone up. And, he says, he got closer to the players in general. That refrain has been heard before in Happy Valley after the Lions had a rare disappointment.

"He's said stuff like that in the past," Malinoski said. "But he's sticking to it now."

Ravotti, a fifth-year senior, red-shirted last season because Paterno asked him and Rich McKenzie to consider it. They had shared the weak-side linebacking position for three years, and Ravotti welcomed the chance to come back for the inaugural Big Ten season as a regular.

He thinks the biggest difference is in the players, though, not the coach.

"Joe was always available," Ravotti said. "Last year, he didn't understand -- or we didn't tell him -- the problems we were having as a squad. The team had some problems, but I don't think anybody went to Coach Paterno. Whether he could have helped is another question.

"We have a committee he talks to now if there are problems. He is closer to the team than last year."

One of Penn State's big problems last year was leadership. According to Ravotti, there was none.

"There really were no leaders," he said. "A couple of times, leaders emerged, but they faded out quickly. There were more individual goals last year. That's the problem that we had. That's not the case this year. We're all team."

The players took it upon themselves to undergo an attitude adjustment in the off-season. "We got our heads screwed on straight," Ravotti says. Most of the players stayed in State College during the summer to work out and lift weights. Camaraderie was the byproduct.

This year, with the exception of the John Sacca incident at quarterback, unity is breaking out all over. It's most noticeable at tailback, where Ki-Jana Carter, Mike Archie and Stephen Pitts form a fearsome three-man rotation. Carter has been the Lions' chief ground weapon so far, averaging 6.3 yards a carry and 112.5 a game.

Paterno attributes the Lions' 240-yards-per-game rushing average to a quick-blossoming offensive line. "We're better than I thought we'd be right now because of the offensive line," he said. "It's not only the physical part of it, but poise. They're very poised and make very few mental mistakes."

The defense has rediscovered a pass rush -- the Lions had nine sacks in a 31-0 blitz at Iowa -- and are stingy against the run.

Penn State has even weathered an almost annual controversy at quarterback. In a fit of emotion, Sacca threatened to quit the team a week ago after he was replaced by Kerry Collins at Iowa. Last year, the results of a snit like that might have caused big problems. This year there was hardly a ripple. Sacca has since apologized to the team. And Collins cemented his grip on the job with a four-touchdown performance against Rutgers on Saturday.

Did Ravotti fear that history was repeating itself when Sacca spoke out?

"It could have happened," he said. "When John said that, it was a very emotional time. He let it get the best of him. It would have been the wrong decision for him [to quit]. But as far as the team, it wouldn't really affect us. The team will go on, no matter what."

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