Among all of Dan Marino's statistics listed in the many stories and Heisman Trophy hype, one was generally overlooked. Last season, he led the nation in interceptions.
The University of Pittsburgh all-America threw the ball to the wrong team 23 times last year, and the way he started off his senior season Thursday night, he will exceed that number easily.
Marino was intercepted four times, but top-ranked Pitt's defense bailed him out with a superb performance in a 7-6 victory over North Carolina before a national television audience and a sellout crowd of 54,449 at Three Rivers Stadium.
"Without our defense, we probably would have lost the ball game," Marino said. "I put them in a lot of tough situtations and they came through."
Although he completed 15 of 28 passes for 125 yards and the game's only touchdown, Marino admitted he was very disappointed in his performance.
"I made a lot of mental mistakes," said Marino, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 215. "At times, they gave us the deep pass and we didn't take advantage of it. Then, at times, I tried to force it deep."
The first interception came early in the second quarter after North Carolina had taken a 3-0 lead on a 39-yard field goal by Brooks Barwick. Pitt had gained two first downs and had a third down on the Tar Heels' 29. On a crossing pattern, Marino led flanker Dwight Collins too much and free safety Steve Hendrickson made the interception.
On Pitt's next possession, Marino was intercepted again, this time on a deflected pass over the middle grabbed by outside linebacker Mike Wilcher. The Tar Heels drove to the Pittsburgh 14, but on second down Kelvin Bryant caught a swing pass near the sideline and fumbled. Cornerback Troy Hill recovered for the Panthers.
"I tried not to force the ball, but I guess I did," Marino said. "North Carolina played very good defense. One time they would give you the long ball, then when you started to think about that, they would take it away."
Marino's third interception came in the last minute of the third quarter when he tried to go long and overthrew Collins by about five yards. Safety Sammy Johnson made an over-the-shoulder catch on the North Carolina 19.
"Danny is under a lot of pressure," Coach Serafino (Foge) Fazio said. "The passes he did force, they changed to different coverages and he got burned."
The final interception also was a long pass, intended for Collins. Cornerback Walter Black caught it at his 42 with 8:49 to play to set up North Carolina's second field goal, a 48-yarder by Rob Rogers, a sophomore who does the long-distance kicking.
On Pitt's single scoring drive, early in the third quarter, Marino was impressive. He completed four straight passes: a 16-yarder to halfback Bryan Thomas (five receptions for 22 yards), a 19-yarder down the sidelines to Collins, six yards over the middle to Collins to the four and a rollout to Thomas on the next play.
"The difference then was that we didn't make any mistakes," Marino said. "We were able to put several good plays together, but too many times we stopped ourselves."
In addition to four interceptions, Pitt was penalized 13 times for 97 yards. Thomas, who gained 1,132 yards last season, was held to 54 on 15 carries.