UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With a little help from some new Midwestern friends, Penn State christened its Big Ten era in a flash of offensive wizardry yesterday.
Who said the Nittany Lions' offense was going to be the homely stepsister in Happy Valley this season?
In so many words, Joe Paterno, if you must know. But then he also said that John Sacca had won the quarterback job by the slimmest of margins, too.
In a much-celebrated debut, Sacca and Bobby Engram played pitch-and-catch for four touchdowns as the Lions punished Minnesota, 38-20, before 95,387 at Beaver Stadium.
The game began under a dark cloud cover and ended 3 hours, 33 minutes later in brilliant sunshine.
It began with Minnesota quarterback Tim Schade making his first start for the Golden Gophers. When it ended, he was the school's all-time single-game passing leader with 478 yards, a record achieved on an arm-wearying 66 passes.
"How many passes?" Paterno wanted to know when he faced the media afterward.
Told it was 66, he said, "You mean combined?"
If this was the Big Ten, it was seriously out of character. A running conference? Schade and Sacca threw a 100 passes between them. A defensive conference? The two teams rolled up 1,095 yards in total offense.
"We knew going into the game they put eight men around the ball to stop the run, that we'd have to pass to beat them," said Engram.
Until yesterday, Engram was better known for missing the 1992 season because of a disciplinary suspension than for catching passes. But he torched Minnesota's man coverage for touchdowns of 29, 31, 20 and 31 to double Penn State's previous record for touchdown receptions.
xTC "In the future, teams will have to do some things with Bobby," Sacca said. "You can't single-cover somebody as good as Bobby Engram."
Minnesota learned the hard way. Engram averaged better than 20 yards for his eight catches. Sacca completed 18 of 32 passes for 274 yards, and tailback Ki-Jana Carter rushed for 120 on just 15 carries.
All of which helped disguise a few potential big problems for Penn State. Like porous pass defense. And unstable place-kicking. Craig Fayak missed three of four field goals, including a chip-shot 24-yarder in the third quarter.
A little help from Minnesota? The Lions actually got a lot of help.
Minnesota committed five turnovers -- four of them interceptions by Schade -- that resulted in 14 Penn State points. Omar Douglas dribbled his first two kickoff returns to give the Gophers poor field position at the outset. The Lions capitalized, scoring touchdowns on their first four possessions.
Despite holding leads of 21-0 and 28-7, the Lions weren't able to finish off the Gophers until Engram scored his fourth touchdown. It came on the heels of a questionable fake-punt call by Minnesota coach Jim Wacker.
With Minnesota down 31-20 and 12 minutes remaining, Wacker opted for some wizardry of his own on fourth-and-10 from his 29. But Penn State's Brian Gelzheiser stopped Justin Conzemius 8 yards short of a first down on the fake. Three plays later, Engram was in the end zone and the game was over.
"They run the fake a lot of times," Gelzheiser said. "We knew sooner or later, they would run it.
"On kicks, No. 20 [Conzemius] lined up behind the guard. That time, he slid behind the center, and the ball couldn't get back to the punter. I said the fake was coming."
Twice in the first half, Wacker had played conservatively when he was in striking distance of the goal line. Trailing 28-7, he opted for a field-goal try at the Penn State 27 (it was blocked). One series later, he punted from the Penn State 36.
"I thought it was there," he said of the fake. "We needed a big play, so you roll the dice. You've got to do what you've got to do to win."
And you take what you can get when you wait 3 1/2 years for a Big Ten debut.
"It was a decent game, not a great game," Paterno said. "When you miss as many opportunities as we did, usually you get licked. We were very fortunate today."