SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There was an eerie feeling at Notre Dame Stadium last night. Rocket Ismail was in the dressing room, nursing a bruised thigh. Penn State was putting the pressure on freshman quarterback Rick Mirer and putting some points on the scoreboard.
The circumstances were similar to those here against Stanford earlier this season, when Ismail was out with a bruised thigh and the then-top-ranked Fighting Irish suffered their only defeat to date by blowing a big lead. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, so was the ending.
Trailing 14-0 midway through the first quarter and down, 21-7, at halftime, 18th-ranked Penn State came to life behind quarterback Tony Sacca and upset No. 1 Notre Dame, 24-21, on Craig Fayak's 34-yard field goal with four seconds left. The field goal was set up by Darren Perry's interception and 20-yard return to the Irish 19 with 59 seconds to go.
"This is definitely the biggest win since I've been here," said juniorwide-out Terry Smith, whose second-quarter touchdown catch helped bring the Nittany Lions back into the game. "We approached this game like a bowl game. We had all the confidence in the world that we would win."
It appeared that the game would end in a tie after Penn State coach Joe Paterno opted to punt from Notre Dame's 39-yard line with a little more than two minutes remaining. But the last-minute heroics by Perry and Fayak saved Paterno from severe second-guessing, including by some of his own players.
Said tight end Rick Sayles: "As far as the team was concerned, it wasn't that smart of coach to punt. But he's been doing it for years. I guess he knew what he was doing."
Paterno, who has been accused of playing it too close to the vest, seemed to be taking his conservatism to new heights (or depths). Instead, Paterno chose to second-guess his critics, saying, "We are a better football team than people give us credit for."
The victory was the eighth straight for Penn State (8-2), which closes the regular season Saturday against Pittsburgh before playing Florida State in the Blockbuster Bowl. More significantly, it was the second defeat for Notre Dame (8-2) and threw the national championship up for grabs.
The loss for the Irish -- the fifth this season by a No. 1-ranked team -- likely will elevate their Federal Express Orange Bowl opponent, Colorado, into the top spot. But it also may allow a number of teams, including Miami and Georgia Tech, to stake a claim should Notre Dame beat the Buffaloes New Year's night.
"I congratulate Penn State; they played an excellent football game," said Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, whose team finishes the regular season at Southern Cal. "They didn't have any turnovers, and we had two. We never came up with the big play. The question is, 'Where do we go from here?' It's a very disappointing loss."
For more than a half, it looked as if the Irish were headed for a fairly easy victory. They scored on their first two possessions, while converting their first seven third-down opportunities and 12 of 13 in the opening half. Notre Dame led by 14 after Mirer capped an impressive, 92-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge.
But when Ismail (four catches for 76 yards, 109 all-purpose yards) stayed in the locker room at halftime, so did Notre Dame's offense. After gaining 292 yards in the first half, the Irish were held to 75 in the second half. They never crossed midfield. And Penn State had Mirer rattled.
"I think young people -- all of us -- have a tendency to think the situation is a little worse than it is," Holtz said in explaining Mirer's second-half performance. "He probably wasn't used to not having success at moving the football."
The first interception, by Penn State linebacker Mike D'Onofrio, was returned 38 yards to the Notre Dame 11. It set up an 11-yard touchdown pass, on third-and-10, from Sacca to Sayles, who bobbled the ball three times before planting both feet inches from the back line of the end zone. Fayak's point-after brought the Nittany Lions to within 21-14 with 24 seconds left in the third quarter.
Penn State tied the score at 21 on a 14-yard pass from Sacca to his other tight end, Al Golden, with 7:15 remaining, followed by Fayak's point-after.
"They dominated us the first half, but we've always been a second-half team," said Penn State sophomore defensive tackle Lou Benfatti.
But Sacca has never been much of a second-half quarterback, at least this season. In fact, the junior had been benched during games twice by Paterno this year. After an efficient first half, Sacca used an uncharacteristic, wide-open offense to exploit what has been, for most of the season, a struggling Notre Dame defense.
With tight-end screens, fake reverses and passes to the underbelly of a soft Irish secondary, Sacca completed 20 of 34 passes for a career-high 277 yards and three touchdowns. It was by far Sacca's best performance at Penn State.
"It seemed like we were throwing on every down or every other down," said Sacca. "He [Paterno] told me this week that we were going to open things up. It felt great."
In the end, though, it came down to last-minute decisions by Paterno and Holtz. The Penn State coach concluded that his defense still had enough time to stop the Irish and get the ball back. Holtz believed there was some magic left in Mirer, who had orchestrated a victory under similar conditions in the seasonopener here against Michigan.
"We tried to force some things," said Holtz. "We were going for the win. We didn't want the tie. You risk something by going over the middle."
Notre Dame risked quite a bit last night. A national championship, perhaps. And Penn State couldn't be happier.