The hype leading to the opening game of the college football season went on for weeks. When the time came, third-ranked Penn State delivered a performance that neither the roaring crowd at Beaver Stadium nor No. 4 Arizona will soon forget.
With Coach Joe Paterno opening up the offense and wide receiver Chafie Fields leading a number of big plays, Penn State scored on five of its first six possessions and routed Arizona, 41-7, in the Pigskin Classic today before 97,168 fans. It was the first season-opening matchup between teams ranked in the top five since 1983.
"We fooled them and did some things they weren't ready for," Paterno said. "I was a little disappointed we didn't run the ball more effectively, but we made the big plays you have to against a team like Arizona."
Fields, a senior who had been vocal about wanting a bigger role, provided the biggest plays. In the game's first six minutes, he scored on a 37-yard pass from quarterback Kevin Thompson of Damascus High School and on a 70-yard end-around.
Of the end-around, which came on an inside handoff that seemed to momentarily surprise the defense, Fields said: "Coach Paterno brought that play out of the archives. I don't know where he got it."
Midway through the second quarter, Thompson added a 60-yard touchdown pass to freshman running back Larry Johnson (his first collegiate touch) and running back Aaron Harris had a 15-yard touchdown run.
Only a one-yard touchdown run by Leo Miles with 47 seconds remaining allowed Arizona to avoid being shutout for the first time since 1991. The Wildcats returned 16 starters from last season's team that went 11-1; they had won 16 of their previous 17 games.
"We just got our butts kicked," said Arizona Coach Dick Tomey, whose team previously had never played this far east. "They beat us as bad as a team can get beat. It was one of those games; it was a nightmare. I hope they're a great team."
While Arizona never got going offensively, Penn State was almost unstoppable in beating a top-five opponent for the first time since beating then-No. 5 Michigan in 1994.
The Nittany Lions surprised many with their aggressive offense, with Thompson and redshirt junior Rashard Casey splitting time at quarterback. Using a game plan designed to take advantage of Arizona's attacking defense, Penn State consistently broke long runs with misdirection and poor tackling by the Wildcats.
"Last year we went into the season and I kind of tied my hands; I wasn't that comfortable with some of the experience we had in key spots," Paterno said. "This year, we've given them a better chance to make plays. That's what we tried to do today."
Thompson was among Paterno's chief concerns last season. He started all 11 games last season, but threw more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (six). That led many to wonder whether he could direct a national title contender.
Today, though, Thompson took a significant step toward erasing those doubts. He finished 5 of 8 for 135 yards with the two touchdowns and one interception. However, it could be argued that Penn State simply made both quarterbacks look good. Casey was 6 of 10 for 107 yards.
"We're not out there trying to answer the questions of the media and the fans," Thompson said. "We're just trying to go out and play like we can. Whether we answered those questions today, who knows?"
Though not as flashy as the offense, Penn State's defense was just as successful. Standout linebacker LaVar Arrington had seven tackles, three for losses. Penn State, which did not allow an opposing player to rush for more than 100 yards in a game last season, limited Arizona star Trung Canidate to 31 yards on 10 carries.
Having defeated their most challenging opening opponent since 1983--when they were ranked No. 4 and lost to No. 1 Nebraska in the first Kickoff Classic--the Nittany Lions play Akron and Pittsburgh before traveling to No. 12 Miami. Penn State's road to a possible third national title under Paterno also includes road games at No. 23 Purdue and Michigan State, and the Nittany Lions host their most difficult opponents--No. 9 Ohio State and No. 8 Michigan.
But for now, Paterno and his players say they are not looking at the road to the Bowl Championship Series title game at the Sugar Bowl; all they want to focus on is next week's game against Akron.
"I think we're good, but we have a long way to go to be the team we want to be," the normally outspoken Arrington said. "We're all glad we could get the first game out of the way. Now let's move on to the next game and keep getting better. That's the attitude this team has: Let's get it done."
CAPTION: Led by Eric McCoo, right, and LaVar Arrington, Penn St. crushed Arizona, 41-7.