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ROSE BOWL: PENN STATE 38, OREGON 20 : Unlikely Safety Saves Day : Penn State’s Penzenik Makes Two Interceptions in First Game at New Position

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Chuck Penzenik arrived in Southern California with Penn State two weeks ago, he wouldn’t have been surprised if he didn’t even get in the Rose Bowl game.

Monday night, after Penn State had defeated Oregon, 38-20, the sophomore from Akron, Ohio, stood in the cavernous tunnel outside the Rose Bowl dressing rooms proudly clutching two

footballs.

One was the ball he had intercepted and returned 44 yards to set up Penn State’s fourth touchdown to break open what had been a tensely fought game. The other was presented him by the team for his part in helping Coach Joe Paterno’s Lions complete a 12-0

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season.

“I couldn’t believe it when we got to Huntington Beach and the coaches told me I would start at free safety and call the defensive signals,” Penzenik said. “I hadn’t started a game since I was in high school and I had never played safety. I didn’t have too much confidence. I don’t know why they picked me.”

Penzenik intercepted two of Danny O’Neil’s passes, one in the second quarter that stopped an Oregon drive with the score tied at 7-7, and the other in the third quarter right after Penn State had taken a 21-14 lead. Three plays later, Ki-Jana Carter scored to make it 28-14, and that was as close as the Ducks got the rest of the

day.

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“On the first one, I couldn’t see the quarterback, but it came right to me,” Penzenik said. “It was deep and right over the middle. I thought for a second I might have a big runback but I slipped. At first, I was mad at myself for slipping, but I couldn’t think about it long because I had to get ready for the next play.

“The second one I read the quarterback all the way. I saw it coming and I thought I was going all the way, but one of their guys (Josh Wilcox) ran me down. It was the first time I’d run that far with the ball since I was an all-state running back in high school.”

O’Neil had a record day, completing 41 passes for 456 yards, but Oregon Coach Rich Brooks said the two that Penzenik intercepted were “ill advised.”

“We thought going in that we could pass against them and Danny threw a great game,” Brooks said. “But I know he would have liked to have those two back as soon as he let go of the ball.

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“Joe (Paterno) had his usual bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy, and those two passes they picked off really hurt our momentum.”

Asked if O’Neil was the best quarterback he had faced, Penzenik grinned and said, “I can’t compare him with anyone. It was my first start, but I saw enough to know he’s a great scrambler and a great quarterback. I’m just glad I was able to read his plays and pick him off.”

Penzenik’s two interceptions equaled a Rose Bowl record--shared with 11

others.

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“I was so worried about calling the defensive signals that it hasn’t sunk in yet what I did. Maybe in a day or two I’ll realize it--and really get nervous. I had no idea two weeks ago I would be starting, much less at safety. That’s like being quarterback. The safety is responsible for the coverage calls.”

When the season started, Penzenik was the Nittany Lions’ No. 4 right cornerback. He had not played a down in 1993 and in nine games this season he had played only occasionally before being moved to safety for the Rose Bowl.

“We’d had problems all year with our free safeties getting hurt, but at the last game (against Michigan State) I was still only the second-string right corner. I learned a lot in these last two weeks after we got out here. Now I’m looking forward to two more years at

Penn State. Maybe we’ll be back.”

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Penzenik spent much of Sunday night with his teammates watching Nebraska rally to beat Miami, 24-17, in the Orange Bowl to probably clinch the national championship in both polls. The coaches’ poll, USA Today/CNN, made Nebraska No. 1 late Monday. Penzenik doesn’t think it should end that way.

“I don’t know what more we could have done,” he said. “We beat a lot of good teams by big scores and we beat the Pac-10 champion today.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Nebraska, but if we don’t get a co-championship I would be really disappointed.”


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