Stop Marcus Allen and you stop Southern California. Everyone knew it but no one could do it. Until today in the Fiesta Bowl.
Penn State limited Allen, the Heisman Trophy winner, to 85 yards rushing as the Nittany Lions beat the Trojans, 26-10, at Sun Devil Stadium.
It was the first time this year that Allen had been held under 100 yards. He had eight 200-yard games.
An indication of how things would go for USC came on the game's first play, when Allen fumbled the ball and Roger Jackson of Penn State fell on it at the Trojan 17-yard line. Two plays later, Curt Warner scored from the 17 and the Lions led, 7-0, after only 15 seconds had elapsed.
Warner, the junior tailback who has been compared with Allen, wasn't as good as Allen this day. He was far better. Fully recovered from a pulled hamstring muscle that wrecked the second half of his season, Warner gained 145 yards on 26 carries.
Warner doesn't believe in delayed gratification in the Fiesta Bowl. In last year's game against Ohio State, he scored the first time he touched the ball. He did the same against the Trojans.
For his efforts, Warner was named the bowl's outstanding offensive player for the second straight year.
"It was his show," Warner said of Allen. "He's the Heisman Trophy winner. He deserves everything he received. But I think I deserve a little respect, too. I feel like I was written off by lot of people."
Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge provided balance to Warner's running, completing 11 passes in 24 attempts for 175 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came on a 52-yard pass to Greg Garrity early in the second half and put Penn State ahead, 14-7.
But the key to this game was the Penn State defense, which took advantage of poor USC field position to repeatedly frustrate the Trojans. The only USC touchdown in the first half came with 2:52 left in the first quarter when linebacker Chip Banks intercepted Blackledge and ran 20 yards.
"They did a great job of coming after us if we had any negative field position," USC Coach John Robinson said.
"I was impressed with their quickness. We knew they would be a physical team, but we didn't know they'd be this quick. Today, they were quicker than we were."
Leading the Penn State defense was tackle Leo Wisniewski, who stopped Allen for a three-yard loss on the tailback's second carry, and was in the Trojan backfield a good part of the afternoon.
Wisniewski, a 6-foot-1, 250-pound senior, said the trophy he won as the game's top player should be split 11 ways. He might be strong enough to do it.
"We didn't do anything special," he said. "We played very physically. We've got a tremendous defense."
"This is the best defense we've played all year," the USC star said, to no one's surprise. "A lot of times, we felt like we could break one, but they stunted into our backfield a lot. I knew they'd do a good job against us."
Allen fumbled a second time when he was hit on a second-quarter play by Roger Jackson, whose brother, Kenny, caught three passes for 55 yards for Penn State. Wisniewski recovered that fumble, but not before accidentally kicking it 18 yards downfield and giving Penn State (10-2) possession on the USC 24.
The Lions moved to the four, stalled and Brian Franco's 21-yard field goal, his first connection after two misses, gave Penn State a 17-7 lead that held up the rest of the half.
The Lions immediately took control at the start of the second half, when the 6-4, 220-pound Blackledge moved his team 80 yards in nine plays. Warner went in from 20 yards out and Penn State led, 24-7.
USC (9-3) then mounted its own drive, moving to the Penn State 20. But sophomore quarterback John Masur, 11 for 23 for 123 yards for the day, threw three straight incompletions and the Trojans had to settle for Steve Jordan's 37-yard field goal. A blocked punt out of the end zone for a safey at the end of the third quarter accounted for the final Penn State points and was an assertive finish to a game that the Lions dominated.
"We came out knowing that the team that would take over physically would be the one to win the game," Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said. "We have not played anyone stronger, with more endurance or in better condition than ourselves."