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Penn State Beats Irish--a Fiesta Is Planned for Jan. 2

November 16, 1986|MICHAEL WILBON | The Washington Post

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Penn State defensive players stood there, six yards away from blowing an entire season, saying little if anything to each other in the huddle during that final minute.

"There wasn't much to say," safety Ray Isom said. "It's six yards. You let 'em in, the season is over. The hard work, the great games, the chance for a national championship, it's all gone. Talk about a sense of urgency."

The Penn State defenders responded as only champions can. Isom made the first of three stunning defensive plays, which also included a critical sack, and the heroics allowed the third-ranked Nittany Lions to remain undefeated with a 24-19 victory over the Irish Saturday in frigid Notre Dame Stadium.

Penn State (10-0), with only next Saturday's game against Pittsburgh standing in the way of an undefeated season, will doubtless be ranked No. 2 in next week's polls following Michigan's 20-17 upset by Minnesota. And that, more or less, forces top-ranked and undefeated Miami to play the Nittany Lions in a postseason bowl game.

"Wherever Miami goes, that's where we want to go," Penn State's Pete Giftopolous said.

In Miami, Coach Jimmy Johnson of the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes, said the Fiesta Bowl at Tempe, Ariz., is planning to move its game from New Year's Day to Jan. 2 and match his team against Penn State. It would be contingent on Penn State defeating Pitt.

Johnson disclosed the Fiesta Bowl's plans following Miami's 23-10 victory over Tulsa. Miami is also 10-0, with only a Nov. 27 night game against East Carolina remaining on the schedule.

"The feeling right now is that we are going to the Fiesta Bowl to play in prime time on Jan. 2, after all the other bowls are over," Johnson said. "I understand that the matchup will be against Penn State. The development with the game at prime time just occurred within the last few days."

As for Penn State, it was understandable that the Nittany Lions would want to take proper time to digest and celebrate Saturday's victory over a determined, well-prepared Notre Dame team (4-5) before letting their thoughts wander off to a bowl game.

In the final moments, it looked for certain as if Notre Dame would score a major upset before a crowd of 59,075, including Vice President George Bush.

Notre Dame had taken a 13-10 lead in the third quarter and, after Penn State scored two touchdowns within six minutes for an 11-point lead, had closed to 24-19 with seven minutes left on an eight-yard touchdown pass to Tim Brown from Steve Beuerlein, whose 311 yards passing were his most ever.

After getting the ball back on their 15 with 2:29 to play, Beuerlein rallied the Irish again. He completed successive passes of 22, 9, 15, 9 and 19 yards to get them to the Penn State six with 1:28 remaining.

"Nobody screamed or yelled or tried to psych anybody up," Giftopolous said. "We just looked at each other, knowing we had to stop them or this was it."

The first-and-goal play can be analyzed as a game in itself.

Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz and his staff ordered a two-tight-end option toss, designed to go to flanker Brown. One problem. Somebody forgot to send in the second tight end.

Meanwhile, Penn State's defensive coaches startled some of their players by calling for a goal-line defense that left Isom to cover Brown, a player with exceptional speed and moves, one-on-one.

"I couldn't understand why," Isom said, "because we were too far out. And when Notre Dame called the option, I knew I was out there by myself having to stop him." Isom not only stopped Brown, he tackled him for a three-yard loss back to the nine.

Even so, after using the second timeout, Notre Dame had second-and-goal with one minute to play. Time for season-saving defensive play No. 2. Bob White, the left tackle, played a little mind game with Notre Dame right tackle Byron Spruell.

White lined up outside, hoping Spruell would take the bait. He did, White charged inside and as the Notre Dame play-by-play read, "mugged Beuerlein."

The sack was good for a nine-yard loss back to the 18, and now the Irish were in a heap of trouble. "The most critical play was the sack, because going from the 18 is a lot different than going from the nine," Holtz said.

He was nearly wrong. Beuerlein, on third-and-goal, hit tight end Joel Williams in the end zone. But Penn State cornerback Gary Wilkerson ran over and popped Williams enough to make him drop the ball. Beuerlein's fourth-down pass was complete to tailback Mark Green, but 13 yards short of the goal line with 39 seconds to play.

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