If you're Penn State Quarterback Todd Blackledge, you're a man of faith. Not that you have much choice when there are seven seconds left on the Beaver Stadium clock, the home team is trailing Nebraska 24-21, and as you scan the end zone for a receiver the only available target is a second-string tight end who was an offensive guard three weeks ago and whose nickname is Stonehands.
So, you confidently throw the football through the tangle of onrushing Husker defenders, and Stonehands, otherwise known as Kirk Bowman, a junior who came into the game with zero receptions in his college career, reaches down to make the catch just inches above the ground. Touchdown. Final score: Penn State 27, Nebraska 24. The Miracle of Mount Nittany.
If football fans were guaranteed college games like this all the time, the NFL strikers could stay out forever and nobody would mind. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said it best: "There was enough glory out there for both teams."
And, he might have added, enough glory for himself and Nebraska's Tom Osborne, too. Both had made their reputations with crunching defenses, augmented by equally crunching rushing attacks. Now, they have shown the good sense to showcase the considerable passing talents of their respective junior quarterbacks—Blackledge for Paterno and Turner Gill for Osborne. In the past, would we ever have seen 977 yards of total offense (472 for the Huskers, 505 for the Nittany Lions) in a game between these two teams? Would we have seen 73 passes attempted and 39 completions (23 by Blackledge for 295 yards and three TDs, 16 by Gill for 239 yards and two TDs)? More to the point, would the Paterno of old have banked on a last-minute pass to a guy named Stonehands when he had Curt Warner and Jon Williams, running backs who averaged 6.1 and 4.7 yards a carry last season, in uniform? No way. No sin.
This much is certain: Penn State, No. 4 in the SI poll this week, beat Nebraska, No. 8, only because it had the ball for most of that final minute. Proof: Consider Gill's performance on the 13-play, 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that gave Nebraska a 24-21 lead. He completed passes to four different receivers, two of them must-haves on third down. He handled the option like the Oklahoma quarterback he almost became when he pitched out to I-Back Mike Rozier for a 12-yard gain and a first down at the Penn State three. And two plays later Gill himself went over the top from the one for the touchdown that gave Nebraska the lead for the first time and an apparent victory.
Gill's only mistake was doing all this with too much dispatch, leaving Blackledge with 1:18 on his hands. Nebraska then made the grievous error of committing a personal foul on Kevin Seibel's kickoff deep into the Penn State end zone; the officials ruled that Dave Ridder had thrown a Penn State player to the ground after the play ended, and the 15-yard penalty gave the Nittany Lions possession at the 35-yard-line instead of the 20. "We practice the two-minute drill every day," Blackledge said after the game. "The main thing was just freezing out the crowd and the noise. Everything was clear in my mind. There was more than a minute left, we had 65 yards to go. All I kept thinking about was Philippians 4:13: 'I can do all things through the Lord.' It helped clear my mind and take the pressure off."
One person Blackledge probably couldn't freeze out in the record crowd of 85,304 was the offensive line coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Blackledge; without an NFL game to prepare for, Ron took a busman's holiday and got an in-person look at his son the quarterback in action.
Blackledge launched his two-minute drill by calling two plays in the huddle. The first produced a 16-yard gain on a screen pass to Skeeter Nichols, playing tailback for the cramped-up Warner; the second was an incomplete pass. Then Blackledge threw to Flanker Kenny Jackson, who made a leaping catch at the sideline for 16 yards and a first down at the Nebraska 33.
Until now, all the plays on this last-gasp drive had come to Blackledge from the bench. The next call was the only one the quarterback made himself on the 10-play drive—a draw to Williams that lost a yard. "The fans were probably grumbling at the coaches, but it was my decision," said Blackledge.
Two incompletions followed, and it was fourth and 11 at the Nebraska 34. Only :28 showed on the board. A field-goal try was out; freshman Massimo Manca had already missed from 50, 47 and 33 yards, and the 51-yard kick he now would face seemed too much to expect. So Paterno made another withdrawal from his miracle bank. Blackledge found Jackson on an inside curl just beyond the marker, and Penn State had a first down at the 23. It was Jackson's fifth catch of the day, which tied him with Split End Gregg Garrity, who also had five receptions, and it was nothing more than your average do-or-die play. The Nittany Lion offensive line, which had not really been tested in the romps over Temple, Maryland and Rutgers, but had provided Blackledge with protection and time all day, did it again on the next play. But no one was open, and Blackledge had to tuck the ball in and turn upheld himself. He made six yards but used up 15 seconds doing it. The Lions were 17 yards from victory, but there were only 13 ticks left on the clock.
The Penn State bench called for a 71 Y-Corner, a play designed as a short throw to Tight End Mike McCloskey, who reads the defense and runs his pattern accordingly. In this case Nebraska showed three-deep coverage—McCloskey's cue for a square-out. Blackledge hit him with a 15-yard completion near the sideline. But was McCloskey out-of-bounds when he made the catch at the Nebraska two?
"I skidded my feet a little, trying to get them down," said McCloskey. "For a second I thought I was out, but it's in the record books now, right?" Right, but did you think you were out? "I have to see the films," said McCloskey with a smile.
Now, with nine seconds left—time for only two plays—Penn State showed the Huskers a running formation, a power I with two tight ends. It was all a decoy because the play—41 Shoot—called for the ball to be thrown to either McCloskey or Stonehands Bowman. McCloskey got held up at the line, but Bowman, coming off the right side, found a seam and slanted across the middle toward the back of the end zone, just as he had done when he caught a 14-yard TD pass from Black-ledge in the first period. Bowman put his hand up to indicate he was open, but Blackledge, under pressure, didn't see him until the last moment. He delivered the ball low, but Bowman reached down and got it "about six inches off the ground, I think."
If Bowman was the unlikely hero, the game produced more than its share of likely ones, too. Like Nebraska's Rozier, who squeezed 60 second-half yards out of Penn State's charged-up defense and scored a third-quarter touchdown on a two-yard pass from Gill.
To get Rozier and senior I-Back Roger Craig, Nebraska's ninth-leading career rusher, into the same backfield, Osborne not only had moved Craig to fullback last spring, but also had installed a new formation called the "weak set," in which Rozier moves out of the I to play beside Craig. The result: 1,020 yards rushing and 10 TDs on the ground in the Huskers' first two games of the year, wipeouts of Iowa (42-7) and New Mexico State (68-0).
But the strategy was for naught on Saturday—Craig had suffered a badly bruised thigh in the game against New Mexico State and hardly practiced for Penn State. He picked up 27 yards on seven carries in the first half but was unable to play at all in the second.
Another predictable Husker standout was Wingback Irving Fryar, who had seven catches for 112 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown with 38 seconds left in the first half that cut Penn State's lead to 14-7. Fryar is fast enough to beat Rozier and Craig in the 40 by a few ticks and strong enough to break tackles, as he did when he bulled over Penn State defensive backs Roger Jackson and Mark Robinson to get into the end zone.
Forget, though, about Craig and Rozier and Fryar. And forget about Dave Rimington, the Cornhuskers' Out-land Award-winning center who is even stronger this year because Osborne has been spelling him occasionally with backup Brad Johnson. Nebraska's season revolves around Gill. He can throw from the pocket. He can roll out either way. He can both scramble and run the option. On Saturday he was Nebraska's second-leading rusher with 60 yards on 12 carries in addition to completing 16 of 34 passes.
Gill is that rare Texas blue-chipper (he's from Fort Worth) who escaped from both the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma. The former held no interest for him, but he concedes he'd be a Sooner today if not for Barry Switzer's wishbone offense. "I wanted to throw the ball," says Gill. "This offense is perfect for me here." Maybe so, but Gill still gets hate mail for rejecting Oklahoma. "I got a letter two weeks ago from a guy in Tulsa bad-mouthing me," says Gill, shaking his head. "He even had his return address on it. What's the matter with some people, anyway?"
"What's the matter?" is the question people have been asking about Penn State's Warner lately. The success of Air Paterno made Warner—a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate—a somewhat forgotten man in Penn State's first three victories. He set out to change that on Saturday.
His catch of a 43-yard Blackledge pass set up Bowman's first touchdown. He rushed for 15 yards, then 31 yards, to set up Penn State's second touchdown, which he scored himself on a two-yard run in the second quarter; it was his first rushing touchdown of the season. He gained 69 yards on 12 carries in the first half—he'd come into the game with only 143 yards for the season—and it felt so nice to be contributing again.
But Warner had only one carry in the second half as leg cramps forced him to the sideline. Paterno kept asking him how he was feeling, and Warner kept saying, "I can't go, I can't go." The offensive line continued to open up holes in the second half, but it was Williams (67 yards on 10 carries), Joel Coles (20 yards on four carries) and Warner's sophomore backup, Nichols (32 yards on seven carries), skittering through them.
Warner and Blackledge are best friends, roommates and fellow members of the Penn State chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. After Warner had publicly criticized Paterno following the Nittany Lions' opening game, in which he had only 13 carries (for 50 yards), it was Blackledge who settled him down and set him on the right course.
"I told Curt I knew what he was feeling," says Blackledge. "Everybody used to say I wasn't a big-league quarterback. I've experienced the same thing Curt has time and time again. When you're only running the ball 12 or 13 times instead of 30 times, you have to hit it just right. I know, because that's how it was when I was throwing only 12 or 13 times a game."
This season Paterno has given Blackledge the go-ahead to throw about 30 times a game (he's 71 of 118 for 973 yards and a Penn State single-season record-tying 15 touchdowns after four games). The players still talk about Paterno's sudden commitment to a passing game in tones of disbelief. "Frankly, I'm amazed," says Kenny Jackson. He puts his hands in front of him and twists them from one side to the other. "It's night and day around here," he adds. "That's how different things have been."
Night and day, particularly for Blackledge. After he was red-shirted as a freshman, he and Jeff Hostetler engaged in a battle for starting quarterback, and Blackledge won in the fourth game of the 1980 season. Saturday's game marked his 25th consecutive start, but his inconsistency has more than once turned the thoughts of Nittany Lion fans to Hostetler, who transferred to West Virginia and has led the Mountaineers to an unexpected 3-0 record this season.
After the first two games of 1981, for example, Blackledge had completed just eight of 25 passes. At best, he was considered a quarterback in the mold of Chuck Burkhart, neither a great passer nor a great runner, but a winner who led the Lions to 22 straight wins in 1968-69. Blackledge liked the winner tag, of course, but he also thought himself a classic dropback passer. No, said everybody else, just hand the ball to your roommate, Todd, and get out of the way.
"I admit my reputation of not being a big-league quarterback bothered me," says Blackledge. "But then I started to put it in the right perspective. My goal is to become a better quarterback than I was. One of the major things, obviously, is to improve my touchdown-interception ratio." He's doing that. It was 12 touchdowns-14 interceptions last year; so far this year it is 15-5.
Air Paterno actually started to come together in the summer when Blackledge, Warner and Jackson remained at State College and worked out. "We never seemed to be on the same page before with our passing game," said Jackson, "but now it's come together. We know each other's moves so well, it's almost like a ballet out there."
No one has ever connected Bowman, Saturday's most unlikely hero, with ballet. Before he became a tight end just three weeks ago, he had been a linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, nose guard and offensive guard. "I have the kind of body [he's 6'1½", 238] that can play anywhere, I guess," he says. Indeed, one can only think that perhaps a career as a center was beckoning Bowman after he (a) ran a pattern beyond the end line without realizing it in his receiving debut against Maryland and (b) dropped a Blackledge pass that was right in his hands the following week against Rutgers. After that Bowman was rechristened Stonehands.
"Hey, I had to look down at my program two times to believe that was you," one of Bowman's friends kidded him after Saturday's game.
"Yeah, that was good ol' No. 80," said Bowman.
The way Blackledge is clicking these days, it's likely to be anyone; already he has completed passes to 13 different receivers. One can only wonder what will happen if Air Paterno and Ground Warner get together.
Split End Garrity grabbed five Blackledge passes to account for 75 acrobatic yards.
Warner was his old self with 69 yards in the first half, but then he went off with cramps.
Stonehands was gluefingered for Penn State's winning TD.
Gill's rushing (52 yards and one TD) and passing (two TDs) nearly upended the Lions.
After hauling in a Gill pass and then breaking two tackles, Fryar (27) rambled on in for the Huskers' only first-half score.
Nittany Lion fans were anything but blue about the 27-24 outcome.