A 71-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kevin Thompson to wide receiver Chafie Fields, with 1 minute 41 seconds remaining, rallied third-ranked Penn State to a 27-23 victory over No. 8 Miami today, nearly silencing a sold-out Orange Bowl crowd of 74,427 that just seconds early was cheering the Hurricanes' resurrection.
It was one of those rare, dramatic, stomach-turning plays that will not be forgotten by principals and witnesses. The winners will revel in it; the losers will wallow in it.
"We had no timeouts and at that point we were trying to get into field goal range, kick one and get into overtime," said Thompson (Damascus High School). "Big plays happen sometimes when you least expect it."
With Miami holding a 23-20 lead in the waning moments, Penn State took over on its 21. Thompson dropped back and zipped a pinpoint pass to the outstretched arms of Fields, who was well-covered by cornerback Mike Rumph on an out pattern near the left sideline--a yard away from Penn State's bench.
"I saw the defender on his hip and I knew he had a chance if I threw it out there far enough," Thompson said.
Thompson barely got the pass off as he was knocked to the turf upon his release by linebacker Dan Morgan.
"I was a second away from sacking him and he got it away," Morgan said.
Fields, who scored Penn State's first touchdown, made the catch, then outraced strong safety Edward Reed, who made a last-gasp attempt to save Miami's fortunes near his team's 30-yard line.
"That was the biggest catch of my life," Fields said. "It was a streak. It was designed to be a big play."
The Nittany Lions sealed the victory with back-to-back interceptions of Kenny Kelly, who threw four total, by Askari Adams and Bhawoh Jue (Chantilly). It was Penn State's first victory over Miami since the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, when the Nittany Lions won the national championship with a 14-10 victory over the Hurricanes.
The thrilling victory kept Penn State (4-0) in the national title hunt, although the Nittany Lions barely escaped the clutches of defeat the past two weeks. The loss dropped Miami to 2-1 and sidetracked what it hoped would be the year in which it returned to national prominence after being stung by NCAA sanctions from 1995 through 1997.
"This is a disappointing outcome," Miami Coach Butch Davis said. "You can't go into this type of game against an opponent of the quality of Penn State and make the fundamental mistakes that we made and expect to win."
Davis was speaking of his team's five turnovers and untimely penalties. He also said he felt he was correct in going for a first down on fourth and two on Penn State's 22 instead of kicking a field goal with 1:52 left in the game.
Penn State linebackers Maurice Daniels (Annandale High) and LeVar Arrington stopped Miami tailback James Jackson on the play and Penn State took possession. Thompson and Fields then worked their magic.
"It was a longer [field goal] attempt and we didn't want to risk a dropped snap or a block that would give them better field position," Davis said. "We thought we could make the first down."
Davis also said he was skeptical of the needed precision by long snapper Pat Del Vecchio, holder Jeff Popovich and place kicker Andy Crosland, who missed an extra-point attempt six minutes earlier after Jackson gave the Hurricanes a 23-20 lead with a 39-yard touchdown run down the right sideline. However, Crosland scored Miami's only points in the first half on a 29-yard field goal.
Penn State Coach Joe Paterno had no such lack of confidence in Thompson, who was on the bench during the Nittany Lions' three previous possessions. Rashard Casey, who platoons with Thompson in Penn State's offensive scheme, had quarterbacked the Nittany Lions at the end of the third quarter and almost all of the fourth.
Once Penn State thwarted Miami on fourth down, though, Paterno informed Thompson he was his man.
"We didn't know we were going to get a touchdown but you got to loosen them up a little bit on a big play and we scored on it," Paterno said.
Thompson finished 9 of 15 for 147 yards and a touchdown. Casey was 7 of 9 for 99 yards and a touchdown. Fields had five catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Jackson gained 129 yards and scored on touchdown runs of 18 and 39, both down the right sideline for the Hurricanes, who scored 20 second-half points. Kelly, in his third start, completed 11 of 21 passes for 160 yards. One of those completions was a 40-yard touchdown to Santana Moss that tied the game at 17 with 14:51 left.
"You can't explain the loss," Kelly said. "It was heartbreaking. We had it and we were comfortable to drive down the field and score in the final two minutes."