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Original Issue

When it comes to grit, Pitt is it

Led by an iron defense, the Panthers stifled Penn State to keep alive hopes of winning the national championship

At a party Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill gave not long ago for his players, several Panthers offered Defensive Tackle Greg Meisner $3 if he would eat a large fishing worm. Meisner immediately obliged. This upset Middle Guard Jerry Boyarsky; he would've eaten the worm for free. "Those guys are just not wrapped tight," said Linebacker Sal Sunseri. But Sunseri, who prepares for games by banging his head against doorjambs, may not be the perfect judge of such things.

All of which is just more evidence that when it comes to playing defense in big-time college football, it doesn't hurt to be several steps around the bend and a few ticks beyond crazed. Which is precisely how Pitt—ranked first in the nation in total defense—played against Penn State last Friday in the gloom, slop, snow, muck and cold of State College before 82,459 strong-willed fans.

When the brutal hitting ceased, the No. 4-ranked Panthers had defeated the No. 5-ranked Nittany Lions 14-9 on the strength of a defense that halted Penn State's running game and left the losers viewing the world through the ear holes of their helmets. Even Pitt Defensive Coordinator Foge Fazio was amazed at the play of his charges. "They had a reckless attitude, a wild approach to the game," he said.

The win was significant for the Panthers, now 10-1, on several counts, the most notable being that it left them in position to become national champions. That's the spot Pitt was picked for by many experts before this upset-infested season. Here's the scenario, as the Panthers see it: Southern Cal upsets No. 2 Notre Dame this Saturday; Pitt stifles George Rogers and South Carolina in the Gator Bowl; Notre Dame dumps No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl; Oklahoma whips No. 3 Florida State—the only team to defeat Pitt—in the Orange. Bingo, Pitt is No. 1.

There's no doubt right now that the Panther defense is tops. So awesome are Pitt's front five—Meisner (245 pounds), Boyarsky (275), Bill Neill (250), Ricky Jackson (217) and All-Universe Hugh Green (222)—that even when the Nittany Lions got close late in Friday's game, it seemed there was no way they'd ever score. "The main thing we try to do with our players is not to overcoach them, because they are so doggone good," says Fazio.

The best, of course, is Green. The day before meeting Pitt, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno was staring into his coffee and talking about Green: "If you let him, he gets you all out of whack. He just makes plays that nobody else can make." Paterno did not look pleased at the prospect. As the creator and master of the slam-dunk tackle, Green was warned by an official during the Florida State game to "quit tackling so hard." Green, however, is not very good at tackling easy. But his value goes far beyond his crushing stops. For example, though he was playing against the Nittany Lions on a very tender right heel that he'd injured two weeks before, his mere presence on the field prompted Penn State—as it has everyone else—to run away from him. Therein lies one reason why Pitt's other defensive end, Jackson, who, like Green, usually plays what amounts to linebacker, had a very big day, making 13 tackles, 11 unassisted.

The Panthers hardly resembled a potential No. 1 outfit at the start of the game. On their first two possessions they were forced to punt and both Dave Hepler boots were partially blocked by Penn State Defensive Tackle Frank Case. The second punt, which carried only 12 yards, gave State the ball on the Pitt 45. This proved to be no great problem for the Panther defense, led on this occasion by those two hunting buddies, Meisner and Boyarsky, who shouted bear calls to each other as they turned the Nittany Lions away. Meisner killed a bear last year (contrary to rumor on the Pitt campus, he did use a gun), had it stuffed for $500 and put it in the living room of his parents' house in New Kensington, Pa. His mother wants it out and the coffee table back in. "I don't know why she's upset," says Meisner. "How many mothers have the honor of having a big black bear right there in their living room where everybody can see it?"

In the second quarter, Penn State leading 3-0 on a 27-yard field goal by Herb Menhardt, the previously lethargic Pitt offense caught fire when Quarterback Rick Trocano zinged a 32-yard screen pass to Randy McMillan and then followed with a 16-yarder to Tight End Benjie Pryor on the next play. Pryor ran a route just behind the linebackers and made a leaping grab in the end zone.

At the half, the Panthers thought they should have been ahead by more than 7-3—and they were right. But there was no panic. In fact, when an assistant coach faltered while trying to explain a complicated pass pattern in the locker room, Trocano piped up helpfully, "Don't worry, Coach. We know how to run it." Then Sherrill jumped up on a bench and exhorted his troops: "Go out there and make something happen right now."

Pitt players do what they are told. On the first play from scrimmage, Penn State Tailback Curt Warner fumbled, and the Panthers recovered the ball on the Nittany Lions' 36. Eight plays later, Trocano, who started six games this year at free safety after having been beaten out of the quarterback job by Dan Marino, rolled right on a naked bootleg and scored easily from nine yards out to run the count to 14-3. It looked as if the rout might be on.

But Penn State is almost never swamped. Another punting error, the beleaguered Hepler shanking the ball off his ankle for six yards this time, gave the Lions the ball on the Panther 23. Pitt got a brief reprieve when on fourth-and-one at the Pitt 14, Penn State Tailback Joel Coles swept around the right side directly into Green. No gain. But moments later, Trocano threw his second interception of the afternoon and the Nittany Lions were back. This time they scored when Quarterback Todd Blackledge, a freshman, threw perfectly to Flanker Kenny Jackson in the midst of three Panther defenders in the end zone. That closed the deficit to 14-9, where it remained after Penn State's two-point conversion try failed.

All through the fourth quarter, the Lions forced the issue. They had Pitt pinned on its own one, but the Panthers wiggled out; Penn State intercepted, reached the Pitt 37 but failed again on a fourth-and-one, this time when Warner was mashed by Strong Safety Carlton Williamson. The Lions' final frustration was a pass interception by the ever-present Williamson after Blackledge had gotten his team back to the Panther 34 with less than a minute to play.

Trocano was elated afterward despite mediocre statistics that included 6-for-15 passing. He oozes confidence. And practicality. Which is why he volunteered to play free safety last spring. "The writing was on the wall," he said. "And I can read. Marino was going to be the quarterback and I was going to sit on the bench." Trocano is a senior, Marino a sophomore. Even in triumph, Trocano seemed to yearn for the good old defensive days of September and October. "I loved being a part of the best defense in the country," he said. "I also enjoyed hitting instead of being hit." But when Marino twisted his left knee, Trocano was summoned back to the helm.

For Penn State, 9-2 and headed for a Fiesta Bowl encounter with Ohio State, the loss was harsh. It was, among other things, the first time since 1948-49 that the Nittany Lions had lost to Pitt twice in a row. Still, the loser's defense was plenty good enough to win; it shut down the Panthers, who had been gaining 428.8 yards per game, with only 234 yards, 64 in the second half.

And over in the Pitt dressing room, the boys were going nuts. "Our opponents look at us like we're crazy," said Meisner between bear calls. "But they're worried that if we are crazy, there's no telling what we'll do." Then Sherrill hushed his players and told them how terrific he thinks they are. Which they are. Certified crazy, but terrific.


Worm-eater Meisner moves in on bigger game, State's Blackledge.


Avoiding a would-be tackler at the goal line, erstwhile Free Safety Trocano scores Pitt's second TD.