Members of the third-ranked Oklahoma Sooners learned of No. 2 Miami's Sugar Bowl loss to Tennessee late in the third quarter of their Orange Bowl game with Penn State. What began as a possible contest for the national championship had turned into a sure thing. And all the Sooners needed to do was hang onto their 19-10 lead over the top-ranked Nittany Lions to take home the glory.
It has been 10 years since Oklahoma won the national title, hardly a small crack in time to the good people who live and die hard by the Norman, Okla., school. Tonight before 74,750 and a national television audience, the last part of this four-part brawl only seemed like a lifetime.
The Sooners not only held onto their lead, they moved it up a mark when fullback Lydell Carr found a crease in an otherwise implacable Penn State defensive front and ran 61 yards for a touchdown with 1:42 remaining and the final, insurmountable, 25-10 lead.
"It was our night! It was our night!" shouted Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer as he ran off the field.
Oklahoma and Penn State finish the year 11-1. The Sooners' only loss came against Miami in mid-October. With its untied, undefeated season at stake and a chance to clinch its second national title in three years, Penn State fought hard and courageously to the end.
Reserve quarterback Matt Knizner replaced John Shaffer late in the final period and led the Nittany Lions in a desperate drive that died when kicker Massimo Manca missed from 26 yards with less than three minutes to play.
Too bad for Manca, the heroics this night belonged to Oklahoma kicker Tim Lashar, who made four field goals and drew praise from his coach.
"When you have to play against a great football team, things don't come easy," Switzer said. "They didn't come easy tonight. But Tim Lashar did it for us when it counted."
Asked if Oklahoma deserved to be crowned national champion, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said, "I don't know who would be better. They were certainly the best team we played all year."
To score on Penn State's first possession, Shaffer took advantage of Oklahoma's overly aggressive coverage and threw to tight end Dean DiMidio, who was interfered with by defensive back Tony Rayburn. That was enough to put the ball in Oklahoma territory.
Fullback Steve Smith and tailback D.J. Dozier ran well off tackle, but it was passes of 12 and 14 yards from Shaffer to flanker Eric Hamilton that produced the most yardage.
Fullback Tim Manoa took the dive off the rump of center Rob Smith and scored from one yard out. The Oklahoma defense had allowed only one rushing touchdown in the preceding seven games. Manoa's run put the Nittany Lions ahead, 7-0, with 8:17 left in the first quarter.
That first drive would prove to be Shaffer's best performance of the night. He completed 10 of 22 passes for 74 yards and threw three costly interceptions. And he also lost his first game as a starter in 55 contests, dating to seventh grade.
The Oklahoma defense -- led by linebacker Brian Bosworth with 13 unassisted tackles -- made carrying the football a horrid experience for Shaffer and his running backs, Dozier (39 yards) and Smith (23 yards).
The Penn State defense was equally impressive, all but shutting down freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway and his celebrated wishbone offense on the option game.
Early on, Holieway's only success running the offense came on dives up the middle by his fullback, Carr, who rushed for 148 yards on 19 carries.
Holieway was confounded trying to work down the line of scrimmage and get the option going.
On Oklahoma's first score, Holieway finally sparked his offense by reading the blitz on third and nine and passing 11 yards to tight end Keith Jackson over the middle.
Holieway then let Carr do most of the work taking the ball up the middle.
Penn State might have put the Sooners out of field goal range when Holieway scrambled and was forced out of bounds for a big loss, but strong safety Michael Zordich was called for a face mask penalty that saved the effort for the Sooners.
Lashar came in with 14:35 remaining in the second quarter and kicked his first field goal, this one from 26 yards, to make it 7-3.
Oklahoma scored again on its next possession, this time on a most dramatic play.
On third and 23 from the Sooners' 29, Holieway set up on a straight drop back and showed that he possesses more than just a pair of quick feet.
Holieway threw to Jackson cutting up over the middle. Jackson had outrun backup strong safety Barry Buchman and took the ball in stride.
He used a fine block by Damon Stell to push into open field and run untouched for 71 yards and the touchdown.
There was 12:26 to go before half and the Sooners led, 10-7.
The Oklahoma defense had plenty of heroes in the second quarter as it shut down the Nittany Lions.
But none was as outstanding as Sonny Brown, the junior defensive back from Alice, Tex., who came up with the most important play for the Sooners.
Brown intercepted a pass by Shaffer and returned it to the Penn State 14, setting up Lashar's second field goal. This one went 31 yards and came with 5:21 in the second quarter, giving Oklahoma a 13-7 edge.
On the Nittany Lions' next possession, another member of the Oklahoma secondary emerged as hero.
Hoping to get some kind of offense going, Shaffer again tried to pass his way down field. He overthrew split end Troy Cromwell, and Derrick White deflected the ball, which dropped into the hands of Rayburn, who ran up the sideline 34 yards before being tripped up at the Oklahoma nine.
On the first play from scrimmage, Anthony Stafford fumbled and Holieway recovered for a four-yard loss.
Carr tried the middle of the line twice, but was met by the Penn State front, which had put up yet another stunning effort to stop the Sooners in close.
Lashar came in to kick his third field goal of the half, a 21-yarder, and with 1:53 left in the half, the score was 16-7, Oklahoma.
With nine seconds on the clock, the Penn State defense came up with some heroics of its own. End Bob White stripped Holieway of the ball, and Conlan recovered on the Oklahoma nine.
Manca trotted out and kicked good from 27 yards with only one second left in the half, making it 16-10.
Penn State opened the third quarter with a drive that might have been its most illustrious had Shaffer kept his poise in the clutch.
The junior quarterback moved the Nittany Lions all the way down to the Oklahoma 21 and appeared to be on the verge of tying the score. But Shaffer blew it when he tried to find Ray Roundtree in the end zone and instead passed into the hands of Brown, who made his second interception.
The ensuing drive went nowhere for the Sooners. But the next time they got the ball -- after Penn State's Michael Timpson fumbled a punt return and Jodie Britt recovered at the Oklahoma 42 -- Holieway finally got his wishbone option working and moved down the field before being stopped once again by the Penn State defense.
Lashar trotted out in his typically unconcerned fashion and went about his business. The kick was perfect from 22 yards out.
There was little more than three minutes left in the third quarter. The Sooners led, 19-10, and time was all that stood between them and the national championship.