The implications of today's game changed dramatically last week in South Bend, Ind., where the Fighting Irish coughed up a 31-7 lead and lost to Tennessee, 35-34. When Rob Leonard's 27-yard field-goal try caromed off the rump of Tennessee's Jeremy Lincoln with four seconds remaining, so did Notre Dame's hopes for a shot at the winner of today's Florida State-Miami match in a bowl game.
"We've got to bury the Tennessee game," Irish coach Lou Holtz said. "The problem is, when something dies, the burial is not immediate, and that's my concern. But if we can't get up for Penn State, then our players don't belong in Notre Dame uniforms and I don't deserve to coach here."
Penn State's national title chances melted in South Florida on Oct. 12 with an agonizing 26-20 loss to No. 2 Miami.
Notre Dame will play Southeastern Conference champion Florida the USF&G; Sugar Bowl, and Penn State is headed for the Fiesta Bowl to face Tennessee. Unofficially, of course, because bowl invitations aren't supposed to be extended until tomorrow.
Still, this is Penn State and Notre Dame, schools that don't swallow three-loss seasons easily, schools that often recruit head-to-head.
It will also be the last time in the foreseeable future that the Fighting Irish play at Beaver Stadium.
After next year's game in South Bend, the rivalry will end. The series is tied at 7-7-1, and the Nittany Lions have won seven of the last 10 meetings since the series resumed on a yearly basis in 1981.
Notre Dame should have vengeance on its mind today.
Last year in South Bend, Penn State rallied in the second half and shot the Fighting Irish out of their No. 1 perch with a 24-21 upset.
"Last year, Penn State ruined our season the way Tennessee did last week, so we're out to knock them off," Irish quarterback Rick Mirer said. "There's definitely a revenge factor here."
Asked how he expects Notre Dame to react to last week's loss, Nittany Lions quarterback Tony Sacca said: "It's hard to say. Sometimes, when you lose a big game and your national championship hopes are gone, you come back even hungrier.
"Sometimes, you become a little unsure of yourself. But I'm sure after what happened in our game last year, they'll be out for revenge."
Said Penn State coach Joe Paterno: "Notre Dame can come in with three wins and it's still a big game. They're still one of the country's great teams, and it's a chance for us to see how far we've come."
NOTES: Holtz hastily recruited Notre Dame's top-scoring soccer player to kick off for the Irish today.
Kevin Pendergast, a junior from Simsbury, Conn., will replace Craig Hentrich, who sprained his right knee last week.
"He has never played organized football," athletic department spokesman Kevin Malloy said. "He is slated to kick off for us. I doubt he'll be handling field goals, but he's definitely kicking off."