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Roses With Thorns Penn State beat Oregon in Pasadena but, painfully, ended up No. 2

One end zone was painted in the electric yellow and bright green
of the Oregon Ducks, the other in Penn State's snowy white and navy
blue. An artist's giant rose straddled the 50-yard line on the floor
of the Rose Bowl, opening its red petals to the clear Southern
California sky. More than 102,000 sat in the bowl itself, making the
noises that fans make, waving the pom-poms that fans wave. All of
this evidence would seem to suggest that on Jan. 2, 1995, Penn State
was playing Oregon in the 81st Rose Bowl game. In truth, the Nittany
Lions spent the day as they had spent the previous two months:
chasing ghosts. Chasing voters they would never see, a team they
would never play and a swell of public sentiment that they were
powerless to change.
Penn State's faith that college football's populist process for
selecting a national champion would somehow prove just in the end --
''Joe ((Paterno)) kept telling us, 'Let it take care of itself, let
it all play out,' '' said Lion senior defensive tackle Vin Stewart --
had been crushed on New Year's night, 3,000 miles away in the Orange
Bowl. Penn State players had sat in their rooms at the Hotel
Inter-continental in Los Angeles, propped up on a season's worth of
excellence, as they watched Nebraska rally to beat Miami 24-17,
leaving these Nittany Lions locked at No. 2 forever. Sophomore
cornerback Brian Miller was sitting alone in his room when Nebraska
fullback Cory Schlesinger scored the winning touchdown from 14 yards
out. ''I heard a big crash next door,'' Miller said. ''I guess some
guys were throwing things around.''
Paterno called the team together just after the end of the Orange
Bowl. Things aren't always going to go our way, he told his players.

That was the way it had been since Halloween weekend, when Penn
State trashed Ohio State 63-14 and dropped from the No. 1 spot in the
Associated Press poll -- a perch the Lions had claimed two weeks
earlier with a victory over Michigan. On the Monday after the Ohio
State game, Penn State senior linebacker Willie Smith walked through
the Lion locker room, railing at the madness. ''We dropped!'' Smith
shouted. ''Sixty-three to 14, and we dropped! What do they want us to
do to these teams?''
The other half of the title lasted only a week more. On Nov. 5 in
Bloomington, Ind. -- such an unlikely place and such a meaningless
game to decide who would win the national championship -- Penn State
led Indiana 35-14 with less than two minutes remaining. Then, against
Nittany Lion reserves, the Hoosiers scored two touchdowns, including
one on a Hail Mary on the game's last play. The final score was
35-29, and on the following day, Penn State fell to No. 2 in the
coaches' poll as well, damned to chase Nebraska into January. ''That
was ridiculous,'' Paterno said. ''That game was never in doubt.
Never. We had a bunch of kids in at the end that hadn't even
Absent a direct route to the title, Penn State tried retreating
into that coziest of football cocoons: Focus on the game. Forget
about the polls. Play Oregon. Forget about Nebraska. But at times the
temptation to slap at the Cornhuskers proved irresistible. Three days
before the Rose Bowl, two of Penn < State's All-Americas, wideout
Bobby Engram and tailback Ki-Jana Carter, were loitering on the lawn
outside the Nittany Lions' hotel. ''They punished us for the Indiana
game,'' Engram said. ''Nebraska barely beat Iowa State ((28-12)).
Iowa State.'' Said Carter, ''Nebraska had trouble with Oklahoma
((13-3)). I watched Oklahoma last night ((in a 31-6 loss to Brigham
Young in the Copper Bowl)). Man, Oklahoma sucks.''
Even Paterno himself, who had promised to avoid mudslinging and
politicking, couldn't resist. ''I like to watch college football
games,'' Paterno began, innocuously enough. And then, ''I watched
Boston College beat Kansas State, I watched BYU beat Oklahoma. Kansas
State and Oklahoma were two teams ((that Nebraska beat)) that were
supposedly tougher than anybody we played.'' Paterno then added this:
''If Notre Dame kicks Colorado's ears in the Fiesta Bowl, I'll tell
everybody that Nebraska didn't beat anybody at all.'' (For the
record, the Buffaloes trounced the Irish 41-24.)
So on Jan. 2, another perfect day for the esteemed, old, usually
irrelevant Rose Bowl, the chase came to a hollow finish. Penn State
beat Oregon 38-20, not at all in the type of rout that might have --
but probably still wouldn't have -- given the Nittany Lions a shot at
swaying enough voters to claim at least half of the national title.
Perhaps Penn State was robbed of purpose by Nebraska's victory. ''We
didn't feel a lot of urgency before the game,'' Miller said later.
''Deep inside, I guess we all knew that the national championship had
already been decided.'' And it appeared as if the Lions were taken
aback by Oregon's class and effort, too. Paterno had issued Duck
warnings for weeks, but they had fallen on deaf ears. ''They were
better than they looked on tape,'' said wideout Freddie Scott. In the
end it didn't really matter, because no victory would have been
convincing enough. Nebraska swept the polls. Penn State finished
Ghosts, Ducks . . . what's the difference? Neither gets you to a
national championship.
Penn State's victory included little of the offensive pyrotechnics
that had been the team's signature all season. Only on the Lions'
first offensive play of the afternoon did demolition of the opponent
seem possible. Carter, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, shot through a
small hole on the right side, slid through an attempted tackle by
Oregon's Herman O'Berry and tore into the secondary, 83 yards to a
touchdown. ''I slipped, got my balance back, and then I saw nothing
but green in front of me,'' said Carter. ''All I could think was that
our coaches kept telling us that their defensive backs were really
fast, so I didn't want anyone to catch me.'' Not to worry. No one
came close. Carter finished with 156 yards on 21 carries in what was
probably his last game as a college player -- despite the desperate
chant of Penn State fans after the game: ''One more year! One more
year!'' His touchdown, while reminiscent of offensive explosions
past, would in fact mark the start of a long, difficult afternoon for
the Nittany Lions.
Before it was finished, Pac-10 champion Oregon would lacerate Penn
State's defense for 501 yards and Duck quarterback Danny O'Neil would
complete 41 of 61 passes for 456 yards, all Rose Bowl records. The
Ducks even tied the game twice, once at 7-7 in the first quarter and
again at 14-14 when O'Neil threw a 17-yard touchdown to Cristin
McLemore with 4:54 left in the third quarter.
It was later in the third quarter, however, that Penn State got
its two biggest plays of the game. Not from any of its many
superstars, but from a redshirt freshman kick returner who, by his
own estimation, never expected to see the playing field this season,
and from a skinny third-year sophomore defensive back who came into
the game with nary an interception in his career.
The former was Ambrose Fletcher, a 5 ft. 9", 190-pound
fourth-string tailback from New London, Conn. Fletcher was inserted
as a kickoff returner after Carter, who had been returning kicks, was
injured in the Lions' fifth game of the season, against Temple. ''I
was shocked that they put me in,'' Fletcher says. With the Rose Bowl
tied, he took Matt Belden's kickoff at his own seven-yard line, found
a seam along the left hash, then darted to the right, 72 yards in
all, to the Oregon 21. ''When I saw that hole, my eyes just lit up
and I hit it hard,'' said Fletcher. Two plays later, Carter followed
a sensational block by junior guard Marco Rivera and scored from 17
yards out to give Penn State a 21-14 lead.
The Lions' other big play was provided by Chuck Penzenik, a 5 ft.
10", 174- pound sophomore from Akron. Two plays after Carter's score,
O'Neil, standing on the Oregon 30, tried to hit McLemore on a deep
crossing route. The ball was thrown too high, and Penzenik picked it
off at the Penn State 43. He rushed to the left sideline and went 44
yards to the Oregon 13. In the bowels of the Rose Bowl after the
game, Penzenik was clutching two footballs, one from the key
interception, one from another interception he had made in the first
half. After a season spent as a backup cornerback, Penzenik had
started the Rose Bowl at free safety, a position where Penn State had
been thinned by injuries. ''All I ever wanted to do was earn a
starting position,'' a beaming Penzenik said after the game. ''I just
wish I could have gotten into the end zone.'' After Penzenik's
third-quarter interception, three plays were needed for Carter to
score his third touchdown, from three yards out, extending Penn
State's lead to a safe 28-14.
When the struggle was finished and Oregon had been disposed of at
last, Penn State again pleaded for a share of the national
championship. The players wore T-shirts and caps with penn state,
1994 national champions printed on them -- garb that had been freshly
minted by the shoe company that pays Paterno. The Nittany Lions
shouted their cause, and while most of them refused to trash
Nebraska, they all begged for belief. ''The least they could do is
split it two ways,'' said Carter. ''Nebraska's a great team. I know
everybody feels sorry for Tom Osborne, but I don't have a national
championship and neither do any of my teammates. You see our hats.
We're national champions, no matter what.''
Paterno, who became the first coach in history to win all four
major bowls and passed Bear Bryant to become the most successful bowl
coach in history (16 wins to Bryant's 15), said, ''We're worthy of
being considered national champions as much as anybody else.''
What also pains Penn State about falling short is that this team
felt itself imbued with some sort of destiny, as if there really were
such a thing. They held a players-only team meeting last January, a
few days after the Lions' shocking 31-13 victory over favored
Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Senior quarterback Kerry Collins began
the meeting like so: ''We're so close to something special. . . .''
Stewart followed suit, and then Carter, until the entire squad felt
itself pointed toward Pasadena.
Paterno, who turned 68 on Dec. 21 (his wife, Sue, thoughtfully
gave him a card on that day congratulating him on his 58th birthday),
developed a unique closeness with this group of players. This year's
fourth- and fifth-year players had been at the heart of Paterno's
effort to revitalize the Penn State program after a 7-5 season in
At no time in Paterno's 29 years as head coach in State College
did he accept more input from players. ''I've never had so many kids
who were so alert, football-wise,'' said Paterno. ''They know what's
going on all the time. They're always giving me advice, and they give
me great advice. I pay attention to them. They know what's going
On the day before the Rose Bowl, Paterno addressed thousands of
Penn State fans at a pep rally in Costa Mesa, which is near Pasadena.
Visibly moved by the turnout, he said, ''This is as thrilling a
moment as I've had in all my years of coaching. I've got goose
bumps.'' And if an imperfect system won't call his team champion, he
will do it himself. ''If somebody else doesn't want to say we're
national champions, we'll say it,'' Paterno said in early December.
''I might put a sign up in the stadium -- national champions 1982,
'86, '94. It's my word against somebody else's.''
As Paterno spoke during a post-Rose Bowl press conference,
Collins, defensive captain Brian Gelzheiser and center Bucky Greeley,
all seniors, walked through the crowd and presented Paterno with the
game ball.
''This is for the greatest bowl coach in history,'' Collins said.
''And the coach of the national champions.''
Paterno, smiling broadly, stood and waved the ball at the
threesome. ''These are the greatest guys I've ever been around,'' he
Collins turned back. ''That's just because we gave you the ball,''
he said. Paterno laughed and reared back as if to throw the ball at
Collins. It was a moment flush with emotion and care.
Paterno likes to use the word mature to describe this team. ''The
'68 and '69 teams were that way too,'' he says. Funny he should make
that comparison. Penn State was unbeaten in both 1968 and '69,
winning the Orange Bowl in both seasons, but neither team was awarded
the national championship. In 1973 the Nittany Lions were perfect
again, and again failed to win the poll title. ''Nobody can tell me
those teams weren't champions,'' Paterno says. Perhaps he'll mention
them on that new sign, too.
Charlie Pittman, a 46-year-old executive with The Charlotte
Observer, was the leading rusher on both the '68 and '69 Penn State
teams. He stood last week in the lobby of an Orange County hotel,
summoning up only the good times. ''We embraced the fact that we were
a great football team,'' he said. ''We never lost a game. I haven't
scored a touchdown in 25 years, and people still recognize me.''
Pittman's son, Tony, was a senior on the 1994 team, a starting
cornerback and academic All-America. Said Charlie, ''I told Tony,
'This will all mean much more to you when you're 35 or 45 years old
than it does now.' ''
The feeling sinks in, a mix of perspective and rationalization.
''It's a vote, right?'' said Engram. ''It's somebody's opinion. What
does it mean?''
For now it means disappointment amidst triumph. In 25 years,
perhaps it will mean something different.