MIAMI -- In his mother's embrace 20 minutes after the game, still with a disbelieving look on his face, Penn State wide receiver Chafie Fields said, "That was the biggest catch of my career."
Fields' 79-yard reception with 1: 41 left, on a pass from Kevin Thompson and a run down the sideline with the Orange Bowl decibel level approaching an airplane landing, gave the No. 3 Nittany Lions a 27-23 win over No. 8 Miami yesterday before 74,427.
It also put to rest those doubts that Penn State cannot win a big game on the road. The Lions hadn't beaten a Top 10 opponent away from home since 1994.
"I got a good release off the line, and Kevin put the ball where it needed to be," said Fields, who finished with five catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns. He said the defender, Mike Rumph, "was step for step with me. When he looked for the ball, he kind of lost it and I made the play. There was never a doubt in my mind."
Thompson said: "I just laid it out there and let him run underneath it. I saw him running. The defender was on his hip. I knew he had a chance if I threw it out there far enough. We made a pact on the sideline to try and get into field-goal range. But big plays happen sometimes."
After Fields' big catch, it was up to the Penn State defense to stop Miami. That was not a problem for most of the first half but turned into one for most of the second, when the Hurricanes scored three straight touchdowns and turned a 17-3 deficit into a 23-20 lead.
But the Penn State defense came up with two interceptions of quarterback Kenny Kelly to seal the win.
"The turnovers I feel were my personal fault," Kelly said. I had five turnovers [four interceptions and a fumble]. A loss or a win is a team thing. So I don't take the blame for the loss. It is a team thing. But the team isn't to blame for the turnovers I made."
More important than the final two interceptions, the Nittany Lions defense made a key stop on running back James Jackson inches from what would have been a game-clinching first down.
After Edward Reed's interception gave Miami the ball with 4: 28 left, the Hurricanes drove to the Penn State 22, facing fourth-and-one with 1: 59 left. Hurricanes coach Butch Davis decided against trying a field goal and called a run up the middle by Jackson, who was stopped by linebacker Maurice Daniels. Miami kicker Andy Crosland had missed an extra-point try after the Hurricanes' last touchdown.
"We had trouble with our snaps and bobbled one earlier," Davis said. "It was a longer attempt, and we didn't want to risk a dropped snap of a block that would give them better field position. We thought we could make a first down. We had run that play with success and felt we were going to get a first down."
And at that point, the Hurricanes' offense was looking unstoppable. It wasn't so in the first half.
The Nittany Lions defense exposed the inexperience of Kelly, a professional baseball player who was making his third start at quarterback for Miami.
Miami's offense was held without a first down until the last five minutes of the first half. The Hurricanes lost yardage four on four of their first six possessions.
Penn State's offense did not do to much better. The Nittany Lions scored their first touchdown when backup quarterback Rashard Casey hit Fields for 49 yards on a blown coverage by Miami, capping an eight-play, 79-yard drive with 10: 51 left in the second quarter. But that was the extent of the offense for the Nittany Lions, who took a 10-3 lead into halftime.
"You have to give Miami credit. They hung in there," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.
In the second half, Penn State's defense couldn't stop Miami after the Lions took a 17-3 lead on a 2-yard touchdown by Eric McCoo. Kelly led the Hurricanes on drives of 60, 61 and 73 yards. Jackson had touchdown runs of 18 and 39 yards, and wide receiver Santana Moss had the other, on a 40-yard pass from Kelly to start the fourth quarter and tie the game at 17.
Jackson finished with 33 rushes for 143 yards.
"Kelly got into a little bit of a grove," Paterno said. "We had Kelly out of whack in the first half. Then he made a couple of plays and got some confidence. They made two big plays."
Then there was the crowd, which got louder after every big play by Miami. Thompson said that was the loudest stadium he's ever been in, and was seconded by Lions linebacker LaVar Arrington.
Conditions such as this last year produced a Penn State wilt. But when Thompson hit Fields in the end zone, last year was a distant memory.
"It is a new year," Arrington said. "We are not even looking back on last year. It doesn't matter what people say about last year. This is a new year and a new attitude. We are just trying to play our hearts out and win."