UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It would be the last hit Penn State's defense would make for 40 days and 40 nights, until the Florida Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day, so senior linebacker Trey Bauer wanted it to be a good one. He hoped somebody would put a hit on a Notre Dame player, not only to save the game, but to get back at a Notre Dame coach who, Bauer said, hit him.
And so, the Nittany Lion linemen and linebackers lined up. The defensive backs bore down. Notre Dame had just scored a touchdown, with 31 seconds remaining in Saturday's game at snow-glazed Beaver Stadium, and the score was 21-20, in favor of Penn State. But a two-point conversion would give Notre Dame the game and an outside shot at the national championship, so the Fighting Irish went for it. . . .
And the score was still 21-20, in favor of Penn State.
Quarterback Tony Rice's ankle was yanked by Penn State tackle Pete Curkendall at the five-yard line. Down went Rice; down went Notre Dame. Nothing was left for the seventh-ranked Irish (8-2) to do except accept a bid to the Cotton Bowl to play the champion of the Southwest Conference.
"We're banged up, and our dreams and goals are not intact," said the losing coach, Lou Holtz.
"A lot of hopes, a lot of dreams went down the drain," said the Heisman Trophy favorite, Tim Brown.
Irish eyes weren't smiling.
Worse yet, Holtz's heroes must go to Miami next Saturday, carrying with them the knowledge that even if they blow the Hurricanes halfway to Haiti, it still will not keep Miami out of the Orange Bowl.
Penn State (8-3), meanwhile, had the satisfaction of knowing that even if it could not repeat as national champion, at least it: (a) stopped Notre Dame's five-game winning streak; (b) kept the Irish winless in this stadium; (c) introduced a nationwide TV audience to Heisman candidate of tomorrow, Blair Thomas, who rushed for 219 yards, and (d) comforted Citrus Bowl officials, who feared that their Jan. 1 blind date between Penn State and Clemson was turning out to be a dog.
Coach Joe Paterno, with happy Orlando people within earshot, said: "I had promised some people we wouldn't go to Florida with a 7-4 record. I told our players: 'Now don't make me look bad.' "
In game-time temperatures of 18 degrees, with a wind chill that made it colder and a wind that made passing and kicking hazardous, the Nittany Lions warmed up for their 1988 vacation to Disney World by pushing the Fighting Irish all over the field. They opened holes for Thomas that Dumbo the elephant could have run through. They helped him become the first Penn State back to gain 200 yards since Curt Warner got 256 against Syracuse in 1981.
The Irish, who never led, did push back a couple of times. Twice, they came back to tie. And, they could have won, had they not bungled their final plays of both halves, each time from the Penn State three.
Another way the Irish pushed back, according to Penn State's Bauer, was after Rice ran 11 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, tying the score, 14-14. The linebacker gave the quarterback one last bump at the intersection of the goal line and sideline, drawing a dead-ball foul in the process. "It wasn't like he was eight feet out of bounds or anything," Bauer said in his own defense.
A minor melee ensued, during which it appeared that one Notre Dame player tried to moonwalk on Bauer's face. Bauer wasn't sure about that, but he did say: "One of their coaches punched me. Right in the chest, he literally punched me. I know who it was. I don't know his name, but if I saw a picture of him, I could identify him."
Asked if he wanted to see some mug shots, Bauer laughed and said: "Nah. Let it be. But then, that coach even taunted me some more during the TV timeout. And, they gave me a 15-yard penalty for a late hit, which was just a joke!"
A flamboyant, outspoken character who cruises around campus in a 1973 Pinto with 110,000 miles on it, Bauer does not shy away from a challenge. Before Saturday's game, when asked if the defense was concerned with stopping Brown, the New Jersey native shot back: "Tim Brown is a concern, but not a big concern. He's not Superman. He doesn't wear a red cape or a big 'S' on his chest."
As if to prove it, Penn State's defense brought Brown back to earth. The Irish flanker was kept out of the end zone. He caught four passes for 80 yards, returned one kickoff for 16, and returned one punt for 7. Wobbly, wind-blown kicks went nowhere near him.
In the first period, while Brown was still on the sideline, Paterno ordered Penn State to quick-kick on third down. Notre Dame safety Brandy Wells had to drop back to field it--and he fumbled it away at the Irish 19. Two plays later, Penn State scored.
Taken out of the game, Brown was down and out when it was over.