MIAMI -- In three seasons as Penn State's quarterback Tony Sacca has never thrown for 300 yards in a game. He has never completed more than 20 passes in a game. Only three times has he thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game.

Yet Penn State Coach Joe Paterno says Sacca may have the strongest arm of any of his quarterbacks. That he may be the best athlete of the bunch.

Even as 9-2 Penn State, winner of its last nine games, prepares for tonight's Blockbuster Bowl against 9-2 Florida State, the jury on Sacca has only recently delivered its verdict. Paterno's latest assessment is still rather ambiguous: "I don't think Tony is anywhere near being as consistent as he could be."

The heir to the Shaffer-Blackledge-Fusina legacy -- okay, we're not talking about Quarterback U. here -- is a 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior whose most impressive performance might have been the final game of the regular season. That's when he led the team in rushing with 113 yards.

We're talking about steady, reliable Penn State-type quarterbacks, the kind who are efficient at taking snaps and handing the ball to all-American tailbacks.

Yet this year has been different. In the absence of a dominating runner, the offense has revolved around Sacca, his arm and his legs. In four games this season, against Texas, Southern California, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, he threw more than 30 passes, unusual for a Paterno team. His three touchdown passes against Notre Dame were a career best.

But Sacca has not been a model of consistency. Against Alabama and West Virginia, Paterno took him out when the offense stalled.

"Alabama is probably the best defense in the country," Sacca said. "We weren't moving."

Paterno: "The times I've taken him out is not because he has missed passes. Sometimes he loses concentration. I took him out both those games with the idea I was going to put him back in. I never once said to Tony he wasn't our quarterback."

Paterno replaced Sacca with Tom Bill, who had been the starter at the beginning of the 1988 and '89 seasons. Bill's '88 season ended after an injury. In 1989 Bill was suspended when he was cited a third time by campus police for public drunkenness. Both times, the job fell to Sacca.

In '88, Paterno said, Sacca clearly wasn't ready. As a senior at Delran (N.J.) High, he had thrown for 1,665 yards and 24 touchdowns. He had been named to Parade Magazine's all-American team.

"He had so much success in high school, he didn't know anything else," Paterno said. "He became a little bit defensive, unnecessarily so.

"Tony's problem was he had so much success, then the fact he came here he was embarrassed. He got a little defensive. I think he's over all that. He feels good about himself."

Sacca said there was never a personality conflict with Paterno. It was just a matter of philosophy.

"I wouldn't say we get along any better or I believe in his style of play," Sacca said. "I understand you have to do it his way."

Even for those times when Sacca has failed to move the team, Paterno has great admiration for what Sacca has done.

"He should be a redshirt sophomore," Paterno said. "I think people have expected too much of him. We have not been a great football team the last few years."

Recall the 1988 season when Penn State went 6-5. "We had three quarterbacks get hurt that season, bang, bang, bang," Paterno said. So Sacca found himself starting -- the only freshman to do so at quarterback in Paterno's 25 seasons. He threw for 821 yards, completing 54 of 146 passes with four touchdowns and five interceptions.

Last season, Sacca's sophomore year, Bill earned the starting job and promptly lost it. Sacca was again named the starter. The highlight was a 10-completion performance against Rutgers.

Still, even as the season has evolved and Penn State has won nine straight games, Paterno is looking at this bowl game as a steppingstone to the 1991 season and Sacca's senior season.

Paterno compares this team to his 1985 team.

"That was the team where we were starting to get good at the end of the year and then went on to a national championship in 1986."