If the colleges manage to arrange a Penn State-Nebraska feast each weekend, National Football League players could strike until the 22nd century and few fans would mind. This one today had everything that makes the semiamateur sport special: loads of flair and drama; dashes of controversy and greed.
In two ways--one good, one sad--the 27-24 victory State mustered in the final four seconds showed the drastic change of direction in college football the last several years. The positive trend: games aren't really over till they're over any more. Everybody can pass. Not long ago, Nebraska could not have driven for the touchdown that seemed to yield victory and State could not have gotten the one that did.
Negatively, schools are going to extraordinary lengths to maximize profits. This is in the spirit of American sport, of course, but State almost was embarrassed today by hastily preparing for a game television dictated would end at night. Much of the final quarter was played with all the portable lights on one side of the field out. Had they not flicked on, every fateful pitch of the final seven minutes would have come in near pitch-black.
As it was, Nebraska and Penn State eyes did not see some of the same plays the same way. The Huskers argued that Kirk Bowman trapped, instead of caught, the winning two-yard pass. Television seemed to vindicate the officials on that one. What probably will get Nebraska even more livid is the replay that seems to show Mike McCloskey catching the 15-yard pass that set up that game winner out of bounds.
By a lot.
"I was worried," McCloskey admitted. "I saw some of the Nebraska players and they looked pretty confident that I was out. But the ref came over and made the call."
Nobody can disagree with Joe Paterno's overview: "There was enough glory on that field for both teams."
There surely was.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the day-night affair was State's reaction on the sideline to Nebraska's 80-yard drive, after an end-zone interception, to pull ahead by three with 78 seconds left: calm. Well, not exactly, but there was none of the near-madness one would expect.
Paterno was pacing. But then he always plows a path between the 30s. Five touchdowns ahead with five seconds to play against Northwestern, Paterno still would be walking his nerves. But quarterback Todd Blackledge had his arms folded, as though the diagrams for a last-second comeback were right there in the State playbook.
That's what startles State watchers. As long as a tick or two remain on the clock, these guys can score. Once upon an autumn, the only passes anyone coming here saw regularly were in the nearby mountain range. If lions only run, so will Lions, everybody figured Paterno reasoned during the 1960s and '70s.
In the '80s, Paterno caught the suddenly-contagious pass fever. In four '82 games, Blackledge has tied the school record for touchdown passes in a season (15).
So while so many Lion fans in the record crowd of 85,304 were hoping that Nebraska would score that inevitable touchdown a little earlier, Blackledge and his buddies knew better. They weren't quite casual; they were very confident, to the point of passing up a risky chance for a tie for an even chancier shot at victory.
That was on fourth-and-11 from the Nebraska 34 inside one minute. A midfield kick hardly was beyond freshman Massimo Manca's range, as he showed twice earlier. As had been clear three times before, however, accuracy was a sudden problem. That made Paterno's gamble more plausible, though no less thrilling.
Blackledge drilled a chest-high hummer to Kenny Jackson about 13 yards downfield, but a Husker then drilled Jackson back enough to require a measurement. Eleven yards needed; eleven yards and a foot accomplished.
"I think we were the most prepared Penn State team I can remember," said guard Pete Speros of Potomac, Md., a hero on an under-rated offensive line that gave Blackledge what seemed like hours to throw each pass. "Even in our spare time, we came in and studied films, plays. I knew we had enough time, especially with two timeouts."
McCloskey elaborated, recalling State's past and hinting at its future: "They can't key on anyone. We used to have one or two key players; now we have five or six."
Let's follow the career of the fellow who caught that winning touchdown pass. Bowman's been around a lot his three years at State, which illustrates another point in college football's favor: coaches adapt their philosophies to the material at hand.
"Bowman was a tight end in high school," Paterno said. "We recruited him as a linebacker, but he got so big we made him a defensive tackle. Then we needed offensive linemen, and he runs so well we thought he might make a good guard. But he had a knee injury and we didn't get a good look at him at guard."
Other injuries demanded Bowman come full cycle, back to tight end. Today's catches were the first and second of his collegiate life: both were for touchdowns.
For drama, this victory surely is the Lions' best since the '69 Orange Bowl, when they scored a two-point conversion in the final seconds, after Kansas had been caught with 12 men on the field, and won by 15-14. For impact, no one is quite certain how this ranks--because the Huskers just might not be as good as they think.
Before today, they thought destiny might have blessed them. Athletic director Bob Devaney even said this bunch was superior to the '71 team that was regarded as among the best in college history. So State charged off to a 14-0 lead, and might have taken all the fun out of it for the national television audience had Manca been a few feet straighter.
Either way, Husker dreams got dashed.