Matt Knizner lived out every bench warmer's fantasy today. The only reason he even got into the game was because Penn State's starting quarterback, John Shaffer, had been knocked out of the game after running six yards to the Alabama 11-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Knizner didn't have time to warm up on the sideline. He said he didn't even have time to be nervous, which might have been the best thing since it was third down and one.
On the next play, Knizner took his first and only snap from center, rolled right, and made a hero of himself by throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brian Siverling with five minutes left to provide the decisive margin in unbeaten Penn State's 19-17 victory over Alabama, before 85,444 in Beaver Stadium. It was Alabama's first loss of the season.
"Great call, great outcome," Knizner said.
"I called a power running play at first since we only needed a yard for the first down," said Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. "But then I said, 'To heck with that. Let's let it all hang out and go for the bundle.' I knew Matt could do it."
Penn State's only touchdown of the game gave the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions (5-0) a 19-10 lead. And they would need every bit of the cushion because 10th-ranked Alabama (4-1) would go 74 plays in only 47 seconds and come within 19-17 on Mike Shula's 14-yard touchdown pass to Thornton Chandler with 10 seconds left.
Anybody who thought the game definitely was over obviously hadn't watched the Tide come from behind in the final seconds to beat Georgia earlier this season. Alabama almost did it again today.
Van Tiffin made the perfect onside kick; his teammates even recovered on the Penn State 40 with eight seconds left. Even if Alabama didn't run another play, the talented Tiffin could try a 57-yard field goal with a brisk wind at his back.
However, at least one Crimson Tide player was offside. So Tiffin had to kick off again, after a five-yard penalty, and this time Penn State's Jim Coates fielded the onside attempt essentially to end the game.
The Tide had gone ahead, 7-0, 10 minutes into the game on Shula's 19-yard touchdown pass to Al Bell, an extraordinarily talented receiver who made six catches for 112 yards.
Penn State kept driving inside the Alabama 30; once, at the end of the third quarter, the Nittany Lions even had first down from inside the five and couldn't gain a yard.
So, Massimo Manca kicked four field goals. His 50-yarder just after halftime gave Penn State a 9-7 lead. And his 20-yarder (after Alabama's goal line stand) made it 12-7.
That's where Penn State should have broken, but didn't.
Alabama Coach Ray Perkins decided to go on one of those old-fashioned Tide-roll rushing drives. Certainly, he has the running backs to do that, especially freshman Bobby Humphrey.
"He's one of those typical Alabama halfbacks who can cut 90 degrees," Penn State linebacker Rogers Alexander said. "You say to yourself, 'I thought I just saw him behind the guard.' He was there, before the 90-degree cut that got him down the sideline."
Humphrey made a couple of those cuts on three successive pitch-left rushes that gained 28 yards. He was stopped for no gain on first and 15 (after a delay-of-game penalty), but penalties then hurt Penn State more than Humphrey did.
On a two-yard pass to Humphrey, Penn State was penalized 15 yards when linebacker Shane Conlan was called for roughing the passer. That moved Alabama to the Penn State 38.
Three plays later, Shula (16 of 27 for 211 yards and two touchdowns) threw incomplete on third and five, but Mike Zordich, Penn State's hero-back, was called for a personal foul that replays showed never happened.
Observers were quick to remember, at that point, how two questionable calls by the officials cost Alabama a victory here two years ago.
This time, the Penn State defenders, who held Alabama to 90 yards rushing, just got mad. "I don't think the defense necessarily agreed with the interpretation of the hit," Alexander said in his best attempt to be diplomatic. "We were irritated, you might say."
It helped that Chandler dropped a pass in the end zone, but the Nittany Lions did stop Humphrey for a two-yard gain, then sacked Shula for a loss of 10 that forced the Tide to settle for Tiffin's 45-yard field goal and a 12-10 game.
After that, Penn State mounted the 80-yard drive that would culminate in Knizner's touchdown pass, only his second pass of the season.
Penn State's D.J. Dozier (27 carries, 85 yards) was coming off a hamstring injury and wasn't supposed to play much. But he had a 15-yard run to the 34 on the scoring drive, followed by Steve Smith's 14-yard run to the 20.
But the biggest play was a fancy reverse 29-yard run by freshman receiver Mike Timpson, putting the ball at midfield.
Considering that Paterno was calling a fairly conservative game in the first half, the play was a shock.
"I was going to run it on first down (the play before) but I lost my guts," Paterno said. "We got two yards on first down and I said, 'To heck with this mess.' I just held my breath, and he made me look good with a great run."
Knizner made him look even better by throwing the touchdown pass. Shaffer went down to one knee after taking a helmet in the back. After delaying the game, Paterno had the choice of either using a timeout, or taking Shaffer out for one play.
Paterno has said all year that Knizner is a top-notch quarterback. And he backed it up by sending him in with a run-throw rollout option play.
"It does tend to surprise you when someone comes off the bench cold," Perkins said. "We told our team to be ready for a bad snap."