In one dizzying, hysterical and utterly unexpected quarter Wednesday, Penn State reversed not only the momentum of the 21st Fiesta Bowl but also decades of patient, slow and methodical football as practiced under Joe Paterno.
In an improbable four minutes, Penn State scored 28 points and rallied to defeat Tennessee, 42-17.
Stodgy Penn State (11-2), was trailing, 17-7, late in the third quarter after a wreck of a first half dominated by the 10th-ranked Volunteers (9-3). Even the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions were stunned. "I was on the sideline half the time with my mouth wide open," Penn State tailback Richie Anderson said. "It was amazing."
Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors revealed his personal discomfort when he opened a postgame conference by remarking: "Well, it finally ended."
Majors defined the third quarter as crucial: "I must say that I've never seen any game change more quickly, dramatically or drastically in one quarter's time."
Penn State's explosion surprised the 71,133 fans at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium and also those who were versed in Paterno's conservative approach.
Much was made of the Penn State's reliance on the pass this season--for the first time since anyone can remember the Lions have gained more yards in the air than on the ground. But the victory against Tennessee was gained by capitalizing on mistakes, rather than a revamped Penn State offense.
That Penn State would benefit most from turnovers could have been predicted: The Lions collected 42 this season compared to 27 for the Volunteers.
In this game, the Lions forced five turnovers, four of which led to touchdowns.
It all unraveled for Tennessee late in the third quarter. Up to that point, the Volunteer offense had 262 yards to the Lions' 40. Penn State was, in fact, going backward, having lost yardage as the third quarter wore on.
Then Tennessee began to lose its grip on the game. Penn State scored when quarterback Tony Sacca found a wide open Chip LaBarca for a touchdown on a three-yard pass play. The time was 2:56 and the score was Tennessee 17, Penn State 14.
It was the first of four touchdowns and the next three were set up by Tennessee turnovers. Penn State's four touchdown drives were hardly that: One took eight seconds and the last, a touchdown from an interception, happened in an instant.
In a nutshell:
--The Lions scored 25 seconds after Tennessee's Andy Kelly was sacked and fumbled at his 13-yard line. Sacca passed to tight end Kyle Brady on the next play for a touchdown: 21-17.
--Penn State linebacker Reggie Givens intercepted a pass and the Lions took over on Tennessee's 26. The third quarter expired along with the Tennessee defense. Forty-nine seconds into the fourth quarter Penn State scored: 28-17.
--Kelly was hit in the pocket and the ball squirted into the hands of Givens. Givens, a linebacker, took the ball out of mid-air and ran 23 yards for a touchdown with 13:57 left: 35-17.
--The Lions scored again with 10:07 left in the game, a five-play drive that took 2 minutes 5 seconds: 42-17.
"The third quarter was the turning point of the game," Majors said. "It completely turned the whole ballgame around. My gosh, it just turned the game 180 degrees around."
The Penn State offense certainly did not do it alone. Consider that the Lions scored 42 points and their only significant statistic was turned in by punter Dale Helkowski, who set 10 Fiesta Bowl records. Helkowski punted nine times for a 431 yards--not a sign of a dominant offense.
The change in the game's character could not have been more stunning if the players exchanged jerseys during halftime. Penn State was utterly dominated in the first half. Nothing the Lions chose to try worked. The most remarkable aspect of the half was that Tennessee held only a three-point lead at the end.
Paterno was grateful Tennessee did not score more in the first half.
"Usually when you are in a game and you have as many opportunities as Tennessee had and you don't put them away, it'll come back to haunt you," he said.
With five minutes left in the first half, the Volunteers had 262 total offensive yards. The Lions had 40. Only a late-half burst put Penn State over the 100-yard mark, ending the first half with 130 total yards to Tennessee's 324.
Tennessee's defense put tremendous pressure on Sacca, who was not dazzling. The senior completed 11 of 28 for 150 yards.
"Wasn't that awful?" he asked of reporters who had made the same observation to him after the game. "I didn't have a particularly good game, but the receivers got open at key times, and in the end zone when they needed to."
Sacca's chief target was O.J. McDuffie, who was named offensive player of the game. He caught four passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.
Givens was the defensive player of the game.
The Lions scored on their first possession, helped in large measure by Volunteer defensive back Dale Carter, who fumbled the opening kickoff. Penn State took over on the Tennessee 11 and three plays later Sacca passed 10 yards to fullback Sam Gash for the touchdown. That fumble recovery marked the only time in the half that the Lions were across the 50-yard line.
Tennessee dominated most of the final statistics. The Volunteers had 441 yards total offense to the Lions' 226, they had 25 first downs to the Lions' 12 and held the ball for 32:21 to Penn State's 27:89.
But the statistic that counted the most had Tennessee with three fumbles lost and one interception. Penn State had none.