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HOLIDAY XII: BIG PLAYS AND `IMPROBABLES’

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It was a game of improbables and big plays:

- The tough Penn State defense being shredded by BYU's sophisticated passing game.- The BYU offensive line responding by giving Ty Detmer time to set a Sea World Holiday Bowl record of 576 yards passing to demolish the previous mark of 446 set by BYU's Jim McMahon in the 1980, 46-45 'Miracle Bowl' victory over SMU.

- The proud Penn State Nittany Lions coming up with the big plays when they had to have them to prevent a repeat of the Miracle Bowl.

- A stellar cast of supporting players who shared the limelight with Heisman Trophy candidates Detmer and Blair Thomas.

Talk about your big plays - especially on offense. Was there a series when there wasn't a big play? Do you think ESPN was happy it made the decision a few years ago to televise the Sea World Holiday Bowl?

ESPN sportscaster Tim Brando hit in on the money. On Tuesday, in the calm of Shamu, Baby Shamu and the whole Sea World atmosphere, he had time to talk about how he saw the game.

Penn State, he said, had never seen a passing attack like BYU's - not even the kind that Miami threw at the Nittany Lions in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.

BYU, on the other hand, he said, hadn't faced a running back like Blair Thomas this season. To beat the Nittany Lions, BYU would have to beat Thomas, he predicted.

The Cougars, of course didn't contain Thomas until it was too late, nor did they do much to stop his runningmate, LeRoy Thompson, who had some critical runs, including two for touchdowns. The two combined for more than 250 yards, Thomas gaining 186 on 35 workhorse carries and Thompson complementing him nicely with 68 on 14 rushes.

Because of their ability to control the ball, and quarterback Tony Sacca's to hit an occasional key pass (he finished with 206 yards and 2 touchdowns by completing 10 of 19 passes) Penn State wasn't forced to punt until late in the fourth quarter.

Stopping the Nittany Lions twice in the fourth quarter was almost enough for the Cougars. But for a stellar play by Gary Brown, who stripped the ball as Detmer was going down at the Penn State 47 in the last minute of play, it might have been.

Detmer, of course, was helped by a outstanding group of receivers. Brent Nyberg had his best game. The 200-pound junior, who's a junior college transfer, caught eight passes for 117 yards and a touchdown and had a 46-yard TD pass taken away on BYU's first possession because of an illegal receiver downfield penalty.

There was Andy Boyce coming up with a big game, making a nice touchdown catch in the left corner of the endzone to keep the Cougars in the game in the third quarter, while totaling eight receptions for 117 yards.

And the bowl game marked the return of junior back Matt Bellini as a main ingredient in the Cougars' offense. After starting the year with a blaze, Bellini had been quiet much of the second half of the season - due in large part because opposing defenses started keying on him.

But Friday it was Bellini making big play after big play, coming out of the backfield to haul in a Detmer aerial and race into Penn State territory to put the Cougars in scoring position. His biggest was a 50-yard reception late in the first half that enabled BYU to kick a field goal and take a 13-12 halftime lead.

"It was just an incredible game. It could have gone either way. I'm just proud to have been part of the game . . . Penn State's a great team, but so are we," Bellini said.

Throw in the usual solid receiving of Jeff Frandsen (6 for 85 yards) and tight end Chris Smith (6 for 74) and it was a passing attack the likes of which Penn State nor the Sea World Holiday Bowl had ever seen.

Do you think Detmer got some points from the eastern press covering Penn State going into next year's Heisman Trophy chase?

As impressive as Detmer was, being named the game's co-MVP with Thomas, the offensive line was just as outstanding.

Anchored by Outland Trophy winner Mohammed Elewonibi, the line of Mike Keim, Bryan May, Robert Stephens and Neal Fort gave Detmer time to work his magic.

On receiving the MVP trophy, Detmer said, "There should be one of these for each of my offensive linemen. They're the ones who deserve it."

"They're (offensive line) just fantastic, and the best part is, most of us will be back next year," added Boyce.

Among the heroes for Penn State were kick returner-receiver O.J. McDuffie and wideouts Terry Smith and David Daniels.

McDuffie gave the Nittany Lions excellent field position by returning kickoffs past the 30 and Smith and Daniels made key catches with Daniels making a sensational 52-yard TD grab late in the game while falling down and bobbling the ball.