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Underdog Penn State forced five interceptions to beat Miami for the national title

For those of you running late, here's what happened, in brief, at this season's College Football Game of the Century, known hereafter to Miami fans as the Groana in Arizona. No. 2 Penn State defeated No. 1 Miami 14-10 in the sun-kissed, Nielsen-blissed (70 million people watched it) Fiesta Bowl. Awards were bestowed upon Vinny Testaverde for being the world's unluckiest January quarterback (eight interceptions, one measly touchdown, 0 for 2 in national championships) and upon 60-year-old Joe Paterno for being the unlikely coach of the '80s. Paterno has played for the national title three times in this decade. He has won two and apparently wants another one soon. Less than 24 hours after beating what amounted to a future NFL roster, he was back on his hotel room phone chatting up recruits. "You think this makes it easier?" Paterno grumbled. "Nah, it's a constant battle. Now, instead of guys telling recruits we're no good, they're telling 'em we're loaded. You can't win."

You can't win. Penn State heard those three words all week. Yes, both teams had great defenses. But Miami had six all-world athletes at the skill positions: Testaverde, his redoubtable backs Alonzo Highsmith and Melvin Bratton, and three Stealth-bomber wide receivers. Together, they made just about everybody but Beano Cook and two plumbers in Altoona figure that if you didn't go Canes you weren't quite sane. That, of course, was before the Steak Fry. After that event, sanity sort of slipped quietly out of town.

It was supposed to be just an old-fashioned hand-pressing affair for the Fiesta Bowl contenders. Nittany Lion punter John Bruno began the talent portion of the evening with a crack about Hurricane coach Jimmy Johnson keeping the hair-spray industry in good shape. That apparently upset tender Miami sensibilities. "I think our players were offended by that remark," said Johnson, who told the press that he doesn't use all that much hair spray and that even if he does, "It just so happens I like to be neat. I like to have my hair in place. Some people don't like that." Here, then, was Felix Unger addressing a roomful of Oscar Madisons.

But that wasn't what made the Miami players mad. "Jimmy's our coach," said Highsmith. "We're the only ones that get to rag on his hair." You could almost hear the rap video in the making.

Now, we are the Canes
And we take no jive,
Even though our coach
Wears Alberto VO5.

Then Bruno did something maybe he shouldn't have. In joking about his own team, he said, "We even let the black guys eat with us at the training table once a week." It was harmless and stupid, mostly stupid. But after the Nittanies and the Canes finished their skits, several Miami players stood up and removed their shirts to reveal the combat fatigues that they had worn on the flight to Phoenix. Having safely eaten his steak, the Hurricanes' 285-pound All-America defensive tackle and designated orator. Jerome Brown, said, "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them? No. We're out of here." And out he marched with all the Canes in tow, leaving the Lions and Fiesta Bowl officials with their molars hanging out.

Then Bruno rose. "Hey, wait a minute," he said. "Didn't the Japanese lose that war?" This qualifies as one of the five best lines ever issued by a punter.

The next morning Johnson said, "Our players were very offended by those racial remarks." That seemed noble enough until it came out that the walkout had been planned. "It was all set up," said Miami defensive tackle Dan Sileo. Had Johnson known about the walkout? Probably not. Johnson seems to be as surprised as the rest of the world by what his players do. "Every morning I can't wait to pick up the paper and see what they've said next," he said. Better, what didn't they say next?

"We played for the national championship on September 27 [against Oklahoma]," Sileo said. "As far as I'm concerned, Friday's game is just the end of the season."

"[Shane] Conlan covering me will be good for us," said flanker Michael Irvin of the Lions' All-America linebacker. "I'm sure I can run right past him.... We're looking to put them away early."

"You know what I think of John Shaffer and D.J. Dozier? I think they're nothing," said Brown. "Shaffer thought he had a bad bowl game last year. That was nothing. After this game, he'll wish he'd graduated. The dude's about to star in a nightmare.... We don't care what people think about us, as long as we win, our fans are happy and we bring our school more money. We could care less what people think about the University of Miami."

Even Johnson got in a line. When asked about possibly recommending overtime for college games to the NCAA, he said, "I could do it, but I think that it would have more clout if St. Joe proposed it."

In short, the Canes were hard to confuse with anybody running for office in Phoenix. About a dozen of them alighted from the team plane looking like Soldier of Fortune catalog models. Miami officials insisted that the Fiesta Bowl committee redo the Hurricane locker room at the stadium, which it did. Most of the players wore sweats and T-shirts to a swank luncheon. (Penn State's players had on coats and ties.) During pre-game warm-ups, Miami players swore at Penn State players and coaches. The 6'2" Irvin went up to Ray Isom, the Lions' 5'9" safety, and laughed in his face. "You're Isom?" Irvin said with glee. "Oh, mannnnnnnn." Then the 6'1" Highsmith walked up to 5'11" corner-back Duffy Cobbs. "You shouldn't have come, you know," said Highsmith. "It's too late to turn back. You've chosen your own death now."

How could Highsmith et al. have known that Paterno and his staff, especially defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, had plans for them? After spending exhausting hours studying film, Sandusky concluded that if Miami's receivers are jammed at the line and walloped as a penalty for catching the ball, "their arms get about eight inches shorter," as Cobbs put it. Added Conlan, "They kept talking about how little our defensive backs were, but they'd never been hit by them."

Irvin disputed that assessment after the game. "The weather was cool," he said. "The ball was slippery." Whatever, something was separating the Hurricanes' pass catchers from the ball. They dropped seven passes—four in the first half, when Testaverde's confidence took a disastrous plunge. By halftime's 7-7 tie, Testaverde had made some miraculous scrambles, including one death-defier out of his own end zone to the Miami 24. But he hadn't thrown a touchdown pass, hadn't thrown a bomb and seemed strangely out of kilter.

In fact, his night came right out of the nightmare Brown had envisaged for Shaffer. Testaverde's first two passes of the second half were dropped, and two possessions later he was intercepted by Conlan. With the score still 7-7, Testaverde was intercepted by linebacker Pete (Gifto) Giftopoulos on Miami's first possession of the fourth quarter, and only Highsmith's brilliant sweeps kept a later drive alive. That one ended with a 38-yard Mark Seelig field goal, which put the Hurricanes ahead 10-7 with 12 minutes remaining.

The lead didn't last long. On Miami's next possession, Conlan picked off another Testaverde throw. He returned it 38 yards to the Hurricane five, a place from which even Penn State's iron-poor offense—Nittany Lion defenders gained more yards (91) than Nittany Lion receivers (53)—could score. When Dozier spun through the middle for a touchdown and a 14-10 advantage, Testaverde seemed a tragic case.

All week Miami's quarterback had been tighter than the curls in his hair. Usually self-effacing and dryly funny, he seemed like a man about to take a final in a course he had forgotten he had signed up for. But if Testaverde felt less than playful, it was no wonder. For starters, one morning somebody sent him six o'clock room service, a joke Testaverde didn't find amusing. "I'm trying to get some sleep!" he hollered to nobody in particular.

Since winning the Heisman Trophy, Testaverde has been Public Target No. 1. He has been besieged by agents seeking to represent him. Too, he was expected to be Joe Namath with knees in the Fiesta Bowl, despite not having played since his well-documented scooter snafu on Nov. 25. Had the crash affected him? Said his father. Big Al, "I'll say this, it was worse than the public ever knew."

In any case, this was definitely not the same Victory Vinny that Big Al had brought up. This Vinny left the pocket too early, seemed reluctant to look off his primary receivers, often threw before the rush was in his face and continually tried to shoehorn the ball downfield against a bevy of Penn State linebackers who often set up eight yards deeper than usual. "I think Vinny took too much on his shoulders and tried to win it on his own," said Miami assistant Art Kehoe. Said Johnson, "He wasn't as sharp as he normally is. All the distractions on him the last month had some effect. There's no way anyone can imagine schedule has been like."

But according to Paterno, Penn State's defensive coverages were so well designed and disguised that Testaverde just didn't know what he was seeing. "He was just throwing by the numbers," Paterno said. "He didn't expect anybody to be there." Indeed, of Testaverde's five interceptions, four hit Nittany Lions in the numbers. Strange. This was a guy who went 114 passes without throwing an interception this year, 116 last year.

Still, even playing his worst game of the season, Testaverde was good enough to bring Miami to the brink of the national championship. Facing fourth-and-six at his own 27 with 2:24 to play, Johnson did a crazy, impossible and gutty thing. He went for it. Testaverde fired a quick out to split end Brian Blades, who raced 31 yards after slipping a tackle. Suddenly Testaverde had a bounce in his step and Paterno had a pain in his heart. "I was worried," Paterno said afterward. "In my experience, whenever I've taken a big, big gamble like that and made it, I've usually won. The kids get to thinking. Look out, this must be our night. And everything starts to happen. I was scared."

Testaverde threw to Blades for seven more yards, with 1:51 left; split end Brett Perriman for nine, with 1:42 left; Irvin for four, with 1:09 left; Irvin for 12, with 1:01 left. "I remember thinking, Oh, god, here they come," recalled Isom. "I knew it was going to happen, sooner or later." Testaverde found Irvin for another five yards, and Miami had second-and-goal on the Penn State five with 48 seconds still on the clock. If America's best offense can't score with three chances from the five with the Big Enchilada on the line, Don Johnson shops at K Mart.

Then something strange happened. Everybody expected to see Highsmith take off on three straight sweeps. The Nittany Lions had had a terrible time containing Highsmith throughout the game; he had already rushed for 119 yards on 18 carries. Not only that, but the Hurricanes had two timeouts remaining. "No question we should have run," said Kehoe. "No question." Concurred backup quarterback Geoff Torretta, "From the five-yard line, Alonzo could have flown over."

And Miami wanted to run. Johnson wanted to run. Offensive coordinator Gary Stevens wanted to run. But Testaverde wanted to pass. "We all pretty much agreed that we wanted to run on second-and-five," said Johnson. "We were all very frustrated, but we gave in. He wanted to throw it, and he felt good about it, so we went with it."

It could have worked, too. Testaverde had Irvin open crossing the middle for a TD. But before he could get the ball to Irvin, tackle Tim Johnson sacked Testaverde by the hard skin of his fingertips. Third-and-goal on the 13. Testaverde then rushed a pass, a lob across field to halfback Warren Williams. Fourth-and-13, 18 seconds to go.

Testaverde came to the line. Reading the defense while a stadium-record 73,098 fans screamed, he could not see or hear his coaches busting veins trying to call a timeout. "We wanted to discuss it a little more," said Johnson, in something of an understatement.

Penn State dropped eight men to the goal line, and the Nittany Lions looked at Testaverde's eyes. Said Isom, "We knew in key situations he would stare at the receiver he was going to throw to. On first-and-10, he may be the best quarterback in the country, but on third-and-eight or fourth-and-eight, he maybe needs to work on it."

Indeed, Testaverde sent three men out, but looked only left at Perriman, who was trying to break into a seam. "All that talk about our defensive backs being so small," said Giftopoulos, "and then they don't lob it up when it counts." What happened next seems trapped under glass.

See the spiral. See the spiral coming right at Gifto, all wrapped in a bow. See Testaverde cringe. See three of Gifto's teammates ready to catch it if Gifto doesn't. See two Florida highway patrolmen flank Testaverde on the sideline. See Testaverde throw his helmet in the locker room. See Paterno win another national championship with defense and ugly shoes. See Gifto hand the ball to the official. "Why should I keep it?" said Giftopoulos, a man of simplicity from Hamilton, Ont. "If you keep it, you've got to give the NCAA $50. That's $75 Canadian."

After the game Paterno said, "I've been in a lot of happy locker rooms, but that was the happiest. There was so much enthusiasm, so many kids who wanted to hug me and vice versa. It was like one giant 'Ahhhhhhhhhhh! Finally! We got it.'

"Wouldn't it have been a shame if we hadn't played this game," continued Paterno. "If we had not had a shot at them, Miami would have been voted No. 1, no question. Instead, we got to find out who was better."

Shoulda seen it coming. After all, the Nittany Lions have never lost in Tempe, where they are now 4-0. Also, when Penn State won the national crown in 1983, it held another Heisman winner, Georgia's Herschel Walker, in check. Finally, for the second straight year in a bowl game, Miami fell to a team with inferior manpower because Johnson and his staff got outcoached.

When title time rolled around on the 12-yard line, Miami thrashed about on the sidelines, stuck with a play for the national championship that it really didn't want, and ended the game with an extra timeout hanging around its neck like a millstone. Meanwhile, Penn State knew exactly what it needed to do. Just as the Lions had done in a last-breath win at Notre Dame, one of their nameless, black-shod players came up with the brightest play. "We beat them the only way we could," said Paterno. "We beat them in certain situations. We spent hours and hours on playing those situations."

Maybe someday Johnson's bowl record will be as sterling as Paterno's 12-5-1 mark. For now, though, Johnson is a Bo-dacious bust at 1-4, and his team had some explaining to do. "All that talk during the week," said Sileo. "I guess we kinda have our feet stuck in our mouths right now."

No big deal. People across the country just learned what folks in South Florida already know. Occasionally, Hurricanes are just a lot of wind.



After running six yards for the winning touchdown (left), Dozier knelt in prayer.



[See caption above.]



The Tempe trip was a combat mission for Testaverde & Co.



Don Graham was one of many Lion linebackers who made life tough for Testaverde.



Giftopoulos's first interception halted the Hurricanes early in the fourth quarter...



...and his second, at the goal line with 14 seconds to play, stopped Miami for good.



Dan Stubbs is one reason that Shaffer completed just five of 16 passes for 53 yards.



The Canadian Giftopoulos didn't want to owe the NCAA $50 U.S.



For the 12th time in 18 attempts, Paterno led his black-shoed troops to a bowl victory.