LOS ANGELES -- The Southern California-Penn State game yesterday turned out to be a tale of two fourth-down plays.
When the Trojans faced a fourth-and-goal at the Penn State 1-yard line in the third quarter, they called the classic USC tailback-over-the-top play.
Ricky Ervins dived over the top the way Charles White and Marcus Allen did so often in the past and scored the touchdown that gave the Trojans a 19-7 lead and proved to be the difference in a 19-14 victory before 70,594 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
But it stood up mainly because coach Joe Paterno of Penn State gambled with a pass when the Lions faced a similar fourth-and-goal play at the USC 1 with 9 minutes, 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
When quarterback Tony Sacca called a timeout, he told Paterno he wanted to try a quick pass to tight end Al Golden because the Trojans had stuffed two straight runs from the 1 for no gain.
"After we'd run it three [actually two] times from the 1, what the heck, why not give it a try? I wanted to run that play. It just never panned out," Sacca said.
"He [Paterno] was looking at the same thing I was looking at. We just ran the ball four times [actually two] from the 1 and didn't move it an inch. That's the way it goes."
The assistant coaches were against Sacca's idea, but Paterno overruled them.
"I said, 'Let's do it.' It was my call. It was my fault. I didn't hel them with my coaching today," Paterno said.
The play never came close to working.
"We were running a play where I fake it and I was going to throw it to Al Golden. He was supposed to block and get out. He ended up getting tackled at the line of scrimmage, so no one got out. Nothing really happened there," Sacca said.
USC coach Larry Smith said he was surprised by the pass call.
"We called for a combination all-out blitz which is effective
against both the run and the pass, and we didn't look back. What did we have to lose? Six inches and they score a touchdown," Smith said.
Quarterback Todd Marinovich said of the goal-line stand: "This was one of those USC moments you always see on TV. It pumped up the whole stadium. It was a great job by the defense."
Golden, who caught an 8-yard pass for Penn State's first touchdown, said: "I got tied up somehow and couldn't get loose. We had four chances down there, and you've got to get the ball in if you're going to be a good team. USC rose to the occasion, but we've got to get it in.
"This one hurts. This is a tough one to take. Just to lose and go 0-2. We've got to be the best 0-2 team in the country."
The loss tarnished Paterno's silver anniversary season. This is only the second time in his 25 years as Penn State head coach that the team has started out 0-2. The first was in 1983, when it was 0-3 and rallied to finish 8-4-1.
"We're working so hard that we're going to get good. These games won't hurt us, and over time, they'll help us," Paterno said.
Penn State, which was playing USC for only the third time in history, lost to Texas, 17-13, last week. USC is 2-0 and talking big.
"I'm thinking this is another championship team," USC linebacker Scott Ross said.
After Penn State's aborted fourth-down play -- Sacca barely got the ball off before being sacked -- USC was forced to punt from its end zone and Penn State scored after a 31-yard drive on Leroy Thompson's 2-yard run.
But that made it 19-14 with 4:59 left, instead of 9:38. Penn State got the ball once more with 2:02 left, but Stephon Pace, with his second interception, picked off Sacca's desperation fourth-down pass to clinch it.
The game was billed as a duel between Marinovich and Sacca -- two of the most highly recruited quarterbacks in the country two years ago.
Marinovich's father, Marv, captained the 1962 USC national championship team and he was the classic Little League father who virtually raised his son to play football. Sacca grew up in New Jersey and went to Penn State even though the Lions never have been a passing team under Paterno.
Statistically, the duel was a virtual draw. Marinovich completed 24 of 32 for 240 yards and a touchdown. Sacca completed 16 of 34 for 243 yards and a touchdown. The main difference was that Marinovich wasn't intercepted. Two of Sacca's passes were picked off.
"I wasn't comparing myself to him. We're two different quarterbacks. We were just hoping to win the game. I couldn't care less what he did," Sacca said.
Marinovich has the edge because his team is 2-0 and Sacca's is 0-2.
"I'd rather be playing horrible and [be] 2-0," Sacca said.