STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- He doesn't look like Joe Montana. He doesn't play at a place known as Quarterback U. And he never, ever has been called "The Golden Boy."
But it's time to place Penn State's Tony Sacca on the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. After three years of on-again, off-again feuding with a coach who happens to be a legend, Sacca has emerged as a senior star with a future in the NFL.
Yesterday, Sacca threw and even blocked Penn State to a 35-13 win over Notre Dame in front of a Beaver Stadium-record crowd of 96,672.
Exploiting Notre Dame's sluggishness on the flanks, Sacca completed 14 of 20 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns to split end J. T. McDuffie. He also provided the key block to set up McDuffie's 37-yard touchdown on a reverse.
Tailback Richie Anderson, a junior from Sandy Spring, Md., contributed 142 yards rushing and two touchdowns, as No. 8 Penn State improved its record to 9-2. No. 12 Notre Dame (8-3) sustained its second straight loss.
The outcome, of course, had nothing to do with deciding a national championship. That possibility was ditched last week when Notre Dame blew a 31-7 lead and was beaten, 35-34, by Tennessee. And the New Year's Day bowl bids were all but signed, sealed and delivered before yesterday's game.
For the second straight year, USF&G; Sugar Bowl officials jumped the signing gun, and were burned. Last year, they got stuck with a Virginia team that went from No. 1 to nowhere. This year, they're saddled with fading, overrated Notre Dame against Florida, the Southeastern Conference champion.
After the game, Notre Dame's feisty and frustrated coach, Lou Holtz, declared: "All I want to do is rectify this thing at Notre Dame. I knew going in that Penn State was probably the best team we played. I feel same way coming out."
Penn State is expected to accept an invitation today to play Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. That's not only the more attractive matchup, but it's a terrific showcase for Sacca, who has been all but overlooked nationally.
It's not hard to understand why Sacca commands little recognition, other than for his frequent run-ins with coach Joe Paterno. Penn State football is as conservative as Paterno's button-down shirts. This is a place for linebackers, not quarterbacks.
"We're still not throwing the ball 100 times a game," said Sacca. "We're mixing it up. We're scoring. You can't complain."
Sacca became Penn State's career passing leader last week against Maryland. Yesterday, he nailed another target, becoming the school's single-season passing leader with 2,326 yards. The previous mark of 2,221 was established by Chuck Fusina in 1977.
The only complaint Sacca could now have is with the Heisman Watch. He's not even in the picture, even though he has now outplayed last year's winner, Brigham Young's Ty Detmer and Notre Dame's Rick Mirer, an early favorite for this year's trophy.
"I get a little uptight with that Heisman stuff," Paterno said. "I can't think about all that stuff that goes on. We've got guys on our staff who think Tony is every bit as good as Desmond Howard [of Michigan]. I think Tony has played great football."
Sacca and Penn State were wonderful yesterday, unloading on Notre Dame with touchdowns on their first three possessions.
Notre Dame was simply tired -- and awful. Jerome Bettis' 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter made it close. But when Mirer failed to convert a fourth-down pass play from the Penn State 3 in the closing seconds of the half, the Irish were finished.
After Lou Benfatti's interception at the Notre Dame 37 with 11:51 left in the third quarter, Penn State broke the game open. McDuffie took the reverse handoff from fullback Sam Gash, then ran into the Notre Dame secondary looking for a block. He got it from Sacca, a 6-foot-5 freight train who leveled Rod Smith and opened the way for a score and a 28-7 lead.
"That was beautiful," McDuffie said. "Beautiful. Tony should be a tackle."
"I was like a pulling guard," he said.
Sacca played just like a quarterback, though, when he delivered a 45-yard touchdown pass to McDuffie with 13 minutes left in the game.
"Now, that was beautiful," Sacca said. "We saw the man-to-man coverage and went for the long pass. I knew it was there. I knew it."
Sacca may still be a secret to the rest of the country. But in Happy Valley, he is a star.