Several weeks ago, as Nebraska and Oklahoma prepared to engage in a bout of rough-and-tumble for the Big Eight title and an Orange Bowl berth, members of both squads were heard clearing the silt from their pipes and announcing that theirs was a game for the national championship.
Verbal abuse of the Penn State Nittany Lions, who some said weaseled their way into No. 1 with weaselly wins over weaselly teams, did not raise the ire of those good people who play their games in State College, Pa. Those good people had climbed the mountain and looked upon the valley below. And what they saw was all too familiar: the belligerent rank and file, teams such as one-time losers Miami and Oklahoma and Iowa, scrambling for a crack through which to crowbar into immortality.
The Nittany Lions may not be the best football team in the country, but they are the only remaining power with an unbeaten, untied record. Coach Joe Paterno has fielded yet another generic bunch of never-minds, players you've never heard of. Not a single member of the 11-0 squad made the Associated Press all-America team.
The tailback, D.J. Dozier, may have emerged as a star, but injuries kept him out of two complete games and parts of three others. The leading rusher on the team, Dozier gained 723 yards, way short of his dreams. The quarterback, John Shaffer, continued his amazing streak of career victories, although he completed only 45 percent of his passes. Shaffer, who has not lost a starting assignment since seventh grade, takes a 54-game winning streak into the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma on New Year's Day. But all along, he's been much too self-deprecating to make a big fuss about it.
"I never told anybody about it because I knew somebody would eventually say something about it," Shaffer said. "Or I figured we'd lose and it'd be broken and it just wouldn't matter anymore."
Penn State managed to outscore its last three opponents -- Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh -- by a total of 82 points. Early in the season, however, the Nittany Lions struggled with every team they could, including lowly Temple and East Carolina. Because none of the Nittany Lions' victories has been against a team now ranked in the Associated Press top 10, some critics have questioned the team's exalted position in the polls. It's most serious competition on the field came from Maryland and Alabama, and Penn State won each game by a measly two points.
"How we look winning is not what matters," linebacker Rogers Alexander said. "What matters is that we win the games."
Paterno's way has been to first build a tough, unyielding defense, establish a consistent kicking game, and complement that package with a solid, unpretentious unit on offense. The generic look and style of Penn State football may not be attractive to all, but linebacker Shane Conlan liked it. "When I decided on Penn State," he said, "it was because I liked the Penn State defense -- the way they play and the uniform. I loved the uniform and the black shoes. I think Penn State's great -- back to the basics."
Paterno went back to the basics after dropping his final two games in last year's disappointing 6-5 season. After losing to unexcellent Notre Dame and Pitt teams and being wiped out of the bowl picture for the first time since 1970, he called his players "babies." There was talk that Paterno had lost his edge, that he no longer possessed the deep, competitive burn that had helped him survive 20 years as head coach at the school.
In response, Paterno went off by himself and thought about retiring. When he came back, the old coach drew his boys together and told him they would play Penn State football the way it once was played. Nobody would quit anything. It took practically no time for Alexander, Conlan and Shaffer to emerge as leaders. They rallied their teammates by playing up to their strong sense of tradition and working to restore the pride that had guided Penn State to the national championship in 1982.
"What we learned," Alexander said, "was to believe in ourselves. We're very close. There's a caring that transcends the football field."
Said Shaffer: "Those losses to Notre Dame and Pitt were embarrassing. We met with Paterno as a team, but it was more like he was sitting (alone with) each one of us, though we were all there at the same time. He was listening, really listening. We developed an attitude of hard work. If he said we should do something, we did it. Things started to change. This year, on hard practice days like Tuesday and Wednesday, nobody was out there complaining. Nobody said I don't want to do this. It felt right, like we really should be out there that long because it would make us better. We would win."
This team is not as talented as the 1982 national championship squad, which featured quarterback Todd Blackledge and running back Curt Warner. In the 1982 regular season, Penn State never was ranked No. 1 but moved to the second spot shortly before its Sugar Bowl finale with the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. The Nittany Lions won, 27-23. These days, almost every college coach who has spoken publicly on the matter -- including contenders Jimmy Johnson of Miami, Barry Switzer of Oklahoma and Hayden Fry of Iowa -- agrees that if Penn State wins the Orange Bowl and completes the season with an unblemished record, it deserves to be awarded the national championship.
"It's so important for us to be respected," Shaffer said. "You want people to get excited and talk about us the way they did the Penn State teams of old. People naturally expect Penn State to do well. People see the potential. They want all that you can give them."