Jitters? What jitters?
On a historic afternoon when Penn State brought the Big Ten to the East, the Nittany Lions also brought Minnesota to its knees with a 38-20 win before 95,387 spectators yesterday at Beaver Stadium.
It was a day that State coach Joe Paterno nervously anticipated for more than three years. And afterward, the relief that it had finally come and gone was clearly reflected in his 66-year-old face.
"It feels good, real good, and I don't mean that in a gloating sense," Paterno said after State' first-ever conference football game. "We all went into this game with a lot of anxieties."
The Nittany Lions also went into their season opener with a veteran defense that's supposed to carry them while their young, inexperienced offense finds its legs.
Yet that's not the way things evolved against a Minnesota team that simply wouldn't go away. Gophers quarterback Tim Schade threw for an amazing 478 yards, a school record, while completing 34 of 66 passes, both non-bowl game records by a Penn State opponent.
But Schade, a transfer from Texas Christian making his first start for the Gophers, had to fill the air with footballs because the Nittany Lions found their offensive legs immediately, building a 31-13 halftime lead before running out of gas.
It was a record-setting day for Engram, a sophomore who caught touchdown passes of 29, 31, 20 and 31 yards. No Penn State receiver had ever caught more than two touchdown passes in a game.
"It's like a challenge for us to go into the Big Ten, because we know they're all out to get us," said Engram, who made a memorable return after sitting out last season following legal problems.
Each of Engram's touchdowns came on sharp Sacca passes. The 6-foot, 3-inch Sacca, a fourth-year junior from Delran (N.J.) High who was named the starting quarterback last Tuesday, completed 18 of 32 throws for 274 yards and four TDs and was not intercepted.
And Ki-Jana Carter led a posse of three young tailbacks that Paterno shuffled in and out with 120 yards and a TD on 15 carries. Carter's TD came on a 1-yard sprint to the corner that made it 28-7.
Sacca showed a stronger arm than he did last season, and was clearly in control of the offense.
"My arm is stronger because I'm healthy now," said Sacca, who had injuries to his shoulder and knee last year. "I struggled with injuries all last year. My health's back, I've gained 10 pounds, and I think it shows."
State defensive back Derek Bochna set up the offense by intercepting Schade at the Gophers' 29. Sacca fired a quick out pass to Engram, who got a great block from guard Mike Malinoski and raced down the sideline into the end zone.
Not even two minutes had elapsed.
"Interesting, huh?" Sacca said with a broad smile when asked about scoring on his first offensive play in the Big Ten. "What a way to start this off. It really got us rolling."
The second Sacca-to-Engram strike was one for the highlight films. Sacca lofted a gorgeous pass that Engram, airborne and parallel to the ground, caught just centimeters inside the sideline for a 31-yard score.
"John just threw the ball in a great spot," Engram said. "The defensive back couldn't get it, and I just reached out."
Said Sacca: "Bobby's being gracious. It was a great catch. I saw him being pushed toward the outside when I threw the ball, and it didn't look good."
Schade's 13-yard run brought Minnesota within 14-7 before Sacca and Engram
went at it again, this time on a 20-yarder after a clever ball fake by Sacca. Engram was not Sacca's primary receiver but he found him over the middle to make it 21-7 after the first quarter.
"John's an excellent long-ball thrower," Paterno said. "Very accurate with a good touch."
"We were in a zone early, and he (Sacca) just kept zippin' it through us," Minnesota coach Jim Wacker said.
THE FINISHING TOUCH
The final Sacca-to-Engram touchdown made it 38-20. It was a 31-yard post pattern, and it left Engram with 165 yards on eight catches. It also left Minnesota out of harm's way with 12 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the game, even though the Gophers kept moving the ball until they amassed an incredible 591 total yards.
A questionable decision by Wacker ended up destroying his team's chance for a comeback.
Down, 31-20, with the ball on their own 29 and still more than 12 minutes remaining, the Gophers faked a punt on fourth-and-10. State linebacker Brian Gelzheiser held Justin Conzemius to a 2-yard gain. Three plays later, Sacca and Engram put it away.
"Today, I'm the dumbest fool in the world," Wacker said of his decision. ''But I thought we could get 30 stinking yards on that play."
On defense, the Nittany Lions were not quite as impressive, even though they picked off four Schade passes. But Paterno was so happy to win his first Big Ten game, he seemed willing to overlook the deficiencies.
"Hey, those Minnesota kids hung in there," Paterno said.