How fitting that when the whole crazy, exhausting, thrilling, four-hour-and-17-minute affair was finished, when Penn State had finally been declared a 50 39 winner over BYU in Holiday Bowl XII, they couldn't select a single Offensive Player of the Game.
They picked two of them.
They gave one trophy to Ty Detmer, the prodigy of a BYU quarterback. They gave the other trophy — the one that was supposed to go to the Defensive Player of the Game, and handed it to Blair Thomas, Penn State's unstoppable running back. There would be no trophy for the defense on this night.
Who do you like? Thomas, who rushed for 186 yards on 35 carries and caught two passes for 46 yards? Or Detmer, who set a Holiday Bowl record for pass completions (42), attempts (59) and yards (576), including two for touchdowns and two for interceptions?
The only thing Detmer didn't do was pull out a victory, although he came within a couple of strange plays of doing so. As Lion coach Joe Paterno told the crowd of 61,113 after the game, "The BYU kids played a great game. A couple of breaks at the end of the game made the difference."
Trailing 41-26 with 9:28 left in the game, Detmer led the Cougars to two quick touchdowns — a 10-yard run by Fred Whittingham and a three-yard TD strike to Brent Nyberg — to close the gap to 41-39. But then came the first of two game-breaking plays. Andre Collins, PSU's All-America linebacker, intercepted Detmer's two-point conversion pass and returned it 102 yards, worth two points and a 43-39 lead with 2:34 remaining.
Still, the Cougars weren't finished. The BYU defense, led by linebacker Bob Davis, rose up and stopped the Nittany Lions, forcing them to punt. Detmer went to work again. He completed four quick passes to move BYU to the PSU 38. Faced with a third-and-eight with some 50 seconds remaining, Detmer was dropping back for another pass when Gary Brown, a defensive back, swooped in behind him, ripped the ball out of his hands and raced 53 yards for a touchdown.
"I was fixing to throw it away and he smashed the ball against my shoulder and took it," said Detmer. "I didn't think I could catch him, so I made a dive after him."
"This was as screwy a game as I have every been involved with," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards, "and I've never seen two back-to-back plays like Penn State scored in the last few minutes of play."
Afterward, the Cougars to a man lamented missed opportunities. At halftime, they led 13-12, but twice they had driven inside the five-yard line — once to the one, once to the four — and come away with just two field goals.
"I thought we were going to pull out another one," said Detmer. "We just had trouble inside the one."
If nothing else, Detmer won the respect of his opponents, who crowded around him after the game to congratulate him, as well as observers such as Jim McMahon, the former BYU star quarterback.
"I thought Detmer was impressive, but when you have an offensive line like that . . . .," said McMahon.
Indeed, Detmer was sacked only four times the entire game, this against the brilliant Penn State defense.
"I hadn't any idea before the game that there would be this number of points scored," said Edwards.
Indeed, BYU finished with 651 yards against a defense that had allowed only one team — Notre Dame — to gain over 400 yards this season. In the meantime, the Nittany Lions had 464 yards.
All week long BYU coaches had feared only one thing: turnovers and penalties, their long-time bowl nemesis. So what happens? On the game's opening drive, the Cougars committed three big penalties — one of which nullified a 46-yard touchdown pass from Ty Detmer to Brent Nyberg. The Cougars finally stalled for good at the 30 and came away empty-handed.
They followed that with another big blunder on their next possession. On second down from the PSU 36, Detmer spotted a wide-open Stacey Corley at the goal line, but his pass was wobbly and fell out of the night sky like a wounded duck. Safety Sherrod Rainge raced over from the far side of the field to intercept the pass.
Moments later, BYU cornerback Tony Crutchfield returned the favor, making a diving interception of a Tony Sacca pass at the 34. Detmer, rolling right to elude the rush, threw a wobbly side-armed pass to Andy Boyce at the one-yard line, and BYU was in business again. On first down Detmer fumbled; on second down he threw behind reserve tight end Fotu Katoa, who was wide open in the back of the end zone; on third down, the PSU rush forced Detmer to throw the ball away, forcing BYU to settle for a 20-yard Jason Chaffetz field goal that tied the score at 3.
In the meantime, as expected the Nittany Lions were pounding out yardage bit by bit on the legs of Thomas, five and six yards a pop. On their opening drive alone, he had eight carries to set up Ray Tarasi's 31-yard field goal. With the score tied at 3, the Lions again went to Thomas to move them upfield, but then — surprise! — Sacca threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Terry Smith, who was in a different area code than the nearest BYU defender. Tarasi missed the PAT kick, making it 9-3.
Down by six points, Detmer struck back, eventually scoring one a one-yard bootleg to give BYU a 10-9 lead with 8 minutes remaining in the half.
The Nittan Lions answered back. They drove into BYU territory — and then two yellow flags later they were knocking at the door. Then BYU's Eric Bergeson was penalized for a deadball non-contact foul — a fancy term for foul-mouthing off — and then a teammate repeated the act even as the official was marking off the penalty to draw still another flag. That moved PSU from the 20 to the five-yard line. One play later, the refs made the same call against the Nittany Lions, moving them back to the 17 and forcing them to settle for a 36-yard Tarasi field goal and a 12-10 lead.
If that lead looked safe with only 2:01 remaining in the half, it wasn't for long. On first down, Detmer rolled left, then threw back the other way to Bellini streaking down the right sideline for a 51-yard gain. Detmer chipped away from there: 13 yards to Smith, nine to Bellini, four to Whittingham. On third-and-one at the four-yard line, Detmer had Bellini wide open in the back of the end zone — and overthrew him. On came Chaffetz to kick a 22-yard field goal.
After outgaining the Lions 294 to 182, the Cougars held a one-point lead at halftime. They had only themselves to blame; They were penalized six times, to their opponent's one.
The Lions started the second half quickly. Tarasi kicked a Holiday Bowl record 51-yard field goal that barely cleared the uprights to give Penn State a 15-13 lead. Then reserve Leroy Thompson swept around the right end on a 16-yard touchdown run to put the Nittany Lions ahead 22-13.
The Cougars' wake-up call came. A deadball personal foul against Penn State moved BYU to the 42, but Detmer was clicking again anyway. Eleven yards to Fred Whittingham. Thirteen to Jeff Frandsen. Sixteen to Frandsen. Twelve to Frandsen, who made a diving catch at the goal. And then the touchdown: Detmer rolled left, sidestepped a tackle by Willie Thomas at the four and stepped into the end zone. Chaffetz missed the PAT, leaving BYU down by three, 22-19.
But any momentum the Cougars had mounted ended shortly. Facing fourth down, the Lions sent in Smith to punt. That should have been BYU's first clue. Smith, a wide receiver, hadn't punted all season. From punt formation, he fielded the snap and threw to Tisen Thomas for nine yards and the first down. A personal foul penalty against BYU moved the Lions to the 14 and one play later Thompson ran for the touchdown. Score: 29-19.
So much for defense. Now it was the Cougars' turn. Detmer found Nyberg for 18 and the Cougars were off again. On first down from the 12, Detmer found Boyce in the corner of the end zone. Score: 29-26.
Lions' turn. Thomas was a one-man gang this time. Twice Sacca passed to him, for gains of 29 and 17 yards, and then Thomas, breaking several tackles, scored on a seven-yard run. With 12:11 left in the game, PSU led 35-26.
For all practical purposes, the contest ended when Detmer threw straight into the hands of Rainge. A couple of plays later, a high, arching pass to Sacca bounced off the hands of David Daniels twice before he finally grabbed it while flat on his back in the end zone. With 9:28 remaining, Penn State led 41-26.
That set the stage for another typical Holiday Bowl finish.