COLLEGE FOOTBALL: THE BOWL GAMES : Penn State Perfectly Unsatisfied : Rose Bowl: Nittany Lions finally put away Oregon, 38-20, to complete 12-0 season, but probably will have to settle for No. 2 in both polls.
In their first visit to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champions, Penn State’s Nittany Lions accomplished almost everything they could have. They finished an unbeaten, untied season with a three-touchdown victory over Oregon that made their coach, Joe Paterno, the most successful in the history of college football postseason games.
Yet, as the crowd of 102,247 filed out of the stadium Monday, the Lions were still grasping for more, trying to convince voters in the two major polls that their 38-20 victory over the Ducks was at least as impressive as Nebraska’s 24-17 victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl the night before.
“We proved to everybody that we are as worthy of the national championship as anybody else,” said Paterno, who won his 16th bowl game, breaking a tie with Bear Bryant, and became the first coach with victories in the traditional majors--Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange.
But he knew better. Not only did the No. 1 Cornhuskers (13-0) beat a higher-rated opponent, No. 3 Miami, on the Hurricanes’ home field, the No. 2 Lions (12-0) failed to roll over a No. 12 Oregon team that lost four of 13 games this season.
Late Monday, Nebraska was voted No. 1 in the USA Today/CNN poll of coaches. The Cornhuskers got 54 first-place votes to eight for the Nittany Lions. The Associated Press poll is announced this morning.
On an overcast day that must have reminded them of home in Eugene, the Ducks went down by about the margin forecast by the oddsmakers, but not before their quarterback, Danny O’Neil, completed 41 of 61 passes for 456 yards to erase all of the Rose Bowl records set in another losing effort by Wisconsin’s Ron VanderKelen 32 years ago.
O’Neil, a senior from Newport Beach who led Oregon to its first outright Pacific 10 championship, also committed a major gaffe on the final play of the first half and threw two critical interceptions, both to Chuck Penzenik, a reserve cornerback who was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time at a new position, safety.
Other Ducks made crucial mistakes as well, especially on special teams. Not only did freshman Matt Belden miss three field-goal attempts, one from 23 yards that would have given Oregon a first-quarter lead, the kickoff coverage team gave up a 72-yard return that arguably did more than any other play to influence the game’s outcome.
Trailing, 14-7, at halftime, O’Neil threw the second of his two touchdown passes, a 17-yarder to wide receiver Cristin McLemore, enabling Oregon to tie the score with 4:54 remaining in the third quarter.
The next three minutes were a disaster for the Ducks.
Even before their fans, whose pompons turned the Rose Bowl green and yellow, had time to contemplate the potential for one of the most unlikely upsets since the game was first played in 1902, Penn State’s Ambrose Fletcher was headed toward their goal line after the ensuing kickoff. He would have gotten there too if not for a saving tackle by Isaac Walker at the Oregon 21. Two plays later, Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter gave the Lions the lead for good with a 17-yard run.
On the second play of Oregon’s next drive, Penzenik made his second interception of the day and of his college career and returned it 44 yards to the Oregon 13. Penn State needed three plays to score this time, Carter going in from the three for his third touchdown to give the Lions a 28-14 lead with 2:01 remaining in the third quarter.
Paterno couldn’t relax until then, but that presumably did not surprise him because he has telling his players since they arrived in Southern California two weeks ago that the game would not be the blowout that experts claimed it would be.
It appeared as if the experts might be right on Penn State’s first play from scrimmage, when Carter ran through a hole so wide that he stumbled and still got through it, needing to break only one tackle on an 83-yard touchdown run, the third longest in Rose Bowl history.
But, except for that play, Oregon’s “Gang Green” defenders did a respectable job against an offense that some, including Duck Coach Rich Brooks, consider one of the best ever in college football.
The Lions were held well below their averages of 47.8 points and 520.1 yards, had to punt a season-high six times and put together only one sustained touchdown drive--73 yards in seven plays to go ahead 14-7 after fullback Brian Milne’s one-yard scoring run with 1:26 remaining in half.
Of course, the Lions had to drive a total of only 47 yards--21, 13 and 13--for their three second-half touchdowns. Two other drives resulted in missed field-goal attempts before Brett Conway finally made one from 43 yards out in the fourth quarter.
Carter, second in Heisman Trophy voting, did finish with 156 yards in 21 carries. But after his 83-yard run, he averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. His regular-season average was 7.8.
The Lions’ other Heisman candidate, quarterback Kerry Collins, was solid, completing 19 of 30 passes for 200 yards, although he did throw an interception in the third quarter that Oregon linebacker Reggie Jordan returned 38 yards to the Penn State 17 to set up O’Neil’s tying touchdown pass to McLemore.
But no matter how well Collins played, he was destined to be the other quarterback in this game. That was apparent from the beginning, when Oregon answered Carter’s 83-yard run with an 80-yard touchdown drive. That’s how many yards O’Neil passed for on the drive, completing all four of his passes, including a one-yarder for the touchdown to tight end Josh Wilcox.
Before the game was finished, Wilcox, who caught no more than four passes in any other game this season, had 11 catches for 135 yards and O’Neil had completed passes to seven receivers in carrying out a brilliantly conceived strategy that was designed to take whatever the Lions gave him.
The Ducks drove into Penn State territory on 13 of 16 possessions.
But even though they gained five more first downs and 81 more yards than Penn State, they could not convert their opportunities. One reason was their feeble running game, which accounted for only 45 of their 501 yards, and the other was their mistakes, none more critical than the one committed by O’Neil at the end of the half.
After the Ducks’ hurry-up offense took them from their 18 with 1:26 remaining to the Penn State nine with 11 seconds left, Brooks used his final timeout to tell O’Neil that he had to either throw the ball into the end zone or out of bounds so Oregon would have time left for a field goal. Instead, O’Neil threw a four-yarder to McLemore, who was tackled before he could get out of bounds and time ran out.
“That was a killer,” Brooks said. “Those two interceptions and that decision right before the half we’d like to have back. But I made some calls I’d like to have back too.”
Brooks was pleased the Ducks played well enough to scare the Lions. But he was not satisfied.
“We didn’t come down here to pick grapes,” he said. “We didn’t come down here to play close and lose. I’m proud of our effort. I’m not proud of the results.”