Penn State Could Find That Oklahoma's Bite Is Worse Than Its Bark

Times Staff Writer

According to the latest line in Miami, Oklahoma is a 7 1/2-point favorite over Penn State in tonight's Orange Bowl game, which tells you something about the regard oddsmakers have for the Nittany Lions' No. 1 ranking.

But after careful study, many neutral observers here believe the line is out of line.

They figure that the Sooners should be favored by twice as much, at least.

About the only thing in Penn State's favor is Coach Joe Paterno's 11-4-1 bowl record since 1967, some of those victories having been earned against teams that appeared superior until the kickoff.

Even though the Nittany Lions are 11-0, which makes them the nation's only team without a loss or a tie this season, they have seldom been impressive. They have won seven games by a touchdown or less.

The No. 3 Sooners, on the other hand, have won seven straight games by an average of 31 points since their only loss, a 27-14 upset by No. 2 Miami at Norman, Okla., Oct. 19.

Even Paterno seems to understand the point spread.

"I don't know how much more respect you can get than being voted No. 1 in both polls," Paterno said. "But after seeing Oklahoma in the last three games (victories over Nebraska, Oklahoma State and SMU), I'm impressed, too."

So it's not that Penn State gets no respect.

It's just that Oklahoma gets more.

Here are the reasons the Sooners are favored:

THE BARKING DOGS

That is the nickname for Oklahoma's defensive players, who have a pregame ritual of barking to relieve tension. Whatever works.

The Sooners have the first defense ever to finish either first or second in the four major defensive categories: scoring, rushing, passing and total defense. In five games during November, the defense did not allow a touchdown.

Their best player, perhaps the best player in the country outside of Auburn's Bo Jackson and Miami's Vinny Testaverde, is senior nose guard Tony Casillas, 6-3 and 280 pounds. Called by Coach Barry Switzer "the most dominant lineman at Oklahoma since Lee Roy Selmon," Casillas won the Lombardi Award as the nation's best lineman.

But the leader of this pack of dogs is sophomore linebacker Brian Bosworth, the winner of the initial Dick Butkus Trophy as the nation's best linebacker. He barks and bites.

"We're an intimidating football team," he said. "If we have to get somebody down and scream and yell at them, we'll do it. I don't mean we cheap-shot people, but we play football the way it was intended to be played, physically."

The strength of Penn State's team is its defense, but the Nittany Lions are not nearly as aggressive as the Sooners.

Asked which Penn State defensive players impress him, Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway said, "No. 43 (Michael Zordich) is OK, and No. 95 (Rogers Alexander) is OK."

Could they start for Oklahoma?

"No," Holieway said. "No way."

JAMELLE HOLIEWAY

Switzer continues to claim that he knows how to pronounce Jamelle, which rhymes with bell. It's not that difficult.

But Switzer continues to call him, Ja-mail.

Paterno calls him Jamie.

Learning Holieway's name is the least of Paterno's problems. The Nittany Lions have to find a way to tackle the 5-9, 175-pound freshman quarterback from Banning High School. When he runs, which is often, he looks like a waterbug.

"As far as a pure runner, he may be the best quarterback in the country," Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky said.

"There's no defense for a guy like him. You can have your guys in the right positions, draw X's and O's forever, but if you can't tackle him, then none of that stuff helps."

When sophomore Troy Aikman was starting at quarterback for the Sooners, they averaged 24 points a game. Since Holieway replaced the injured Aikman in the fifth game, the Sooners have averaged 38 points. He leads the team in rushing with 861 yards and has run for more than 100 yards in four games.

Another thing the Sooners like about Holieway is that he seldom turns the ball over. In the past, the Sooners, running a high-risk wishbone offense, sometimes fumbled eight or nine times a game. This season, they average fewer than two fumbles a game.

How cool is Holieway?

After Oklahoma had beaten Nebraska, 27-7, to earn a bid to the Orange Bowl, Holieway entered the Sooners' dressing room, saw them celebrating and asked, "What's the big deal, anyway?"

Of Holieway, Switzer said: "He's still unconscious. I hope he wakes up four years from now."

PENN ST. OFFENSE

Of Penn State's quarterback, Switzer said junior John Shaffer is most effective when he hands off to tailback D.J. Dozier and gets out of the way.

As dominant as Oklahoma's defense has been, it is vulnerable to the pass, as Miami's Testaverde proved by throwing for 270 yards in the victory over the Sooners.

But unlike most Penn State teams that contend for national championships, this one has yet to prove it can pass. Of 105 Division I-A teams, the Nittany Lions rank 89th in passing. Shaffer has completed only 45.2% of his passes this season and has thrown two more interceptions than touchdown passes.

Penn State is twice as good when it runs but still not exceptional, ranking 35th in the nation.

QUICKNESS

Oklahoma linebacker Kevin Murphy compared Penn State to Nebraska, which is a compliment. Sort of.

"Like Nebraska, Penn State has a lot of tradition, is well-coached and has good athletes," he said. "But they don't match up well with us because they're slow."

When someone asks Switzer about Oklahoma's speed advantage, he changes the subject, which means he's noticed it, too.

"I think it's the black shoes that give them the impression of no speed and quickness," Switzer said.

"No," Paterno said. "Our shoes are heavier. We're going to play with red shoes against Oklahoma."

ATTITUDE

The Sooners, with their wrap-around sunglasses, gold earrings and cassette players, are about as loose as a team that is playing for a possible national championship can be. In a headline Tuesday, the Miami Herald called them the "Looner Sooners."

But Switzer doesn't want anyone to get the impression his team isn't serious about this game.

"What does loose mean?" he asked. "I hope it doesn't mean undisciplined or disorganized. I think it means players can have fun and be themselves, cut their hair any way they want to."

He was referring to Bosworth, who has a punk haircut.

"I instill the same things in our kids that Joe does in his, but we project it differently," Switzer said.

"That doesn't mean that our players aren't businesslike. When they go out on the field, they'll bust you right in the mouth."

If the oddsmakers are correct, the Nittany Lions are going to need the number of a good orthodontist Thursday.

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